Last month YH4F 2024 kicked off, the German Parliament received the Upcycling Android Open Letter, we discovered that the ambitious plan of the Interoperable Europe Act turned out to be watered down, we celebrated Belgium’s commitment to router freedom, and much more interesting news was out.
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.
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Devices and End-User Re-Empowerment
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 digital environment.
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 hardware.
- 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.
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 of Open 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 products.
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 initiatives.
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.
Digital Markets Act
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 personal data.
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.
Radio Lockdown Directive
EU legislation can sometimes create hurdles for the usage of Free Software in radio devices. We are promoting better policy and legislative solutions for end-users of radio equipment.
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 technology.