In a recent post on Wired, called “Why We Need Free Digital Hardware Designs“, Richard Stallman compares the prospects and meaining of Free digital Hardware and designs, in comparison with Free Software:

You can’t build and run a circuit design or a chip design in your computer. Constructing a big circuit is a lot of painstaking work, and that’s once you have the circuit board. Fabricating a chip is not feasible for individuals today; only mass production can make them cheap enough. With today’s hardware technology, users can’t download and run John H Hacker’s modified version of a digital hardware design, as they could run John S Hacker’s modified version of a program. Thus, the four freedoms don’t give users today collective control over a hardware design as they give users collective control over a program. That’s where the reasoning showing that all software must be free fails to apply to today’s hardware technology.

Sure, but without meaningfully-trustworthy hardware – i.e. with verifiable and adequately verified critical hardware components, even during fabrication – the Free Software gives the user much freedom to hack and very little civil freedom, as there is little assurance against scalable undetectable low-cost end-point attacks.

In 1983 there was no free operating system, but it was clear that if we had one, we could immediately use it and get software freedom. All that was missing was the code for one.

In 2014, if we had a free design for a CPU chip suitable for a PC, mass-produced chips made from that design would not give us the same freedom in the hardware domain. If we’re going to buy a product mass produced in a factory, this dependence on the factory causes most of the same problems as a nonfree design. For free designs to give us hardware freedom, we need future fabrication technology.

We can envision a future in which our personal fabricators can make chips, and our robots can assemble and solder them together with transformers, switches, keys, displays, fans and so on. In that future we will all make our own computers (and fabricators and robots), and we will all be able to take advantage of modified designs made by those who know hardware. The arguments for rejecting nonfree software will then apply to nonfree hardware designs too.

That future is years away, at least.

That vision is great, but the timing is even worst. In fact, the economics of assuring the such fabricators and robots so that they themselves will not contain vulnerabilities that may compromise all devices produced with them, places the such home fabrication possibility at the very least one or two decades away.

Is there no alternative till then thatn to just trust multiple hardware makers?!

In the meantime, there is no need to reject hardware with nonfree designs on principle.

*As used here, “digital hardware” includes hardware with some analog circuits and components in addition to digital ones.

We need free digital hardware designs

Although we need not reject digital hardware made from nonfree designs in today’s circumstances, we need to develop free designs and should use them when feasible. They provide advantages today, and in the future they may be the only way to use free software.

Free hardware designs offer practical advantages. Multiple companies can fabricate one, which reduces dependence on a single vendor. Groups can arrange to fabricate them in quantity. Having circuit diagrams or HDL code makes it possible to study the design to look for errors or malicious functionalities (it is known that the NSA has procured malicious weaknesses in some computing hardware).

I makes it possible to look only for some errors, as its is widely recognized that there are vulnerabilities that may be inserted during fabrication which cannot be ascertained after fabrication. “You cannot add trust to intergated circuits after fabrication” said US Defense Science Board back in 2005.

Furthermore, free designs can serve as building blocks to design computers and other complex devices, whose specs will be published and which will have fewer parts that could be used against us.

Free hardware designs may become usable for some parts of our computers and networks, and for embedded systems, before we are able to make entire computers this way.

Free hardware designs may become essential even before we can fabricate the hardware personally, if they become the only way to avoid nonfree software. As common commercial hardware is increasingly designed to subjugate users, it becomes increasingly incompatible with free software, because of secret specifications and requirements for code to be signed by someone other than you. Cell phone modem chips and even some graphics accelerators already require firmware to be signed by the manufacturer. Any program in your computer, that someone else is allowed to change but you’re not, is an instrument of unjust power over you; hardware that imposes that requirement is malicious hardware. In the case of cell phone modem chips, all the models now available are malicious.

Some day, free-design digital hardware may be the only platform that permits running a free system at all. Let us aim to have the necessary free digital designs before then, and hope that we have the means to fabricate them cheaply enough for all users.

If you design hardware, please make your designs free. If you use hardware, please join in urging and pressuring companies to make hardware designs free.

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