Open Source and Export Controls


This is the blog version of a Twitter conversation with my colleague Graham Chastney.

Huawei, and the war on trade

POTUS #45 has been pursuing a ‘trade war’ with China, as this appears to be popular with his base, even though it makes stuff more expensive for them and will ultimately harm the US economy. It’s not really a trade war, more a war on trade.

The latest target in that war is Huawei. First came a US export ban, then Google pulled their access to Android licenses and the underlying Google services and now ARM is breaking away.

This leaves us asking what happens to a mobile phone maker that relies on ARM for hardware, and Google for software and services when ARM and Google are put into a position that forces an end to those business relationships?

The direct and immediate consequence seems clear – Huawei’s mobile phone business (at least in the West) is toast. But let’s look at the longer term (unintended) consequences, and particularly the role played by open source, and how regulators might try to react.

This is great for RISC-V

If Huawei can’t work with ARM then the clear alternative will be the open source RISC-V Instruction Set Architecture (ISA).

Huawei is a Gold member of the RISC-V Foundation

RISC-V has been making great strides forward over recent years with industry giants like Western Digital and Nvidia jumping on board. But they’ve been nibbling into the bottom of ARM’s world with the low spec microcontrollers that do housekeeping stuff on hard drives and graphics cards.

A deep pocketed and cornered industry behemoth like Huawei can now drive a full on assault at the top of ARM’s market to get RISC-V a place in the high end Systems on Chip (SoCs) used in mobile phones.

But bad for Western RISC-V specialists

As they’ll be cut out of the action as all the work will be done in Shenzhen rather than Cambridge.

The software part has already played out

Android as we know it in the West isn’t a thing. The phones being used on the Chinese side of the Great Wall might ostensibly use Android, because they’re based on Android Open Source Project (AOSP), but they don’t use Google apps or the underlying services. So cutting Huawei off from Google’s Android licenses cuts them off from Western consumers, but doesn’t impact their domestic market at all.

We have however seen this show before (without the populist politics). Amazon sells Fire tablets, which are Android without Google services. This saves Amazon from paying Google a license.

Many people install Google apps and services onto their Fire devices, and both companies do nothing to prevent this. Google doesn’t mind losing out on a license fee if they still get all that tasty customer data, and maybe even some sales in the Play store. Amazon doesn’t mind people using Gmail on a device that’s pushed up their volume production economics, and likely also pulled along a Prime subscription and maybe some Kindle sales.

Huawei could very easily sell AOSP devices into the Western market where customers self help themselves to Google apps and services. Google’s hands would be clean as they wouldn’t be taking a license fee or helping Huawei in any way.

What I don’t see happening here is Huawei trying to build a portfolio of services and associated apps to appeal to those of us West of the Great Wall. Amazon didn’t bother, because it would take $Billions to build the platforms and establish the customer intimacy.

So what happens when the US Federal Government tries to cut Huawei off from RISC-V and AOSP?

Both of these projects originate from the West, and so it’s conceivable that Western governments will feel a sense of ownership over them. Furthermore it’s conceivable that Western governments will see open source as a loophole around export controls – a loophole that has to be closed.

It is of course completely impractical to prevent the export of open source. It’s inherently a globalised phenomenon. But this might be one of those times when politics tries to trump practicality. We’ve seen this show before too with the export controls of cryptography, or the more recent statement by Australia’s Prime Minister that ‘the laws of Australia will trump the laws of mathematics‘.

Open source, apart from you” as Graham puts it may be where the politicians and the agencies under them might want to go. But making that real will rapidly play out first as tragedy then as farce as an endless game of whack’a’mole ensues in a futile attempt to stop Unicode characters from crossing international borders.

It is sadly a losing game that governments will feel obliged to play, because the alternative is to accept that open source is a trans national power that transcends the power of national government; and of course that’s an alternative that’s unacceptable to a national government.

So I predict that the US Government will huff and puff and try to blow the house down, and they’ll drag the Five Eyes allies along under the banner of ‘intelligence’ protection, and then the rest of the West under the banner of ‘trade’. We’ve seen this show before too with the hapless ‘war on drugs‘, where we now have the ridiculous situation where many states have legalised cannabis whilst most of the West keeps it unlawful because the US told them too (and that’s still the Federal government position).


The US Federal government is on the brink of cornering itself into a war on open source (which will become a side skirmish to the war on general purpose computing), and it’s going to get very messy and very silly.


I tag a bunch of stuff on, so if you want to read more about RISC-V, open source hardware or the war on general purpose computing click on.

Update 22 Jun 2019

It seems I’m not the only one thinking along these lines. Bunnie Huang has blogged ‘Open Source Could Be a Casualty of the Trade War‘, which also has a thread on Hacker News.

Update 25 Jul 2019

Alibaba has announced a 2.5GHz 16 core RISC-V chip and Stewart Randall at Technode has published ‘China’s chipmakers could use RISC-V to reduce impact of US sanctions‘.

Update 29 Aug 2019

Huawei Seeks Independence From the US With RISC-V and Ascend Chips and Huawei’s next phone won’t have Google apps. Getting to the heart of things, “Huawei has said it will continue using Android for as long as the US government allows it.”, which implies that they think their use of AOSP can be blocked.

Update 26 Nov 2019

The RISC-V Foundation has chosen to leave the US for Switzerland.

Update 9 Dec 2019

China are now retaliating by ordering ‘that all foreign computer equipment and software be removed from government offices and public institutions within three years’, which is likely to push Chinese systems off proprietary US platforms and onto open source (and thus pull the locus of that open source more towards China).

Update 24 Feb 2020

Google have an official statement warning of the risks of sideloading Google Play and core apps (via BBC News).

Update 15 Apr 2020

Huawei’s latest flagship ‘the P40 Pro without Google apps is just too broken to live with‘.

Update 18 May 2020

The Register ‘Huge if true… Trump explodes as he learns open source could erode China tech ban

Update 9 Jul 2020

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray presented at the Hudson Institute on the topic of ‘The Threat Posed by the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party to the Economic and National Security of the United States‘ that includes a section titles ‘Exploiting Our Openness’.

Update 10 Aug 2020

The Register reports ‘Huawei running out of smartphone CPUs as US sanctions begin to bite‘.

Update 19 Aug 2020

ZDNet reports ‘Huawei ban expanded to include foreign-made chips using US tech‘ meanwhile on Phoronix, ‘Alibaba Reports Their XT910 RISC-V Core To Be Faster Than An Arm Cortex-A73‘.

Update 8 Sep 2020

The Register covers ‘US ponders tech export ban on SMIC, China’s biggest chipmaker‘. Whilst Reuters has ‘Tech war chronicles: How a Silicon Valley chip pioneer landed in China‘ about how the MIPS architecture is already widely licensed to China (another alternative to ARM and RISC-V).

Update 3 Jun 2021

Huawei officially replaces Android with HarmonyOS, which is also Android

Update 17 Dec 2021

China’s road to homegrown chip glory looks to be going for a RISC-V future

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