Who defines corruption? Open source and “fair use”

pic2-4-773395It is my favorite irony at the moment that the hottest battlefield today regarding what constitutes “fair use” of a mobile device is the Android OS. Android was originally announced by Google as being the only true open source mobile OS in a sea of proprietary, closed systems like WinMo and iOS. Google and many of their early partners such as Motorola even withdrew their support from LiMo (Linux Mobile), basically killing it with the excuse that it was no longer needed; Android was Linux for mobile devices providing all the freedom anyone would ever need. And lo the open source community rejoiced with great rejoicing.

However it appears now that Google didn’t really mean user freedom to tweak and customize the Android software, but rather the freedom for vendors to do so…and they are certainly doing so. In spades. Every vendor and carrier seems to be custom skinning Android these days, layering on fancy UIs, replacing the default Google apps with their own versions, and just generally loading the poor things up with additional carrier-specific software. Simultaneously it appears they are experimenting with ways to keep you from doing the same…but is that wrong?

You may remember the eFuse debacle that occurred when the Motorola Droid X was released with a hardware feature that was said to brick the phone if the bootloader was tampered with, making the installation of custom mods impossible. Motorola soon clarified that the eFuse protection didn’t destroy the phone; it simply required you to reinstall the official Moto-approved OS. No modding, but no bricks. Better, but not by much.

Now the mad geniuses at XDA have discovered a similar scheme with the new HTC G2 from T-Mobile, but a far more subtle variation. If you alter the core programming of your G2 to root or mod it, when you reboot the phone the original OS will overwrite any changes you have made. It actually repairs itself, assuming that the changes are corrupted code. It reminds me of some horrible Star Trek episode where the Enterprise would assume the crew were invaders and try to kill them, complete with much Jim Kirk teeth gnashing. “Bones…it's my phone, my applications…”

Initially the more, shall we say, excitable people around the blogosphere were saying that a rootkit was being used and that the public should arm themselves, but it appears the reality is far simpler. The internal storage keeps two images of the OS, one read-only and one read/write. Basically it keeps a read-only recovery partition and boots the read/write image in the main partition. If you change the read/write image by modding the device, the G2 will note that the two images are different when it boots up next and “recover” by overwriting the main partition with the recovery partition. That is downright elegant, but it does bring up a massive, glaring question: does T-Mobile have the right, indeed the responsibility, to keep you from modding the phones they sell you?

Of course the open source crowd is howling for blood over this, insisting that they can do what they like, when they like, and how they like with a device that they paid good money for. A sizable part of me agrees with them. However, consider this same situation from the mainstream perspective: people who just want a dependable phone that works the way the nice salesgirl said it would and don’t know anything about all this modding and rooting stuff.

For them, this is a fantastic feature. No matter what goes wrong with your phone, there is no need to call your service provider or mess around with complex, time consuming service calls. No damn Genius Bar, no damn Geek Squad. Just turn the phone off and turn it on again. The G2 will sense that something is wrong, the code has been corrupted by unauthorized viruses or software, and repair it…automatically. In fact, it will even fix problems you aren’t even aware of before they become an issue. Isn’t that amazing? Looked at from that perspective, I would love this feature if I were my grandmother.

Of course, the crux here is how you interpret “corrupted.” T-Mobile is viewing “corruption” as any software they have not authorized and any changes to the UI that they have installed on the device. I am sure if you asked them, they would explain this is to protect their network from security breaches and malicious code (and yes, it is their network that you are paying to borrow), as well as saving money by avoiding service calls to fix pointless damage users might do to their own phones trying to “improve” them. After all, many mods are well known to decrease performance and slow your phone down, or are available on sites littered with malware. T-Mobile has carefully tweaked the software to perfectly suit the hardware and their network, and don’t want you messing that up or putting their network at risk because you want the icons to flash rather than glow when you touch them, or you want it to play the Naruto theme when it boots up.

Hobbyists and open source supporters reject the idea that user-selected software changes are corruption, or inherently dangerous. However, even if you do mess up your phone, if you wish to install an app that guts your performance who has the right to tell you no? The “consenting adults” argument, essentially, kicked out of bed and ported to the mobile world. Beyond that, since the phone is useless without software, one could assume that buying the software is an inherent part of buying the phone, therefore it is the property of the user and they can do what they like to it. Didn’t the Supreme Court just say jailbreaking did not break any laws?

There is no easy answer at the moment, and we aren’t going to be getting one from the supposed stewards of Android, Google. Eric Schmidt, who is known for such liberal statements as saying that privacy was only desired by people who were up to no good, has already explained that for Google to step in and dictate anything to the vendors and carriers would be violating Android’s open source spirit and the carrier’s right to do what they wish with the software…even if what they wish to do is to keep someone else from doing what they wish. In other words, they will not violate someone’s right to violate someone’s rights.

So where do you fall in this rapidly developing debate? Do you feel that T-Mobile is right that the “experience” is theirs to control and they have a mandate to protect their users, even from themselves (similar to Apple’s stance)? Do you feel that once you buy a device, you can do whatever you want to it and no one should be able to “net nanny” you against your will?

Tough call, but I know one thing. For the foreseeable future, the carriers still hold the advantage since the vast majority of users just don’t care about this sort of issue…yet.

[XDA | Download Squad | New America | Engadget | Huffington Post]
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Zealot Benmergui

Zealot is a former contributing editor at Pocketables.

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