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Ututo and non-free drivers

Ututo is a GNU/Linux distribution whose name is reminiscent of a gecko from northern Argentina. I featured a review of Ututo XS 2006 not very long ago; Ututo is actually pretty nice, it just needs a little bit of polish, particularly in the English translation of the operating system. Ututo is based on Gentoo, and uses the Portage package management system.

Ututo is hailed by the Free Software Foundation as one of the only free GNU/Linux distributions available to the general public. And while that is true, at least to some extent, I found something that made me question the overall freedom of the distribution.

If you look in Ututo’s package repositories, you will find the madwifi device driver. Madwifi is a wireless driver for Atheros chipsets. While most of the driver is licensed under the GNU General Public License, and the BSD License, madwifi implements a proprietary HAL, or hardware abstraction layer.

If you visit the madwifi project web site, they explain why the HAL must be proprietary software:

Atheros and Sam have shown a lot of commitment to the Linux platform, so most of us are happy to have Atheros cards in our computers. Also you should read the above question "Why is the HAL closed source?" and its accompanying answer. In short: The HAL has to be closed, but the driver itself is GPL. Whether or not you use the driver is, of course, up to you - take it or leave it.

Apparently, the source code to the power bit must be closed so those who use the hardware cannot change the frequency to spy on governement agencies or pick up unauthorized radio signals.

So, I guess Ututo is not 100% libre, as they claim. Nevertheless, this is a problem that could easily be alleviated, but a distribution that claims to be completely free must practice what it preaches.

Update: Here’s more information regarding the subject. Very important, please read:

http://ututo.org/i686/madwifi-driver-0.1_pre20050420-r1.tbz2 This is the URL of the file. Under that tar.bz2 archive, look at this file:
/./usr/share/doc/madwifi-driver-0.1_pre20050420-r1/README.gz

in that file, CTRL K ath_hal or just go to line 54 and this is a snippet of what it says: The ath_hal module contains the Atheros Hardware Access Layer (HAL). This code manages much of the chip-specific operation of the driver. The HAL is provided in a binary-only form in order to comply with FCC regulations. In particular, a radio transmitter can only be operated at power levels and on frequency channels for which it is approved. The FCC requires that a software-defined radio cannot be configured by a user to operate outside the approved power levels and frequency channels. This makes it difficult to open-source code that enforces limits on the power levels, frequency channels and other parameters of the radio transmitter. See

http://ftp.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Engineering_Technology/Orders/2001/fcc01264.pdf

for the specific FCC regulation.

Because the module is provided in a binary-only form it is marked “Proprietary”; this means when you load it you will see messages that your system is now “tainted”.

If you wish to use this driver on a platform for which an ath_hal module is not already provided please contact the author. Note that this is only necessary for new _architectures_; the HAL is not tied to any specific version of GNU/Linux–in fact the identical HAL binary code is used unchanged with other operating systems.

Dylan Knight Rogers

Comments

Other drivers

 

So if freeing it would violate FCC regulations, why haven't completely free drivers been attacked by the FCC?

I wonder what the FCC would

 

I wonder what the FCC would say about GNU radio (which IIRC was created to get around the broadcast flag the FCC wanted so badly).

Anyway, I hope someone will be able to reverse engineer that closed source bit, it would make those cards very interesting hardware to have.

Is there a really good

Is there a really good objective reason for FCC's requirement here that makes this piece of software proprietary? I'm not sure restricting us out of certain frequencies is a good enough reason. Freedom is one thing, the way you use that freedom is another. If spying on restricted channels is illegal that doesn't mean the law should be written in code effectively rendering other possibly legal activities impossible (which law-put-to-code has been doing alot lately). To be blunt I'd say FCC is simply wrong.

Anyone who has a good reason

 

Anyone who has a good reason to spy probably has the resources to build their own spying hardware. However I can understand they don't want us to transmit on any frequency - it will be quite annoying for the neighbours who want to listen to the radio, and transmitting on the frequency of air traffic control definitely is a bad idea. The thing is, anyone can build a radio transmitter that transmits at an unwanted frequency. So does preventing the sale of hardware that can transmit at an undesirable frequency really help? It will help against accidental misconfiguration, that's true and that's all.

Good question

 

And I'm not exactly sure as to why. Perhaps this is just one driver that slipped out of our hands.

Yes, and I think there ought

Yes, and I think there ought to be better way to prevent misconfigurations. It doesn't have to be coded law, but merely some practical constraints that would not remove freedom and ability to make modifications to the frequency settings, but merely make that a little more difficult to do (but not like in the TiVo case where DRM almost completely made modifications impossible).

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