All was quiet on the Fediverse leading up to the very moment that would soon bring rise to a tumultuous situation in the free software community. Librem One is a suite of services and apps to access those services that are “ethical, respectful of your digital rights[,] and concerned about your privacy.” While everyone should be clamoring about the problem this project aims to solve, that isn’t the case following the announcement. What’s got people talking is the striking similarity the Librem One suite of apps bears to existing free software projects. The only party that seems to be silent on this front, however, is Purism.
Judging from the screenshots of previews of the apps that the bundle will contain you might already be able to see that the apps are simply slightly modified versions of existing apps. They’ve been rebranded to hold Purism’s Librem namesake and the modifications made simply hard-code configuration of the apps to point towards Purism’s services. In reality, the only thing being sold here is the hosting of the backend for these services, so you can’t say they’re selling the apps. This is especially true when they’re available for anyone to download and use without relying on Purism’s infrastructure.
It’s perfectly normal for projects to be forked. It’s even normal that from time to time someone might rename their fork and go in a different direction. This is free software and modifications are to be made all the time. What’s not normal is for all of this to happen with a highly publicized project without so much as a nod from the project leads to the original developers or their community. Four years after the original fork, even a project like Gitea still gives mention to the Gogs project that Gitea was born from.
What’s worse is that in order to demonstrate what their services are, the screenshots used are those of apps. The wording on the project homepage makes one believe that Purism created these apps themselves. The apps are also inconsistent in theming compared to one another. This is mainly due to the fact that they are literally forks of the original apps as seen here(source.puri.sm). When looking at the README.md files, they have not been modified to reflect the changes made in the repo.
Upon closer inspection, we can see that earliest signs of work being done to transform the original apps into their Librem counterparts a little over 3 months ago. When you look at the commit linked, you’ll see that at one point the VPN app would have been called Liberty Tunnel Adblocker. Each of the apps have some sort of mention to “liberty” which makes sense considering that Purism’s goal is to liberate people from the strongholds of Big Tech. Can they achieve that goal? Librem One will certainly help achieve that, but only if they make good by their target demographic.
While we can see that the source code for the Librem One apps is out there, it seems that there’s no mention of it at the time of writing on the Librem One project homepage or on any of the app pages on the respective app stores. Each of the apps forked here are under some type of free software license. However, only Tusky here has a non-permissive free software license of GPLv3. That being said, each of the original licenses require that when the work is distributed, that the work display a prominent notice that the work has been modified.
The only service to contain the original branding is the social.librem.one Mastodon instance. That being said, the instance functionality deviates highly from most instances in that it does not include the federated timeline, they don’t have a local timeline, and there’s no profile directory. This makes it very difficult to find other users on the service but this may simply be a consequence of Librem One still being in development.
As of writing, the project is still calling for funding via their crowdfunding product and Purism has been mostly silent regarding the concerns laid out in this article. I reached out on their forum and got a response saying that a blog post would be coming and that links to the source code would be provided. It’s not clear whether Purism reached out to the developers of the apps the Librem suite is forked from but word on the street is that they do right by upstream and contribute their changes back to the original project when necessary.
This is not a call to action to boycott Purism. I think their products and their efforts should be praised. This is simply a case of lack of communication as far as can be seen at the moment. It’s simply too early to make any calls as to what the intentions of the Purism executives and the like have regarding this project and judging by their track record I would assume that all will be sorted out and most will be happy in the end.
Note: They could have avoided this whole thing by following emsenn’s “Escalation of Communication”
UPDATE: Purism has posted a few more details regarding their Librem One launch and gave a little explanation as to why they decided to launch the project itself. This post includes links to the apps that Purism forked to create their Librem One mobile clients and a link to where their clients’ source code repositories are. There’s still no news on why they modified their Mastodon instance the way they did (they also removed the ability to report and to directly message others). The Librem One project homepage has not been updated to reflect this post as of writing.
Author’s note: A previous version of this article stated that the Librem Social mastodon instance was not federating. This is not the case.
Author’s second note: A previous version of this article stated that Purism’s second post about Librem One did not include links to the modified source code. This is not the case.