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Free/Libre GNU/Linux distributions always talk about how to avoid non-free binary blobs when using Wi-Fi cards which pretty much means using only Atheros chipsets.

What about other devices like hard drives, wired Ethernet cards, DVD ROMs.. Don't they mind using them even if they contain proprietary firmwares?

The only difference I know between the devices above and Wi-Fi cards, is that usually, the Wi-Fi card device driver needs to push the firmware to the Wi-Fi chipset RAM at load time. For the other devices, the firmware is just burned into their ROM.

  • I can't speak for everyone, but it's important to me because, in my experience, nonfree wifi drivers are often just terrible, purely in terms of functionality. I care, in the abstract, if my ethernet card runs on free software, but I will really raise a stink if my wifi card keeps dropping the connection every ten minutes or can't authenticate to my school's network. (Also, less egregiously, they often lack support for promiscuous mode, so my computer can't monitor traffic going through my wireless router.) – apsillers Oct 24 '16 at 14:47
  • @apsillers if I understand well your point, you prefer the free/libre Wi-Fi firmware because of its quality rather than for the philosophy behind using free/libre softwares, am I right? I think quality is more related to the open source characteristic of the free/libre software than the fact it is libre/free. – olliebulle Oct 25 '16 at 1:49
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    I meant that, as an advocate of software freedom, I care equally about whether my ethernet card and my wifi card run on free software. However, as a human with limited time and resources, if replacing the driver for one component with free software will make my life ten times easier, I will naturally prioritize that component. – apsillers Oct 25 '16 at 11:21
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The Free Software Foundation has said that if you can't install software on it, it's not a computer:

The ethical issues of free software arise because users obtain programs and install them in computers; they don't really apply to hidden embedded computers, or the BIOS burned in a ROM, or the microcode inside a processor chip, or the firmware that is wired into a processor in an I/O device. In aspects that relate to their design, those things are software; but as regards copying and modification, they may as well be hardware. The BIOS in ROM was, indeed, not a problem.

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    The link you propose gives good insights. It led me to dig a little more on the FSF website where I found that: "[...] hardware must run free software on every layer that is user upgradeable [...]", speaking about hardware the FSF could endorse. So, since a Wi-Fi card is user upgradeable, it must run free firmware as opposed to a wired Ethernet card for example. – olliebulle Oct 26 '16 at 2:30
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While the goal is to eliminate proprietary software, effective Free Software activists understand that their time is valuable and limited, so prioritise working on the problems that will yield the most benefit.

Hard drive firmware is rarely updated and doesn't communicate with the outside world. We would love hard drives to run free software, but this is a much lower priority right now than freeing BIOS or WiFi firmware, which affect who your computer trusts (often the manufacturer and not you) and how it communicates with the outside world.

The Free Software movement has always taken a very practical, rather than ideological approach to its long-term goal of allowing everyone to do all their computing with free software. When the GNU project was formed in 1983, the priority was writing free alternatives to proprietary programs on top of existing proprietary Unix systems. Eventually the movement progressed to where freeing the entire desktop operating system was feasible. Today some of most important work is freeing drivers, BIOSes old older devices, communication tools and mobile apps. Soon it will be possible to buy brand new systems with free BIOSes out of the box, like the EOMA68 Computer Card and the Talos Secure Workstation. Hopefully hard drive firmware will be feasible to replace one day, but until then, it's a matter of investing our energy wisely.

  • Thanks for highlighting the FSF practical approach. Libreroot, the project that concentrates on freeing BIOSes, have a good short read on other firmwares found in computers and why they cause problems. This may give indications on what could be the next priority. – olliebulle Oct 28 '16 at 13:31
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Firmware in rom is easy to "rationalise away". The user can rationalise it as "just part of the hardware". The operating system distributor can rationalise it as "i'm not shipping it so it's not my problem". The advocate can rationalise it as "something the user already has".

Loading firmware through the driver brings the problem to the forefront. Now rather than passively using nonfree firmware that is already there the operating system must actively participate in the distribution and loading of the nonfree firmware.

  • Interesting point. I guess it would be impossible to use exclusively free/libre softwares, that is why advocates need to rationalize. – olliebulle Oct 25 '16 at 2:10

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