The FSF publishes a document describing guidelines for free software distributions on gnu.org, as well as a list of distributions known to comply with these guidelines. In light of popular distributions that are increasingly including and recommending non-free software, these guidelines and distributions are a breath of fresh air to many – but they too are not without their problems.
From the guidelines, “any nonfree firmware needs to be removed from a free system”. The purpose of such firmware is to allow the target hardware device to function, so essentially distributions like Trisquel GNU/Linux feel it is fine to disable parts of a computer if it cannot be used in a completely free way. I have no complaint about this per se, but the way this is implemented in practice makes these distribution maintainers come off as hypocrites. These distributions are being reduced to not much more than a marketing ploy to mislead users. To understand why, I need to explain a bit more about what is meant exactly by the FSF when they refer to “firmware”, and why in many cases it’s a non-issue.
When the FSF talks about firmware, they are using it in a way that is inclusive of the term “microcode“. This is important, because proprietary microcode is everywhere and difficult to avoid. Even so-called “freedom-compatible” hardware frequently includes it.
If you are running an x86 processor released in the last 10 years or so, your CPU likely supports microcode runtime updates from within the operating system. If you run a Debian Wheezy GNU/Linux distribution, an Intel CPU and have the intel-microcode non-free package installed, this will automatically load the latest proprietary Intel microcode into your CPU at boot (if the packaged version is newer than what is already running).
So what happens if you don’t have this package installed? The answer is that your computer BIOS already includes CPU microcode that it injects into your CPU every time you turn your PC on. This is done before your operating system (or even its bootloader) has started to load. Were you not to load microcode updates in from your operating system, you would need to rely on flashing BIOS updates to deliver your CPU microcode updates. Either way, like it or not, you’re going to run Intel or AMD microcode at boot. It’s just a question of having the latest version with microcode fixes, or running an older version.
Here is the beginnings of why the argument for fully free software distributions (for the x86 architecture at least) falls flat on it’s face. These distributions might be 100% free software, and give you the illusion of having a computer that is fully free, but in practice removing this microcode has achieved very little – if anything at all.
CPUs aren’t the only devices you’ll find in modern PCs that require microcode. Enter the subject of graphics cards. This is where my main gripe with these distributions comes into being. Modern AMD graphics cards, like the CPUs discussed above, require microcode to function properly. Unlike CPUs however, AMD graphics cards need drivers to load this microcode into the GPU at boot – the BIOS will not do this.
AMD has helped the free software community create some great free software drivers. They have released all the specifications, and assisted in the development of code. Nvidia, by comparison, seldom plays ball with free software developers and (for x86-based graphics card drivers at least) has basically been no help at all. If you’re in the market for a high-end graphics card from one of these vendors, AMD would seem the logical choice – support the guys who support free software the most, right? No! Not according to the FSF!
Generators for Nvidia microcode have been created, but not for Radeon microcode. This result is likely just out of necessity – Nouveau (the free software project that has reverse engineered Nvidia graphics card drivers) likely were not able to redistribute the existing proprietary microcode due to licensing. However since AMD has allowed Radeon microcode to be distributed “as is” (
basically do whatever you want with it [Edit: Sadly I was mistaken – you can basically redistribute as you like but “No reverse engineering, decompilation, or disassembly of this Software is permitted.”], but did not release the means to recreate the (21K or less in size) microcode file, there was little incentive for developers to replace this – they would rather work on actually getting the drivers working properly than dedicating time to what appears to amount to (in this case at least) a purely philosophical exercise.
Now I admit, I don’t like that I need to run my AMD graphics hardware with proprietary microcode (even if they do have excellent free software drivers). Distribution maintainers have two options:
1. Allow the user to install microcode (possibly that the user provides so as to not need to redistribute it as part of the project) to have a working and otherwise completely free software operating system installed
2. Don’t make it easy to have the user get his/her hardware working, make them install a different distribution that may respect software freedom far less
Although option one would seem more logical at a glance, we have already established distribution maintainers wishing to comply with the FSF guidelines for free software distributions will need to elect to go with option two.
Now that all the discussion of firmware and microcode is out of the way, I have paved the way to explain what really makes me mad in all of this.
From the above, we can conclude that Free software distributions do not want us to run hardware that requires non-free binary blobs of any kind – no matter how small the blob or how important the hardware may be. Now have a look at, say, the download page for Trisquel. Trisquel apparently supports 32-bit or 64-bit PCs (ie. x86-architecture, ie. AMD and Intel CPUs, ie. CPUs that require priorietary microcode to function). Where are the download links for people that have that have RISC CPUs that don’t require proprietary microcode (eg. MIPS, like the Loongson processors as used in the Lemote netbook that RMS uses)? No, Trisquel doesn’t really make any effort or seem to care about you running a 100% free software computer. To do so would mean dropping support for one of their main sponsors Think Pengiun computers, which only ship Intel x86 PCs!
If the free software guidelines were serious about avoiding non-free blobs, they should be blacklisting hardware known to disrespect user freedom by mandating blobs – regardless of how the blobs get installed, and should probably be dropping x86 architecture support. Alternatively they could go the other way and allow any non-free blobs, if they are stripped to the absolute minimum required to get hardware actually working, so end users gain the maximum possible free software experience from their hardware. Of course they wont do either of these things though. Neither having a completely free software computing experience, or having things work correctly for end users is their primary goal; it’s all about marketing.