Is Signal a threat to Free Software?

SignalSomeone made a lot of noise regarding the LibreSignal shutdown, called it a “new threat to Free Software” and compared it with Tivoization. I was then asked to explain the situation in a discussion with RMS where I gave my own perspective on it. Since I already took the time to write it down, I might as well share it here for others to see:

Signal is a very popular communication system that consists of a server component and two clients. Both clients are Free Software although the Android clients uses a proprietary Google library. The server is Free Software with the exception of parts required for voice communication (last time I checked).

The developers of Signal do not care very much about Free Software and have taken many steps in the past to control the distribution and use of their technology. There’s many different issues I could discuss here, but I will focus on the comparison with Tivoization.

LibreSignal has been created to remove the dependency on the proprietary Google library. Its maintainers have been asked to change the name and the User Agent identifier. They have complied with both requests.

In a recent discussion with the creator of Signal, he made once again clear that while people are free to use his Free Software as long as they don’t use his trademark, they are not free to use the server infrastructure he hosts and pays for to enable his own official Signal clients.

However, no steps have been taken to block LibreSignal from using his server. He would be able to identify LibreSignals clients based on their user agent, but this could of course be changed back easily.

The situation is not comparable to Tivoization at all in my opinion. With Signal you are not prevented to run modified versions of the software on your own hardware. You are free to use the existing server software and host it yourself and you are free to implement your own server and run your modified Signal client with it.

For many people, the problem is that Signal does not federate anymore, so their own server would be cut off from the main network. This and the general hostility to community involvement made the existing LibreSignal developers to abandon the project.

That is all very unfortunate, but no inherent threat to Free Software. In my opinion, people should focus their energies on better technologies and initiatives that respect and encourage community involvement.

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