Journey

My progression to Free Software

Unfinished.

I am reaching for a computing environment where I run only free and open source software. I am going to try and live a life where ONLY free software is used. I will update this frequently.

I am also going to reach even further and try and use open source hardware aswell. However, this is only a stretch goal.

Before I document my progress, I want to write some preface about what I will be doing. How I will be rating my progress and how I will calling different types of free software. I will also be going into rules on my choices.

Glossary

The Candidates

For hardware, my phones, desktops, laptops, servers, and other relevant gadgets need to run a full free/libre software stack. This means the operating system and any applications I choose to install must be open source. If that is achieved I will have to look for open hardware replacements.

Another thing that needs to be replaced with FOSS include the online services. For example: social media websites, VPNs, server software. Proprietary services can be accessed through a FOSS client.

Some hardware use proprietary code for their driver, such as Intel WiFi cards. If these were to run on Debian, the WiFi would not work unless Nonfree repos were allowed. Drivers are also part of the software stack and hardware needs to be replaced if there is no FOSS driver that allows it to work.

Advisories (software/hardware)

My equipment

Hardware Ratings

Freedom will be rated to a 5 star stack, with 2 ratings. One rating will be for my progression, and the next for how far we can currently get.

My Computer

My setup: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ - 5 stars!

Maximum possible score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ - 6 stars!

I own a modified Lenovo ThinkPad X200 with replaced free initilisation software and operating system. Some changes were made to the hardware to make the possible, including the flashing of the BIOS chip and replacement of the WiFi card. This is my only PC with my full freedom.

This laptop runs Trisquel GNU/Linux as it’s operating system. The Intel WiFi card has been replaced with an Atheros WiFi card which supports a free driver. The HDD has been replaced with an SSD forspeed!

The 5 star rating is given because the laptop’s BIOS chip was flashed with Libreboot. A free initialisation program

The MNT Reform is a certified open hardware laptop. If this laptop can run on Libre software without a driver issue, then the Reform is a 6 star rated laptop. I originally ordered this laptop on crowdfunding but due to delays in the manufacturing process, I had to cancel. Its high price ($999-1500!!) makes obtaining this laptop difficult currently.

My phone

My setup: ⭐️⭐️⭐️ - 3 stars

Possible setup: ⭐️⭐️⭐️ - 3 stars (Possibly more, see Librem 5)

I use a flashed Google Pixel 4a running GrapheneOS, a modified Android Open Source Project distribution with all free software apps but possible proprietary hardware drivers and bootloader.

Even though there are more free options (i.e. a Linux phone or a OpenMoko) a new and secure phone is required for work. GrapheneOS is focused on security and privacy.

All apps on the phone are Free and are installed via F-Droid, an app store for free software apps only. No proprietary apps will be used. To avoid use of proprietary hardware, I use Airplane Mode and GPS is disabled.

Why phones will probably never be free

The design of mobile phones mean that even with a fully open source operating system, drivers, and bootloader, features will be limited. This is because the baseband processors in phones are completely locked down and are not meant to be reverse engineered. Even if a open source baseband processor was released, it would recieve no approval from Ofcom, FCC or similar due to possibilities that it could be programmed to run on frequencies outside CDMA/GSM/LTE spec. This is an issue with the cellular networks themselves, NOT the phones.

The closest to a free baseband is OsmocomBB, and only two phones with a free operating system (OpenMoko GTA01 and GTA02) supports it. However:

Replicant is the closest to a 100% free mobile operating system. But, it is just LineageOS with proprietary hardware drivers removed (which means using a USB wifi adaptor and no cellular). And, the phones supported have lots of non-free components outside the OS itself which Replicant cannot change.

The PinePhone still has proprietary hardware drivers. They are actively trying to replace and develop new drivers. (GNU/)Linux as a phone is an interesting concept. If a phone has all of it’s hardware become supported for free driver software, then making a mobile Linux-libre kernel based OS like a ‘Trisquel Touch’ or ‘Paramoba GNU/Linux-libre’ is most certainly possible. I would love to see it one day even if not officially maintained. PureOS has is the only mobile OS which runs Linux-libre.

Update 23/09/2021: While the PinePhone has proprietary hardware drivers, there is a project to make a free software modem, it is more free but not completely free. See: Pinephone Modem SDK.

Librem 5

The Librem 5 is considered the closest to a free phone, however I am letting it have it’s own subheader becausee there is a lot of things I want to write about it.

The Librem 5 is an interesting device, I cannot say whether it is a great device as I don’t own one. Librem 5 currently runs a free FSF-endorsed operating system (PureOS) which uses Linux-libre as the kernel. They however claim to have proprietary cellular for the same reasons I had wrote prior (source). For FSF RYF certification, use of a secondary processor that processes proprietary blobs outside of the kernel and boot is allowed - this is what the Librem 5 does.

I would use a Librem 5 phone. However I would not main one at this time for a couple of reasons:

If I made an exception for the secondary processor, it would be 3 stars, but if I also made an exception for cellular hardware, it would be 5 stars.

Software

Operating system

I would recommend any of the FSF approved distros as an operating system to run on your PC. What you use is up to your preference, but I will go through some of them. I will also mention one that is not approved but an excellent mention nonetheless. It is also personally my OS of choice when not using a completely free computer.

Trisquel GNU/Linux

Trisquel is derivative of Ubuntu with all proprietary software and firmware removed. All packages in their package repositories run free software. I would consider Trisquel the simplest of all the free software only distributions and the most stable distribution. I would also consider it excellent for long term support and for weaker hardware.

If you prefer a standard LTS release update distribution, I fully recommend Trisquel as your distro of choice. Trisquel does not have many packages in it’s repositories however, and even if the program is free you may not be able to find it.

Parabola and Hyperbola GNU/Linux-libre

If you like rolling releases, Parabola and Hyperbola are Arch derivative distributions with only free software. Parabola is focused on the modern rolling release, whilst Hyperbola is for long term releases. These distributions are also a great choice for people avoiding systemd, with OpenRC as an init option.

PureOS

PureOS is a Debian based distribution and is the most modern looking of all the distributions in my personal opinion. I believe PureOS is the best choice for new free software users. PureOS is also the only distribution that caters to mobile linux devices.

Debian

Debian is not an FSF approved distribution. But, Debian forces free software to only be used in the operating system repositories as long as nonfree is disabled. The reason Debian is not approved is because the installation of proprietary software is allowed through a separate, disabled by default repository. If you use hardware that is not compatible with them free distros, then Debian probably supports it. For new GNU/Linux users I suggest using Debian as a second or third distro when you want to get more experienced.

Debian probably has the best package repository of all of them.

Web Browser

I personally use a customised build of Firefox with all of the Firefox network services deactivated, with branding, telemetry removed. I also have some extensions installed into it. I also use Tor Browser on some machines, here is a post why.

(TODO: write about how you configure firefox)

On most FSF approved GNU/Linux distributions, it is bundled with Firefox but with the branding removed. The browser functions the exact same as the real Firefox, it is just Mozilla’s license prohibits distribution using their branding. I fully recommend using this, or any of these other browsers:

Ungoogled Chromium

Version of Google’s Chromium browser with all telemetry and connection to google services stripped. UG has also made changes to the browser to improve privacy and security. If you are a loyal chrome user, this is the browser for you.

Proprietary blobs like DRM have been removed, but unRAR, a proprietary binary built with Chromium is. A patch option exists to build without that binary, this would make ungoogled-chromium completely free if built this way. GNU Guix (another FSF approved OS and package manager) does this for their ungoogled-chromium build in their repositories. You can use their repo to install it from there if desired.

The many Firefox derivative browsers

Even though I just use a configured firefox to remove the privacy issues with Firefox, here are some browsers that do or most of it for you:

GNU IceCat is GNU’s web browser based on Firefox with proprietary blobs removed and some privacy features. Only issue is that they only provide a script to install and no new binaries now. DO NOT INSTALL THE BINARY ON THE GNU WEBSITE! IT IS YEARS OUT OF DATE! Some distributions have updated builds, some do not, I know Guix has an updated version.

LibreWolf is a Firefox fork with changed branding and a strict firefox privacy configuration out of the box. LibreWolf still contains support for proprietary DRM however you are able to turn it off.

Browser advisory

While some browsers have better privacy and freedom than others, using some of them may make you more identifiable when browsing online. Make sure you know what you are doing.

Communications

Media

For video, I use MPV as my main media player and I have for the past few years. For music, I use Clementine as my music player. For images I just use the default in my window manager.

Office Suite

I use LibreOffice or OnlyOffice, I prefer using LibreOffice for original documents. OnlyOffice is AGPL but functions better with Microsoft Office documents in my personal opinion.

Advisories (services)

I will be more lenient on webpages, it appears even the most radical of free software users like RMS and a bunch of privacy review sites don’t care if they are free software or not. As long as they aren’t invasive of privacy and have good ethics, it is fine for me. I will try and promote free software webpages though.

My services

Add more to this, brett!

Social media

I do not use social media, but if I had to suggest free software alternatives, I guess I’d recommend a Mastodon, Pleroma or GNU Social instance based on your interests?? All of them are free software and self-hostable.

Search engine

SearX is my main search engine choice, I would prefer to self host it one day. SearX is free software.

Proprietary services

To access YouTube content, I use an Invidious instance to watch YouTube videos without directly accessing the YouTube site. Invidious is minimal and I even can play some videos straight from the Tor network because of it. If I need to read a tweet or thread, I use Nitter

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