First published in The Guardian.

To what extent does Android respect the freedom of its users? For a computer user that values freedom, that is the most important question to ask about any software system.

In the free/libre software movement, we develop software that respects users' freedom, so we and you can escape from software that doesn't. By contrast, the idea of "open source" focuses on how to develop code; it is a different current of thought whose principal value is code quality rather than freedom.Thus, the concern here is not whether Android is "open", but whether it allows users to be free.

Android is an operating system primarily for mobile phones, which consists of Linux (Torvalds's kernel), some libraries, a Java platform and some applications. Linux aside, the software of Android versions 1 and 2 was mostly developed by Google; Google released it under the Apache 2.0 license, which is a lax free software license without copyleft.

The version of Linux included in Android is not entirely free software, since it contains non-free "binary blobs" (just like Torvalds' version of Linux), some of which are really used in some Android devices. Android platforms use other non-free firmware, too, and non-free libraries. Aside from those, the source code of Android versions 1 and 2, as released by Google, is free software – but this code is insufficient to run the device. Some of the applications that generally come with Android are non-free, too.

Android is very different from the GNU/Linux operating system because it contains very little of GNU. Indeed, just about the only component in common between Android and GNU/Linux is Linux, the kernel. People who erroneously think "Linux" refers to the entire GNU/Linux combination get tied in knots by these facts, and make paradoxical statements such as "Android contains Linux, but it isn't Linux". If we avoid starting from the confusion, the situation is simple: Android contains Linux, but not GNU; thus, Android and GNU/Linux are mostly different.

(Within Android, Linux the kernel remains a separate program, with its source code under GNU GPL version 2. To combine Linux with code under the Apache 2.0 license would be copyright infringement, since GPL version 2 and Apache 2.0 are incompatible. Rumours that Google has somehow converted Linux to the Apache license are erroneous; Google has no power to change the licence on the code of Linux, and did not try. If the authors of Linux allowed its use under GPL version 3, then that code could be combined with Apache-licensed code, and the combination could be released under GPL version 3. But Linux has not been released that way.)

Google has complied with the requirements of the GNU General Public License for Linux, but the Apache license on the rest of Android does not require source release. Google has said it will never publish the source code of Android 3.0 (aside from Linux), even though executables have been released to the public. Android 3.1 source code is also being withheld. Thus, Android 3, apart from Linux, is non-free software, pure and simple.

Google said it withheld the 3.0 source code because it was buggy, and that people should wait for the next release. That may be good advice for people who simply want to run the Android system, but the users should be the ones to decide this. Anyway, developers and tinkerers who want to include some of the changes in their own versions could use that code just fine.

The non-release of two versions' source code raises concern that Google might intend to turn Android proprietary permanently; that the release of some Android versions as free software may have been a temporary ploy to get community assistance in improving a proprietary software product. Let us hope does not happen.

In any case, most of the source code of some versions of Android has been released as free software. Does that mean that products using those Android versions respect users' freedom? No, for several reasons. First of all, most of them contain non-free Google applications for talking to services such as YouTube and Google Maps. These are officially not part of Android, but that doesn't make the product OK. There are also non-free libraries; whether they are part of Android is a moot point. What matters is that various functionalities need them.

Even the executables that are officially part of Android may not correspond to the source code Google releases. Manufacturers may change this code, and often they don't release the source code for their versions. The GNU GPL requires them to distribute the code for their versions of Linux, if they comply. The rest of the code, under the lax Apache license, does not require them to release the source version that they really use. Replicant, a free version of Android that supports just a few phone models, has replaced many of these libraries, and you can do without the non-free apps. But there are other problems.

Some device models are designed to stop users from installing and using modified software. In that situation, the executables are not free even if they were made from sources that are free and available to you. However, some Android devices can be "rooted" so users can install different software.

Important firmware or drivers are generally proprietary also. These handle the phone network radio, Wi-Fi, bluetooth, GPS, 3D graphics, the camera, the speaker, and in some cases the microphone too. On some models, a few of these drivers are free, and there are some that you can do without – but you can't do without the microphone or the phone network radio.

The phone network firmware comes pre-installed. If all it did was sit there and run, we could regard it as equivalent to a circuit. When we insist that the software in a computing device must be free, we can overlook pre-installed firmware that will never be upgraded, because it makes no difference to the user that it's a program rather than a circuit.

Unfortunately, in this case it would be a malicious circuit. Malicious features are unacceptable no matter how they are implemented.

On most Android phones, this firmware has so much control that it could turn the product into a listening device. On some, it controls the microphone. On some, it can take full control of the main computer, through shared memory, and can thus override or replace whatever free software you have installed. With some models it is possible to exercise remote control of this firmware, and thus of the phone's computer, through the phone radio network.

The point of free software is that we have control of our computing, and this doesn't qualify. While any computing system might have bugs, these devices might be bugs. (Craig Murray, in Murder in Samarkand, relates his involvement in an intelligence operation that remotely converted an unsuspecting target's non-Android portable phone into a listening device.)

In any case, the phone network firmware in an Android device is not equivalent to a circuit, because the hardware allows installation of new versions and this is actually done. Since it is proprietary firmware, in practice only the manufacturer can make new versions – users can't.

Putting these points together, we can tolerate non-free phone network firmware provided new versions of it won't be loaded, it can't take control of the main computer, and it can only communicate when and as the free operating system chooses to let it communicate. In other words, it has to be equivalent to circuitry, and that circuitry must not be malicious. There is no obstacle to building an Android phone which has these characteristics, but we don't know of any.

Recent press coverage of Android has focused on the patent wars. During 20 years of campaigning for the abolition of software patents, we have warned such wars could happen. Software patents could force elimination of features from Android, or even make it unavailable. (See for more information about why software patents must be abolished.)

However, the patent attacks, and Google's responses, are not directly relevant to the topic of this article: how Android products approach an ethically system of distribution and how they fall short. This issue merits the attention of the press too.

Android is a major step towards an ethical, user-controlled, free-software portable phone, but there is a long way to go. Hackers are working on Replicant, but it's a big job to support a new phone model, and there remains the problem of the firmware. Even though the Android phones of today are considerably less bad than Apple or Windows smartphones, they cannot be said to respect your freedom.

Copyright 2011 Richard Stallman. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution Noderivs 3.0 licence.