The Computer in My Pocket

If we’ve kept up with projections, by the end of this year, the world
will be home to 3 billion mobile phones. That’s nearly one phone for
every other living human being. Although these phones open up a world of
important new opportunities in communication, creativity, and
cooperation — and it’s important not to understate this fact — they
also represent a step toward a sort of technological dystopia not unlike
Stallman’s Right To Read. Phones represent one of the most
locked-down, proprietary, and generally unfree technologies in wide
distribution. The implications for software freedom and technological
empowerment are dire.

But despite the fact that mobile phones represent what may be the
greatest threat to software freedom today, the free software community
has — with a number of notable exceptions that I want to both thank
and draw increased attention to — been mostly silent on the issue.

I know passionate advocates of software freedom who work tirelessly to
rid themselves and the world of a handful of binary blobs in the Linux
kernel — important work that we all benefit from. And yet, even some
of these “hardliners” don’t seem to hold their phones to their same
standards as their laptops. Ubuntu’s decision to ship a new binary
driver remains more controversial than the fact that the vast majority
of the world’s computer using population knows nothing other than
phone-based computers that remain almost unthinkably unfree and which
remain almost entirely unfreeable when compared to personal computers.
For most of the world’s computer users’, there is no option of, and
essentially no hope for, freedom on their current devices.

It shocks me that anyone, especially free software advocates, would
happily put up with such non-free computers.[1] I think part of the
reason lies in the fact that most users of mobile phones, and even most
phone users that care about software freedom and technological autonomy,
don’t think of their phones as computers
. Thinking that our phones as
computers will not solve any of the problems I’ve alluded to. But doing
so remains an essential first step toward any solution. Although we
must still work to build viable, widely accessible, and compelling free
phones, we must first convince both users and developers that this is an
important goal. Reminding people that our phones, both free and
non-free, are powerful general-purpose computers remains an important
and still largely unfufilled part of this process.

We must find ways to remind ourselves and others of the fact that modern
phones are powerful computers with powerful interfaces that are useful
for a unimaginable variety of arbitrary applications. We must focus on
the fact that these computers have microphones, sensors, and other
sensors and that we trust them with our closest secrets and most
sensitive data. We must not forget that, in almost all cases, these
computers remain controlled, completely and ultimately, by companies
that very few of us trust at all.

I’m not sure how we will accomplish this task. But more of us need to
think long, hard, and creatively about this problem. I’ll be calling my
phone “my computer” as a first, very personal, step. I have done this
over the last week and it has led to some conversations with slightly
confused acquaintances. Of course, this doesn’t make my phone any less
free. But it does mean I’m talking more about the non-freeness most of
us have put up with too silently. At this stage, that seems like

[1] Like many free software advocates, my phone is also a computer
running a combination of free and non-free software. I use it
unhappily and am doing what I can to change this.

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