20 Years FSFE: Interview with Torsten Grote
In our fourth birthday publication we are interviewing Torsten Grote, who explored Free Software alternatives on smartphones for the FSFE as early as 2012. We reminisce about the emergence of our Free Your Android campaign and discuss with Torsten which options are available for liberating our phones today.
Torsten Grote is a Free Software developer and long time volunteer in the FSFE. He started his journey of engagement in the local group in Berlin, later joined the FSFE country team Germany and finally became a GA member in 2009. In the FSFE, Torsten is best known for being the creator of our Free Your Android-campaign, the campaign about regaining control of your Android device and your data.
For many years now, Torsten has lived in Brazil and has worked for different Free Software projects from Tor to Briar to CalyxOS. He is an expert in the field of phone liberation and creator of "Blitzmail" and "Transportr", both available in F-Droid.
For 20 Years FSFE, we interview Torsten Grote about his time with the FSFE, freedom on mobile devices, and upcoming challenges in the field.
Interview with Torsten Grote
FSFE: Do you remember your first contact with the FSFE? What caught your initial attention and how did you get introduced and active?
Torsten Grote: When I was studying computer science in university, I got increasingly interested in the political and ethical aspects of software. Thus, I discovered the FSFE that seemed to have regular meetings in Berlin where I was living. I subscribed to their Berlin mailing list in 2007 and soon received an email about a a meeting with a presentation about the first Free Software mobile phone, the Openmoko. Having heard about the Openmoko before, this got me really excited and motivated me sufficiently to show up at this meeting in person.
Arriving at my first FSFE meeting, I was warmly welcomed by Matthias Kirschner who was coordinating the Berlin group back then and is now the president of FSFE. There were lots of friendly and likeminded people. I enjoyed the meeting a lot, so that I become a regular participant for many years to come.
Through the meetings, but also special activities of the Berlin group, I got more and more involved, joined the German team, and got eventually elected into FSFE's general assembly in 2009.
'Smartphones were just starting to become a thing. The first iPhone came out around the same time as the OpenMoko and the first Android phone a year later.'
You came up with the 'Free your Android' idea in 2012. What was the status of phone liberation back then? What was the initial spark to create this campaign?
While the Openmoko was a great phone, its development fragmented and eventually stopped. Few phones were actually produced, but I managed to get one.
Smartphones were just starting to become a thing. The first iPhone came out around the same time as the OpenMoko and the first Android phone a year later. Most people had proprietary feature phones and I had hoped that having the Openmoko starting at the same time would give freedom a chance.
After this, we saw many other mobile operating systems with more or less Free Software, such as WebOS, Tizen, Maemo/MeeGo, Ubuntu Touch, Firefox OS, and many more. However, so far none managed to compete with today's duopoly.
Later, the FSFE moved forward with your idea and pioneered the idea of using Android as a base for a phone using only Free Software. What were the initial efforts, and what were the issues users had to overcome to achieve freedom on mobile devices?
To me it became apparent in 2012 that it would be very hard to compete with Android. It had already a big market share and most importantly, it was mostly Free Software. Since the beginning, people took the source code and made their own modified versions of Android, some becoming popular such as Replicant or LineageOS.
It might have been a risky bet to focus on Android, but it seemed the best chance to bring more Free Software to people and it was important to ensure that it stays free and to work to liberate its non-free bits.
'To me it became apparent in 2012 that it would be very hard to compete with Android. It had already a big market share and most importantly, it was mostly Free Software.'
The biggest challenge still exists today. It is the lower layers of the device, the hardware drivers and the firmware that are still mostly not Free Software.
Another challenge in the early days was installing a different version of Android. Even for technical people this was quite difficult and could render the device unusable. Today, some phones even allow their operating system to be changed with your webbrowser by visiting a website.
DRM, locked devices, proprietary parts in initial flagship cyanogenmod... How did the situation for users who like to put freedom first on their mobile devices evolve since the initial start of the campaign? After all, did the situation improve or worsen?
I'd say the situation improved significantly. There's now more devices to choose from, easier installation and many more apps now available as Free Software.
However, there is also more use-cases like banking, ride-sharing or instant- messages that are sometimes only available via a proprietary app and due to their connection to a specific company they are hard to replace with a general purpose Free Software solution.
The world of Custom-ROMs is hard to oversee and there are many different developments from more or less known entities being shared in different channels. What is your recommendation for a newbie or where can an interested user best start to learn more about Android alternatives?
If you already have a phone that you want to install an alternative Android version on, then LineageOS is a good start since they support many devices. However, they do so by including the same proprietary drivers and firmware that is already on the device anyway.
If you don't have a device yet, but plan to buy one, I suggest to choose an Android version first and then buy a device that is supported by it. Only Replicant is using 100% Free Software here and thus supports only old devices.
Unfortunately, I am not aware of a single website that presents and recommends various Android ROMs. Since the situation changes frequently, this is hard to maintain. For example, besides those mentioned already, there's now also CalyxOS gaining popularity.
'If you already have a phone that you want to install an alternative Android version on, then LineageOS is a good start since they support many devices.'
You are also creator of two Free Software mobile apps that are offered on f-droid. What role does f-droid play for freedom on Android devices in current setups and what developments do you expect / wish for or see coming regarding distribution of free software on mobile devices?
F-Droid is the distribution channel for Free Software apps. Without it, you would need to find, install and update apps manually. So it is a rather central piece in a free mobile device.
F-Droid is almost as old as Android itself. It has seen many awesome contributors over the years that all helped to make it what it is. But F-Droid has also aged and required substantial work to get modernized. This kind of work is hard to do for volunteer contributors that work without compensation in their free time.
There are now many forks and clones of the F-Droid app that would benefit from having F-Droid libraries, so they could share and maintain most the code together instead of each doing their own thing.
Then there is this whole area of building and updating all apps directly from their source code ideally reproducibile. Here, we sometimes see large delays as this responsibility historically lies with a single person.
My wish for the future would be that F-Droid finds the governance and funding to tackle these big issues to remain a viable alternative to Google Play.
What is your personal highlight with the FSFE or an important thing that you learnt from your work at the FSFE?
My highlight with FSFE were always the in-person meetings, especially those of the general assembly that would meet in a different European country each time. We were discussing Free Software strategy by day and partying together by night. It was impressive to see how we always managed to establish a consensus between all members on organizational questions.
And what is a story that still makes you laugh or smile when you remember it?
When FSFE started its Free Your Android campaign, I had a big smile over my two ears to see the huge media echo it caused like few FSFE campaigns before. I was glad to see that it had hit a nerve and even the subway news monitors in Berlin had picked it up.
Years later, some F-Droid contributors confessed that they only got involved and spend many years improving F-Droid and adding more apps, because they had been motivated to join this work by the Free Your Android campaign. It is great to see what impact a few motivated people can have if they dedicate themselves to a cause.
FSFE: As a last question, what do you wish the FSFE for the next 20 years?
I wish that FSFE will continue to be a strong and respected NGO with an even bigger staff that will be able to educate the public as well as more and more European politicians about the importance of Free Software, so that we can participate in all aspects of society without having to use proprietary software. Furthermore, I wish that this will lead to all public software spending going exclusively towards Free Software.
FSFE: Thank you very much!
About "20 Years FSFE"
In 2021 the Free Software Foundation Europe turns 20. This means two decades of empowering users to control technology.
Turning 20 is a time when we like to take a breath and to look back on the road we have come, to reflect the milestones we have passed, the successes we have achieved, the stories we have written and the moments that brought us together and that we will always joyfully remember. In 2021 we want to give momentum to the FSFE and even more to our pan-European community, the community that has formed and always will form the shoulders that our movement relies on.
20 Years FSFE is meant to be a celebration of everyone who has accompanied us in the past or still does. Thank you for your place in the structure of the FSFE today and for setting the foundation for the next decades of software freedom to come.