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Fairphone: please lead by example!

2022-04-29

The FSFE published an open letter a couple of days ago, asking for legislation to allow users to freely user their own devices, contrary to the status quo, where devices are locked down and controlled fully by the manufacturer rather than the end-user.

I whole agree with this stance and applaud this request: if I can’t install the software I want on devices I paid for, do I really even own them? For the last couple of decades, buying a computer from MOST manufacturers (or building one’s own) allowed the owner to install their operating system of choice on the device, without permission from the manufacturer or third party. The right to use our phones freely the same way is incredibly important, especially in a world where large corporations are focusing in controlling what users can or cannot do, while tracking all kind of details of their private lives.

I was amazed that Fairphone was one of the companies signing this letter. The hypocrisy!

Several months ago, I bought a Fairphone device, on which they claim one can install any OS. This turned out to be rather distant from the truth. The devices has a locked bootloader out-of-the box. To use the device in ANY WAY (even to install another OS), one must enter into a contractual agreement with Google, the advertising corporation known to spy on track people far beyond the point any most of us are comfortable with.

I reached out to the community support and official support from Fairphone on this. They confirmed they had no plans to fix this issue. Google was in control of the phone I had paid for, and in order to use it, I would have to sign the contract with Google. I could not use an alternative OS – at least not without first using this highly restricted one that shipped out of the box, but I could not use that one without signing the contract with Google.

This was of course, not acceptable to me, so I decided to return this device, defective by design. Fortunately, before I could return the device, a friend of mine offered to get it off my hands since they admired the build quality of it. They didn’t mind signing a contract a contract with the excuse that nobody could prove they had done so (this is also what Fairphone suggested I should do).

However, this also was a dead end. Even after having accepted the terms, unlocking the bootloader on the device simply yielded an “inner unknown error”. Fairphone’s support now suggested that device actually needs to be internet connected since, apparently, the user needs Google’s permission to do this. IMHO, even though I had paid for the phone, Google was the ultimate owner of them. Using the phone required entering a contractual agreement with Google, and an approval via their servers (also sending them confirmation that the person in possession of it had signed the contract). Ultimately, Google was the de-facto owner of this device, even though I had paid for it.

So, please, guys at Fairphone, have a read at this beautiful letter you’ve under-signed today, and consider leading the market by example. Show the EU that what you’re asking them to legislate is doable!

Please also consider using free open source software instead of shipping a device with proprietary software, including with all of Google’s spyware! Again, please read the letter you’ve under-signed! And remember: unlike proprietary, corporate-controlled software, open source software can actually be sustainable!

e.foundation ΒΆ

A small side-note: Fairphone has partnered with e.foundation, who’s website title reads “e Foundation - deGoogled unGoogled smartphone operating systems and online services […]”. They do sell unlocked devices (at least “some of them”, as I’ve been told).

I read a lot of negative comments an opinions on them online, but, ultimately, decided to reach out to confirm what I was hearing. In summary: they ship devices with eOS, an Android distribution that builds on top of AOSP and LineageOS by adding integrations with Google’s services.

eOS includes multiple pieces of software on their operating system that do talk to Google out-of-the-box. F-Droid classifies this software as having an anti feature called “Non-Free Network Services”, and, I quote:

This Anti-Feature is applied to apps that promote or depend entirely on a Non-Free network service.

In this case, the non-free network that’s being promoted is Google’s services. The only reply I got from e.foundation was that they include this because not adding integration with Google would “decrease a lot the usability”. Fun fact: this is the same excuse Google uses to add all their services all over the place and record every little detail on you that they can.

I’ll remind you of the title on e.foundation’s website one more time just in case:

e Foundation - deGoogled unGoogled smartphone operating systems and online services […]

For the record, I’m currently using LineageOS, a free and open source Android distribution, maintained by the community and without integration with Google. If what e.foundation promises sounds good to you, consider having a look at LineageOS.

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