GNU Free Call - the freedom to call out when you really need to

Making phone calls for free is one of the things made possible by the Internet that is more useful to all people, regardless of how much they like or dislike computers. Computer-based free phone calls make possible to stay in contact with relatives living thousands of kilometers away or to set up phone conferences without any special telephone equipment or contract.

Regardless of costs and of which software is used, computer based telephony seems also great for hearing impaired people. As software phone user said: “for the first time in years, I’m actually enjoying talking to others using a (computer) phone.

he most popular Internet phone system these days is Skype. Lots of people like it, but the way in which the Skype software is designed and distributed has also raised “mounting privacy and security concerns” (see also this comment at ComputerWorld

For these and other reasons, an international group of programmers recently started working on a replacement for Skype: Gnu Free Call.

Gnu Free Call will let people directly call each other in full privacy, without registering and passing throuh one central service provider, as it’s the case with Skype. Besides, unlike Skype, Gnu Free Call will be software without secrets, because its source code will always be available for inspection to any independent programmer or security expert that wanted to improve it, or verify how it works.

Phones are great but, regardless of their form, they are useful only if they let you communicate with all other phone users. It will surely be possible to install both Skype and Gnu Free Call on the same computer. Therefore, using one program doesn’t mean you’ll lose all your friends who prefer the other. It’s also likely that, over time, Gnu Free Call will run on more devices than Skype just because its source code is freely accessible to everyone. At the same time Gnu Free Call may be directly compatible with Skype, because the latter lets its users communicate with the SIP protocol used by Gnu Free call.

Gnu Free Call will also be simple to use. Haakon Meland Eriksen, GNU Free Call project coordinator, told me that:

_GNU Free Call tries to give you the freedom to call out when you really need it. This means it has to be simple to use for children, adults and senior citizens alike, hopefully easier than present phones. Our prototypes for Android and KDE4 are modelled after Walter Bender's [Sugar interface for XO laptops](, that was created for the One Laptop Per Child project and Donald Norman's "Psychology Of Everyday Things" (POET) concepts. It has a playful theme, limited consistent navigation only one level deep. In an emergency you do not want to wonder to much about how it might work. You just want to phone your family, friends or medical personnel. More advanced stuff is then hidden under a settings menu._

Freedom to call out when you really need it also means “freedom to call when disaster strikes”. Eriksen explained to me how Gnu Free Call would offer a great service even during natural disasters:

Eriksen: In such occasions, there are three main reasons telecommunications fail. The first is physical destruction of parts of the network, like cell phone towers. The second is failure in supporting services, like electricity, water cooling and fuel transportation to backup generators, and the third is overload in the remaining network, because people need to talk in a crisis.

While there were more than 3 millions cell phone subscribers in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince when the big earthquake struck in the afternoon on January 12th 2010, none of them could call anyone. A lot of people were on the move, doing their shopping and so on, thus making it more difficult to find them after the earthquake. One year later, the government in Haiti said that over 316.000 people died.

GNU Free Call hopes to help in such situations. We believe a few years from now most people will have cell phones with WI-FI capability or similar, and this we believe will make it possible for people to call through other people’s phones. Imagine someone stuck under a collapsed building, cell phone towers unavailable. Hopefully, using GNU Free Call, they will have the freedom to call out when they really need to, through the phones of people nearby, because Gnu Free Call does not require any centralized service. That, and the fact that all Gnu Free Calls are encrypted also means that humanitarian or medical personnel can communicate confidentially with respect to their patients dignity, during an emergency or in any other moment.