The Free Software Foundation’s (FSF) GNU project, started 1983-09-27, has a noble goal, to give computer users control over computers and related devices by developing software that gives everyone the right to run/ copy/ distribute/ study/ modify it, through its licenses, GNU General Public Licenses (GPL).
The Respects Your Freedom (RYF) certification program extends this approach into hardware, by certifying devices, (and vendors at the device level) to ensure that the hardware respects the rights of users to freely use these products. Certification requires vendors go through a review process, where the FSF examines the user experience, from initial purchase through the flashing of modified versions of firmware. Certification criteria ensure that users never encounter nonfree software or documentation.
Certified vendors may use the RYF certification mark on the certified device and associated sales pages. The device is then listed on the RYF site to allow users to find devices. The certification can be revoked at any time, should issues arise.
At the 2021 LibrePlanet conference, online 2021-03-20 to 21, the FSF decided to prioritize e-book readers, in terms of RYF hardware certification. They were considering both adapting existing e-book readers but also contracting the production of new readers.
Most e-book readers run some version of the Linux kernel, and some run Linux operating systems. While e-book readers are a few steps closer to freedom (as the FSF puts it) than other devices, ensuring certification will still require a significant amount of work. Several critical e-reader components will not function without nonfree software, such as the e-ink screen, that powers the display.
In related moves, Denis “GNUToo” Carikli has documented e-book reader components (and other single-board computers). In 2020, David Remmel ported Parabola Linux to the reMarkable tablet, created a free e-book reader.
Challenges come not just with e-book readers, but with e-books themselves. Many books come with DRM = Digital Rights Management = Digital Restrictions Management (in FSF-speak), which prevents people from reading and sharing books that they buy and own. Consenting to the DRM that many e-books are distributed with, means that people lose control of their digital autonomy, no matter what kind of device they have.
DRM has gotten more restrictive. Textbooks commonly require a constant and uninterrupted Internet connection, and restrict the loading of a discrete number of pages at a time. In the global south, where internet connections can be unreliable, this negatively impacts the quality of education.
If the FSF is successful in providing RYF certification to an e-book reader, it will ensure that users will gain the ability to read appropriate digital file formats, of which epub is the most important. It will ensure that all readers will gain the right to read, essentially voiding e-book DRMs.
The Free Software Foundation
The FSF is not the first open-source organization I would want to contribute money to, or even join. Much of this is related to Richard Stallman (1953 – ) who on 2019-09-16 was forced to resigned as president of the FSF after pressure from journalists and members of the open source community in response to him making controversial comments in defence of Marvin Minsky (1927 – 2016) on Jeffrey Epstein’s (1953 – 2019) sex trafficking scandal. Stallman remained head of the GNU Project and in 2021 returned to the FSF board of directors, unfortunately.
There is a need to modernize the foundation’s governance structure and processes. That said, there could be hope ahead. The FSF board has now retained a professional consultant to help them “optimize the impact of the board and the organization”. The purpose of this consultation is to use six months to devise a range of systems and infrastructure that lead to:
– A transparent community-supported process for identifying new board members and evaluating current board members;
– A board member agreement that clearly outlines the responsibilities of all board members;
– A code of ethics that articulates the values of the FSF and conveys a set of principles to guide its decision making and activities, as well as the behaviour of its board members, officers, employees, and volunteers; and,
– More focused and streamlined board processes that encourage consistent attention on FSF’s most pressing needs.
These revisions are to ensure that user freedom cannot be compromised. Efforts are needed to strengthen the organization’s governance, ensuring that it is transparent, accountable, and that current and future board members, associate members, staff and the broader free software movement, act professionally. In particular, there is a need to attract a new generation of activists for software (and hardware) freedom to grow the movement.