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Google-Huawei case highlights the importance of free software

By Contribution by EDRi member Free Software Foundation Europe – FSFE, Europe (guest author) · May 22, 2019

Google denies the Chinese IT giant Huawei access to Google’s proprietary components of the Android mobile operating system, which threatens IT security. This highlights the importance of free software for technology users, public bodies, and businesses.

Following the US administration’s decision to effectively ban American companies from doing trade with the Chinese company Huawei, Google suspended all business with the company. This affects all software which is not covered under free software licences. In practice, Huawei’s upcoming and potentially also current phones will no longer get support and updates for the Android operating system. They will also not have access to the proprietary Google apps and services like Gmail and Google Play. Especially the latter will put Huawei users at risk, because without access to the default app store on most Android phones they will miss important security updates for the apps installed through it.

Google offers only a base version of Android under a free software licence, but bundles it together with proprietary apps and services. The non-free components of most stock Android devices have numerous downsides for users, as EDRi member Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) has documented since 2012. The current case demonstrates that even tech giants like Huawei face similar dependencies and vendor lock-in effects as any individual users if they rely on proprietary software.

The following lessons can be drawn from this case:

  1. Users should favour free software operating systems and applications on their computing devices. With proprietary software, they are on the receiving end only, and vendors may deny them access to crucial security updates. Free software enables control of technology, and the more important that technology becomes in our daily lives, the more relevant free software becomes for users. For Android, the FSFE helps users to regain more control with its Free Your Android initiative.
  2. Governments and especially the European Union should invest more resources in free software to gain independence from large enterprises and other states. The current case highlights the lack of influence the EU has on outside technology providers. Instead of waiting for a future European IT monopolist to enter the stage, the EU and its members states should invest in free software development and focus on supporting local free software organisations as well as businesses. This would effectively foster the inner-European market and enable independence for European citizens and the EU economy. This step is essential for avoiding exposing European infrastructure to shutdowns controlled by external factors.
  3. Companies should use as much free software as possible in their supply chains. Proprietary software makes a company dependent on its vendor and this vendor’s government. The current case shows that the US was able to force Google to stop delivery of its proprietary products – but could not stop delivery of the free software components of Android. Had Huawei invested more resources in free software apps and services, the US strategy would not have hit them as hard. Although the current events are linked to the scrutiny the Chinese company is under right now, it is obvious that this could happen to any other company based in any other country as well.

The earlier allegations against Huawei already showed that code for all critical infrastructure should be published under a free software licence. The latest episode of the Huawei affair illustrates that the same applies to apps and services. Just days before the European elections, this should be a wake-up call for the next constituent Parliament to ask the European Commission for European Directives that foster independence of European technical infrastructure and that build on free software, starting with the demand to release publicly funded software as public code.

Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE)

Three conclusions to draw from Google denying Huawei access to software (20.05.2019)

Free Your Android!

Public Money, Public Code

Huawei case demonstrates importance of Free Software for security (05.02.2019)

(Contribution by EDRi member Free Software Foundation Europe – FSFE, Europe)