Beyond removing GNU software from mobile stores

Last week the Free Software Foundation asked Apple to either remove the game GNU Go from the iTunes App Store or change the terms of service on it. Apple chose to simply remove GNU Go from the store and the move was not a surprise, as FSF Compliance Engineer said in the blog post.  I am puzzled by this move.

I don’t think that FSF goal it to prevent iPhone users to run GNU software on their device, as David ‘Lefty’ Schlesinger paints it and seems to discuss,but nevertheless this is the immediate effect.  Mobile app stores and locked down devices are hostile to free/libre software and GPLv3 can have a difficult life in the mobile environment because of its ‘full installation instructions’ provision. Also, there are still too few free/libre mobile applications.

Having this in mind, a plausible explanation of FSF’s move was to educate free software developers that mobile app stores are not designed to respect users freedom. Fine, but the following question is: how to we proceed from here? What’s the next step of this education and what’s FSF’s plan to bring freedom to the users of mobile phones? I suggest for FSF to sponsor a mobile app repository for free/libre apps: it would have to run on non-free operating systems, but that’s what GNU had to do when there was no Linux. Also, it would be good and probably easy to extend the Free Software Directory to take mobile world into account. What else should FSF do to promote freedom in the mobile world?





  1. While the FSF-sponsored repository you suggest might go a (very) small way in ameliorating the problem, it’s going to have next to no impact on the world of real people using real devices. Even something such as you suggest can’t get GPL software into the hands of iPhone users since the only way to do that is via Apple App Store.

    However, there’s another issue for app stores, too: by allowing the download of GPL-licensed code, they’re effectively “distributors” under the GPL in the FSF’s view, and obligated to provide source code on demand. Neither the Apple nor the Android store ask, or even allow, developers to upload source code, nor do the stores have any support for providing source code. If source code is demanded, they can’t provide it: they don’t have it. So, simply by virtue of hosting only a binary, they’d seem to be in technical violation of the GPL.

    Since they’re commercial enterprises, the various app stores can’t rely on §3(c) of the GPL, either. I’ve gone into this in more detail here

  2. I would expect a FSF mobile app store to have an impact in the long term, just like GNU took at least 10 years to start being useful for a wider public.

    Regarding the distribution issue, I think you’re correct, but that’s much more easy to solve than changing the terms of service. Heck, I think that Google could start doing this very soon if they wanted to, and without going through their legal department: add space annd some UI in the market submission process to host source packages of GPL apps. Without such changes, I believe it can also be tolerated like FSF tolerated for many years the CDs distributed with magazines, packed with binaries and no source.

    Note to self: a free mobile market should easily allow for -src packages alongside the binaries, like debian repositories do.

    Are you concerned that FSF is putting itself in a corner with this? I am, kinda.