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<html newsdate="2021-06-25">
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<head>
<title>20 Years FSFE: Interview with Torsten Grote</title>
</head>
<body>
<h1>20 Years FSFE: Interview with Torsten Grote</h1>
<p>
In our fourth birthday publication we are interviewing Torsten
Grote, who explored Free Software alternatives on smartphones
for the FSFE as early as 2012. We reminisce about the emergence
of our Free Your Android campaign and discuss with Torsten
which options are available for liberating our phones today.
</p>
<p></p>
<figure>
<img
src="https://pics.fsfe.org/uploads/medium/2428e0d5718d202093340c681d818ecc.jpg"
/><figcaption>Torsten Grote, creator of the Free Your Android
campaign in the FSFE, conveys the message of 'Free Your Android' in
FISL15, the 15th Forum International Software Libre. 2014, Brazil.</figcaption>
</figure>
<p>
Torsten Grote is a Free Software developer and long time
volunteer in the FSFE. He started his journey of engagement in
the local group in Berlin, later joined the <a
href="https://wiki.fsfe.org/Teams/Germany">FSFE country team
Germany</a> and finally became <a href="/about/team.html">a GA
member</a> in 2009. In the FSFE, Torsten is best known for
being the creator of our <a href="/activities/android/">Free
Your Android</a>-campaign, the campaign about regaining control
of your Android device and your data. </p> <p>For many years
now, Torsten has lived in Brazil and has worked for different Free
Software projects from Tor to Briar to CalyxOS. He is an expert
in the field of phone liberation and creator of <a
href="https://f-droid.org/packages/de.grobox.blitzmail/">&quot;Blitzmail&quot;</a>
and <a
href="https://f-droid.org/en/packages/de.grobox.liberario/">&quot;Transportr&quot;</a>,
both available in <a href="https://f-droid.org">F-Droid</a>.
</p>
<p>
For 20 Years FSFE, we interview Torsten Grote about his time
with the FSFE, freedom on mobile devices, and upcoming
challenges in the field.
</p>
<h3 id="interview-with-Torsten-Grote">Interview with Torsten Grote</h3>
<p>
<strong> FSFE: Do you remember your first contact with the FSFE? What
caught your initial attention and how did you get introduced
and active? </strong>
</p>
<div class="answer">
<p>
<strong>Torsten Grote:</strong>
When I was studying computer science in university, I got increasingly
interested in the political and ethical aspects of software. Thus, I
discovered the FSFE that seemed to have regular meetings in Berlin
where I was living. I subscribed to their <a
href="https://lists.fsfe.org/mailman/listinfo/berlin">Berlin
mailing list</a> in 2007 and soon received an email about a
a meeting with a presentation about the first Free Software
mobile phone, the <a
href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Openmoko">Openmoko</a>.
Having heard about the Openmoko before, this got me really
excited and motivated me sufficiently to show up at this
meeting in person.
</p>
</div>
<div class="answer">
<p>
Arriving at my first FSFE meeting, I was warmly welcomed by
Matthias Kirschner who was coordinating the Berlin group back
then and is now the president of FSFE. There were lots of
friendly and likeminded people. I enjoyed the meeting a lot, so
that I become a regular participant for many years to come.
</p>
<p>
Through the meetings, but also special activities of the Berlin
group, I got more and more involved, joined the German team, and
got eventually <a
href="https://blogs.fsfe.org/torsten.grote/2009/06/01/i-won-the-ga-election/">elected
into FSFE&#39;s general assembly</a> in 2009.
</p>
</div>
<blockquote>
'Smartphones were just starting to become a thing. The first
iPhone came out around the same time as the OpenMoko and the
first Android phone a year later.'
</blockquote>
<figure>
<img
src="https://pics.fsfe.org/uploads/medium/9fb9173c46409cbe2aeda14abdeda73c.jpg"
/> <figcaption> Torsten Grote and the rest of the FSFE team handing
over the Document Freedom Day Award in 2010 to Radio
Deutschlandfunk with the theme "rOGG on". The Document Freedom Day
was an FSFE campaign, designed and implemented to a great extent by
Fernanda Weiden. Fernanda also gave an <a
href="/news/2021/news-20210420-01.html">interview</a> to celebrate and
reflect on the FSFE's 20 year progress.</figcaption>
</figure>
<div class="question">
<p>
<strong>You came up with the 'Free your Android' idea in 2012. What
was the status of phone liberation back then? What was the
initial spark to create this campaign? </strong> </p>
</div>
<div class="answer">
<p>
While the Openmoko was a great phone, its development
fragmented and eventually stopped. Few phones were actually
produced, but I managed to get one.
</p>
<p>
Smartphones were just starting to become a thing. The first
iPhone came out around the same time as the OpenMoko and the
first Android phone a year later. Most people had proprietary
feature phones and I had hoped that having the Openmoko
starting at the same time would give freedom a chance.
</p>
<p>
After this, we saw many other mobile operating systems with
more or less Free Software, such as WebOS, Tizen, Maemo/MeeGo,
Ubuntu Touch, Firefox OS, and many more. However, so far none
managed to compete with today's duopoly.
</p>
</div>
<div class="question">
<p>
<strong>Later, the FSFE moved forward with your idea and pioneered
the idea of using Android as a base for a phone using only Free
Software. What were the initial efforts, and what were the issues users had
to overcome to achieve freedom on mobile devices? </strong>
</p>
</div>
<div class="answer">
<p>
To me it became apparent in 2012 that it would be very hard to
compete with Android. It had already a big market share and
most importantly, it was mostly Free Software. Since the
beginning, people took the source code and made their own
modified versions of Android, some becoming popular such as
Replicant or LineageOS.
</p>
<p>
It might have been a risky bet to focus on Android, but it seemed the best
chance to bring more Free Software to people and it was important to ensure
that it stays free and to work to liberate its non-free bits.
</p>
<blockquote>'To me it became apparent in 2012 that it would be
very hard to compete with Android. It had already a big market
share and most importantly, it was mostly Free
Software.'</blockquote>
<p>
The biggest challenge still exists today. It is the lower layers of the
device, the hardware drivers and the firmware that are still mostly not Free
Software.
</p>
<p>
Another challenge in the early days was installing a different version of
Android. Even for technical people this was quite difficult and could render
the device unusable. Today, some phones even allow their operating system to
be changed with your webbrowser by visiting a website.
</p>
</div>
<div class="question">
<p>
<strong>
DRM, locked devices, proprietary parts in initial flagship
cyanogenmod... How did the situation for users who like to put freedom
first on their mobile devices evolve since the initial start of the
campaign? After all, did the situation improve or worsen?
</strong>
</p>
</div>
<div class="answer">
<p>
I'd say the situation improved significantly. There's now more devices to
choose from, easier installation and many more apps now available
as
Free Software.
</p>
<p>
However, there is also more use-cases like banking, ride-sharing or instant-
messages that are sometimes only available via a proprietary app and
due to their connection to a specific company they are hard to replace
with a general purpose Free Software solution.
</p>
</div>
<figure>
<img
src="https://pics.fsfe.org/uploads/thumb/bf8fe585b03c1eb743d0d85665e3671f@2x.jpeg"
/> <figcaption>'While the Openmoko was a great phone, its
development fragmented and eventually stopped. Few phones were
actually produced, but I managed to get one.' Torsten Grote holding
an Openmoko phone in 2008.</figcaption>
</figure>
<div class="question">
<p>
<strong>
The world of Custom-ROMs is hard to oversee and there are
many different developments from more or less known
entities being shared in different channels. What is your
recommendation for a newbie or where can an interested user
best start to learn more about Android alternatives?
</strong>
</p>
</div>
<div class="answer">
<p>
If you already have a phone that you want to install an
alternative Android version on, then LineageOS is a good start
since they support many devices. However, they do so by
including the same proprietary drivers and firmware that is
already on the device anyway.
</p>
<p>
If you don't have a device yet, but plan to buy one, I suggest
to choose an Android version first and then buy a device that
is supported by it. Only Replicant is using 100% Free Software
here and thus supports only old devices.
</p>
<p>
Unfortunately, I am not aware of a single website that presents
and recommends various Android ROMs. Since the situation
changes frequently, this is hard to maintain. For example,
besides those mentioned already, there's now also CalyxOS
gaining popularity.
</p>
</div>
<blockquote>
'If you already have a phone that you want to install an
alternative Android version on, then LineageOS is a good start
since they support many devices.'
</blockquote>
<div class="question">
<p>
<strong>
You are also creator of two Free Software mobile apps that
are offered on f-droid. What role does f-droid play for
freedom on Android devices in current setups and what
developments do you expect / wish for or see coming
regarding distribution of free software on mobile devices?
</strong>
</p>
</div>
<div class="answer">
<p>
F-Droid is <strong>the</strong> distribution channel for Free
Software apps. Without it, you would need to find, install and
update apps manually. So it is a rather central piece in a free
mobile device.
</p>
<p>
F-Droid is almost as old as Android itself. It has seen many
awesome contributors over the years that all helped to make it
what it is. But F-Droid has also aged and required substantial
work to get modernized. This kind of work is hard to do for
volunteer contributors that work without compensation in their
free time.
</p>
<p>
There are now many forks and clones of the F-Droid app that
would benefit from having F-Droid libraries, so they could
share and maintain most the code together instead of each doing
their own thing.
</p>
<p>
Then there is this whole area of building and updating all apps
directly from their source code ideally reproducibile. Here, we
sometimes see large delays as this responsibility historically
lies with a single person.
</p>
<p>
My wish for the future would be that F-Droid finds the
governance and funding to tackle these big issues to remain a
viable alternative to Google Play.
</p>
</div>
<div class="question">
<p>
<strong>
What is your personal highlight with the FSFE or an
important thing that you learnt from your work at the FSFE?
</strong>
</p>
</div>
<div class="answer">
<p>
My highlight with FSFE were always the in-person meetings,
especially those of the general assembly that would meet in a
different European country each time. We were discussing Free
Software strategy by day and partying together by night. It was
impressive to see how we always managed to establish a
consensus between all members on organizational questions.
</p>
</div>
<figure>
<img
src="https://pics.fsfe.org/uploads/thumb/4040b50c3e4b65eed8ec813872a16fcf@2x.jpeg"
/> <figcaption>Since many years now Torsten lives in Brazil and
works for different Free Software projects from Tor to Briar to
CalyxOS.</figcaption>
</figure>
<div class="question">
<p>
<strong>
And what is a story that still makes you laugh or smile
when you remember it?
</strong>
</p>
</div>
<div class="answer">
<p>
When FSFE started its Free Your Android campaign, I had a big
smile over my two ears to see the huge media echo it caused
like few FSFE campaigns before. I was glad to see that it had
hit a nerve and even the subway news monitors in Berlin had
picked it up.
</p>
<p>
Years later, some F-Droid contributors confessed that they only
got involved and spend many years improving F-Droid and adding
more apps, because they had been motivated to join this work by
the Free Your Android campaign. It is great to see what impact
a few motivated people can have if they dedicate themselves to
a cause.
</p>
</div>
<div class="question">
<p>
<strong>FSFE: As a last question, what do you wish the FSFE
for the next 20 years?</strong>
</p>
</div>
<div class="answer">
<p>
I wish that FSFE will continue to be a strong and respected NGO
with an even bigger staff that will be able to educate the
public as well as more and more European politicians about the
importance of Free Software, so that we can participate in all
aspects of society without having to use proprietary software.
Furthermore, I wish that this will lead to all public software
spending going exclusively towards Free Software.
</p>
</div>
<div class="question">
<p>
<strong>FSFE: Thank you very much!</strong>
</p>
</div>
<h3>About "20 Years FSFE"</h3>
<p>
In 2021 the Free Software Foundation Europe turns 20. This means
two decades of <a href="/about/about.html">empowering users to
control technology</a>.
</p>
<figure>
<img
src="https://pics.fsfe.org/uploads/medium/53aeebdafa0a0c83324dcafc1e4bef1c.png"
alt="Banner with FSFE 20 years. FSFE since 2001" />
</figure>
<p>
Turning 20 is a time when we like to take a breath and to look back
on the road we have come, to reflect the milestones we have passed,
the successes we have achieved, the stories we have written and
the moments that brought us together and that we will always
joyfully remember. In 2021 we want to give momentum to the
FSFE and even more to our pan-European community, the community
that has formed and always will form the shoulders that our
movement relies on.
</p>
<p>
<strong>20 Years FSFE is meant to be a celebration of everyone who
has accompanied us in the past or still does. Thank you for
your place in the structure of the FSFE today and for setting
the foundation for the next decades of software freedom to come. </strong>
</p>
</body>
<tags>
<tag key="front-page"/>
<tag key="interview">Interview</tag>
<tag key="fsfe20">20 Years FSFE</tag>
</tags>
<discussion href="https://community.fsfe.org/t/700"/>
<image url="https://pics.fsfe.org/uploads/medium/2428e0d5718d202093340c681d818ecc.jpg"/>
</html>