Although digital devices are ubiquitous today, the number of devices on
which users cannot run Free Software is exponentially increasing. The
consequence is an increased loss of control over users' technology.
Device Neutrality aims to enable end-users to bypass gatekeepers to have
a non-discriminatory use of Free Software on their devices.
We all know the joy of acquiring a new device and the excitement of exploring
its features and functionalities. Let's imagine the scenario where you
bought a new smartphone.
You are thrilled to learn and discover all that your device can deliver.
You want to install apps, use the camera, access the internet,
run games, and enjoy all what your equipment can perform.
However, soon you start to realise that something is wrong. In
order to start your phone, you are prompted to create an online account
for using the device.
Further, you begin to perceive how limited you are in downloading and installing new apps and
programs. The only possible way is via the manufacturer's apps store or marketplace.
You may be even forbidden to sideload or install third party software,
including alternative repositories.
Most weirdly, you are not allowed to remove pre-installed programs that are
occupying the device's memory space and unduly draining its battery.
You may think this is an issue with the operating system and start searching
for alternatives. However, your device boots only a specific fully or partly proprietary operating
system. In other words, you cannot install a different operating system. Finally, you sadly realise
that although your smartphone is a general purpose computer, you are stuck with an
artificially limited device which performs much less than you expected.
Issues like these, and many others related to browsers, search engines, and
hardware, are a common occurrence in digital markets. End-users are experiencing
a severe limitation on their rights and ability to freely use their devices.
Basic freedoms such as installing and uninstalling software are being unfairly limited
by these companies, commonly referred to as "gatekeepers", because of their
monopolistic control over devices.
Device Neutrality is a policy concept to enable end-users to bypass gatekeepers
in order to run Free Software and use services independently of the control
exercised by hardware manufacturers, vendors, and platforms. On this page
you will learn that Device Neutrality can be achieved by safeguarding
software freedom in devices, protecting end-users from lock-in,
and promoting standardised ways of data interoperability.
General Purpose Computers and Free Software
Digital devices are a present reality in all aspects of life. We use them
for work, communication, entertainment, and internet access. Such devices
are powerful machines, allowing us to have access to a huge number of
features and perform an almost infinite number of tasks. Our smartphones,
tablets, laptops, and other connected devices are general purpose
computers. That means we can potentially run any software we want to
make full use of the hardware. This potential is fostered by Free Software.
Software freedom depends on how we can run
software in devices. Safeguarding the four freedoms of Free Software
over operating systems, drivers, app stores, browsers, and any other software is
crucial not only for freedom of choice, but also for a healthy,
competitive, democratic and sustainable
Gatekeeper Monopoly over Devices
Although the devices we use are general purpose computers, device
manufacturers, vendors, and internet platforms have been restricting
software freedom by exercising their monopolistic control over end-user
equipment. This power is used over key features and components of
devices such as operating systems, browsers, and app stores. Since these elements
are essential for the functioning of devices, they constitute a
termination monopoly, which grants such companies powers in the
sense that they could be considered "gatekeepers of gateways" for
end-users to access and control software, hardware, and services of their devices.
Manufacturers, vendors, and platforms controlling devices may
perform a gatekeeper function in similar ways to a provider of
an internet access connection controlling a gateway to the internet. The more
important the device features and components are for end-users, the more
entrenched the position of the gatekeeper can become in the digital markets.
Monopolised markets are prejudicial to fair competition
and consumer welfare. With gatekeepers controlling operating systems,
app stores, browsers, and key online services, end-users are left
with no or few choices, hindering individual freedoms and self-determination.
In general terms, gatekeeper control is achieved by:
Restricting Software Freedom: Gatekeepers limit or prevent users
installing different operating systems, browsers, app stores, drivers,
etc. on their devices. They also impose pre-installed apps on users, and
make their uninstallation impossible.
Locking devices down: Such companies hinder
interoperability, exercise tight control over APIs, and apply proprietary
standards, hampering functionalities and blocking access to drivers and
Increasing switching costs: Gatekeepers keep users
in "walled gardens", tie devices to online accounts, bundle app stores,
and hamper data portability, making it harder for users to switch
software, devices, and services.
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Device Neutrality and Free Software
The monopolistic power of gatekeepers threatens software freedom, individual
autonomy, consumer welfare, and digital sovereignty. Device Neutrality
represents ways to disintermediate the power of gatekeepers and re-establish
competition in markets and end-user control over devices. Users should be
able to bypass gatekeepers and have the ability to run Free Software on
their equipment. Device Neutrality's main goal is to resolve the
termination monopoly over devices, so users can enjoy software freedom and
have access to alternative services and content with their devices.
Re-establishing end-user control over devices and fair competition in digital
markets requires safeguarding software freedom in devices, protecting end-users
from lock-in, and promoting end-user control over data.
Blocking end-users' freedom to install, run, and uninstall software on
their devices is a central source of gatekeepers' control. Although gatekeepers may
argue that installing third party software could be potentially harmful to users due to
security, data integrity, and privacy concerns, in fact commercial
interests are the main drive to lock users in.
Instead, regaining control over devices requires safeguarding
software freedom. Users should have the ability to install and
uninstall any software, including operating systems and app
stores. Besides, gatekeepers should provide the same access
privileges to third party applications as to the pre-installed ones.
Keeping users in very restrictive
environments is another key source of gatekeeper control. Users can only
access and use different services if their devices can interact and
communicate with other devices and services. Big tech industry players exercise direct
control over their customers by locking them into a very limited number
of proprietary alternatives that operate within a "compatible" but not
interoperable ecosystem. This results in less freedom for users and
increasing switching costs.
Therefore, high degrees of interoperability, wide implementation
Standards, and easy access to APIs' specifications and
functionalities invoked by third party apps are fundamental.
Equally important, devices should not be bundled with app stores
and online accounts. Gatekeepers should permit third-party app
stores and code repositories in their devices. Gatekeepers should
provide non-discriminatory access to Free Software in their
stores, and not favour or give undue preference to their own
End-User Control Over Data
Breaking monopolies over
devices necessarily requires empowering users to control their own data
on their equipment. Smartphones, smartwatches, and computers are very personal
equipment which accumulate a large amount of personal and non-personal
data that users care about. Transferring such data constitutes a switching cost that
can be decisive in preventing users from exercising their freedom to
change devices. This is especially problematic for switching between
operating systems. Besides, the importance of the correlation between
data and software tends to grow, encompassing further developments with
artificial intelligence and future technologies, which will create an
additional layer of complexity for end-users controlling their data.
That's why end-users should be able to easily transfer personal
data from apps, operating systems, and devices. Most importantly,
gatekeepers should be bound to Open Standards and
common interfaces for data transfer.
Making Device Neutrality a Reality
Since its genesis, the FSFE has been working to put control over
technology in the hands of users. Through the years, we have gained
experience with several dedicated activities focused on how users can keep
their control over devices. We have been working closely with decision makers,
communities, and businesses to ensure that end-users are empowered to control
technology. Our work has been translating the demands for Device Neutrality into
a vivid reality for digital markets with several dedicated activities and
Open Letter: the universal right to install any software on any device
As part of the
Upcycling Android initiative,
the FSFE has kicked-off an open letter to EU legislators on why the universal right to freely
choose operating systems, software and services is crucial for a more sustainable digital society.
The letter is supported and signed by hundreds of people and civil society organisations.
We want users to have the right to hardware and to keep using their software as long as they want.
Together we demand that:
Users have the right to freely choose operating systems and software running on their devices;
Users have the right to freely choose between service providers to connect their devices with;
Devices are interoperable and compatible with open standards;
Source code of drivers, tools, and interfaces are published under a free license.
In 2022, several components of Device Neutrality were included in the
Digital Markets Act (DMA),
the European Union's largest initiative to regulate gatekeepers in digital
markets. Although the law contains the principles for making Device
Neutrality a reality, its regulations concern only very large platforms.
The DMA establishes obligations for gatekeepers - “dos” and “don'ts” they
must comply with - and prescribes fines and penalties for infringements.
The DMA encompasses several rules concerning Device Neutrality, including
safeguarding the right to uninstall pre-installed software and several
measures for preventing lock-in, as well as fostering interoperability and
end-user control over personal data.
Initiatives for Device Neutrality
Device ecosystems are extremely complex, and enforcing Device Neutrality
requires dedicated initiatives focusing on specific aspects of how end-users
use and interact with devices. Through the years, our activities have related
to several components of Device Neutrality, such as promoting software freedom,
protecting end-users from lock-in, and fostering self-empowerment related to
The Digital Markets Act (DMA)
is a game-changer for regulating gatekeepers. Its rules pertain to several
aspects of Device Neutrality. The FSFE collaborated in the legislative
process and is closely following its implementation.
Router Freedom is the right
everyone has to choose and use their own routers and modems. The FSFE has been
working for a decade to make this right a reality.
Free Software helps to extend the lifespan of devices. With Upcycling Android
we are promoting sustainable ways to overcome software obsolescence in
the Android world.
Nevertheless, although the Device Neutrality principles may seem common
knowledge for the Free Software community, they are far from being current
commercial practices by gatekeepers. Monitoring enforcement of and
compliance with the DMA, conducting device-related activities, and
promoting software freedom require a lot of resources.
Please consider becoming a FSFE
donor; you enable our long-term engagement and
professional commitment in defending people's rights to control
The Greek regulator has adopted new rules introducing Router Freedom
in the country. Since 2021, the FSFE has been working with policymakers
to protect the interests of end-users. Supporting civil society and
industry organisations backed the FSFE and contributed positively to
this new law.
For this episode Bonnie Mehring met with Karen Sandler to talk about
her relationship with Free Software. Karen depends on a medical device
to keep her heart working. This led her to become an advocate for
Free Software in medical devices.
In this issue, we discuss the rising awareness for Free Software in
France. We share our plans for monitoring the implementation of
Device Neutrality principles. A hackerspace in Albania shares the
‘Public Money! Public Code’ demand. We are looking for a working
student to be our next system administrator assistant.
We continuously work to promote Free Software in Europe. In 2022
we addressed technological sustainability, advocated in the DMA and
AI act on European level, and defended Router Freedom in
Europe – among other activities. To reach younger
people, we organised a coding competition for
teenagers and published a children's book on software
As a contribution to a consultation organised by the European telecom regulator, BEREC, the FSFE calls for increasing the level of digital sustainability in the telecommunications sector by safeguarding device neutrality and establishing the right to install any software on any device.