[Arm-netbook] Debian GNU/Linux, nonfree software, and FSF's free distros list

J.B. Nicholson jbn at forestfield.org
Sat Oct 15 22:47:05 BST 2016

Luke Kenneth Casson Leighton wrote:
> they're doing the best that they believe they can do, but they _have_
> been told.  see joey hess's very public description of the Debian
> Charter as a "toxic document".

I've seen https://lists.debian.org/debian-devel/2014/11/msg00174.html where 
Hess makes this statement but I haven't seen anything written by Hess 
clearly explaining why the Debian Constitution is "toxic".

Where would I find something written by Hess clearly explaining why the 
Debian Constitution is "toxic"?

>  i've spoken to the FSF about this: from what i gather, the changes
> required are actually very very simple: all they have to do is add in
> a simple popup message whenever someone clicks the "nonfree" section,
> issuing a warning to the end-user that the consequences of their
> actions are leading them into unethical territory.
>  ... how simple would that be to add?

It's entirely possible something has changed and I am not aware of relevant 
updates on this (I don't doubt you're in touch with them far more than I 
am). Please do reply to the list with updates to this situation.

But according to published documents I point to below, a popup might be 
quite simple to add but insufficient to allow Debian GNU/Linux to appear on 
the list of FSF Free System Distributions. I'll explain why I believe this 
to be true.

In https://www.gnu.org/distros/common-distros.html we find the following 
objection, "Debian also provides a repository of nonfree software. 
According to the project, this software is "not part of the Debian system," 
but the repository is hosted on many of the project's main servers, and 
people can readily find these nonfree packages by browsing Debian's online 
package database and its wiki".

John Sullivan went into more detail on the FSF's objection at Debconf2015:

> So, in Debian's case, the lack of endorsement from us is primarily
> because of the relationship between official Debian and unofficial
> Debian -- the 'non-free' and 'contrib' repositories. And that
> relationship to us seems too close for our comfort. There are spots in
> the Debian infrastructure where those sections even though technically
> separate are integrated very closely with main. So, for example, in
> package searching, in 'recommends' and 'suggests' fields within packages
> that are displayed to users. So even though, in Debian, we have an idea
> that these are separate that's not always as clear to users on the
> outside and they can end up being sometimes inadvertently or sometimes
> just led to install nonfree components on top of the official
> distribution.


I believe the FSF is right to point out Debian's cognitive dissonance. 
Debian gets to:

- host repos containing nonfree software,
- include UI with pointers to said repos in the installed repo list,
- list packages from the nonfree repos as alternatives to free software 
- and also claim that these repos are somehow "not part of the Debian system"?

I too believe that Debian is hosting nonfree software and integrating 
nonfree software with free software and this is indistinguishable from what 
other distros not listed do (such as Ubuntu's GNU/Linux).

If Debian wanted the FSF's approval Debian could remove the nonfree and 
contrib repos from Debian entirely, and remove mentions of packages from 
these repos from the free packages. Any packages one installs from Debian's 
repos post-installation would have the same restrictions too (thus 
addressing what Sullivan mentioned immediately after the above quote).

It was good of Debian to move the nonfree blobs to the nonfree and/or 
contrib repos in Debian 6.0 ("squeeze") in February 2011 but the OS 
installer makes the same kinds of recommendations the FSF objects to. I 
understand the consequences for users looking to most conveniently install 
Debian GNU/Linux plus whatever nonfree software to let the OS run on their 
hardware. But I don't see a popup fixing this. I see this as another 
convenience vs. software freedom tradeoff (wherein security is certainly on 
the side of software freedom too).

Repo redirects to sets of packages that only mention free software packages 
with no references to nonfree software could work but that still involves 
providing work for thousands of packages, as you say.

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