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Of hypocrisy and the FSF

The Free Software Foundation acts as the benevolent force guiding the computer industry. It protects the users of software from the baddies, the list of which very often includes the names Microsoft, Apple, and TiVo.

But what happens when the benevolent force transforms into something of a hypocrit?

The Free Software Foundation has an official list of Free GNU/Linux distributions. That is, distros that don’t include any non-free software in the mainline distribution image or package repositories. With that in mind, the said list is quite selective. The names of the distributions are as follows:

  • gNewSense
  • Ututo
  • Blag
  • Dynebolic
  • GNUStep
  • Musix

Something that I found peculiar was that the distributions Debian and Gentoo both have a social contract that ensures the freedom of the distribution. Debian explicitly states on numerous occasions that the system will never require the use of a component that is non-free.

Now, for the interesting part. By performing a simple Netcraft check, we can see the FSF servers running what GNU/Linux distro? Debian, of course! If the concept hasn’t violated your cortex just yet, I must remind you of this double standard of distribution selection. While Debian remains a free distro in its default substance, the official package repositories include a section with a raft of non-free software in it.

I spoke with Richard Stallman about this. He didn’t seem to be nearly as disappointed as I was:

We did not install any of that non-free software, so it is ok for us to run Debian. But we cannot recommend its servers to the public. Other people might install the non-free software from the site.

That sentence seems to be missing something. While Stallman has a good reason to not recommend the Debian servers or condone their actions, he fails to recognize that I can get non-free software anywhere. Just because a piece of non-free software is in my distribution’s package repository does not mean I am going to install and use it. I could very well go somewhere else and get the non-free software. In fact, requiring a free distribution to exclude proprietary software from their repositores may actually increase the prevalence of the users’ ability to go somewhere else and grab the non-free software they wish to use. There are many free GNU/Linux distributions out there that need to be recognized, but cannot becuase of their distribution of non-free components in their repositories.

This is an interesting debate, and I’d like to hear some feedback. In my eyes, Debian remains a free GNU/Linux system.


I suppose the question comes

I suppose the question comes down to whether FSF should start recommending distributions which are fully free by default and don't have any *official* repositories which are enabled by default containing non-free software.

In that case the list of recommended distros would be extended quite a bit. It is interesting to note, however, that Debian Etch will as far as I know include certain binary blobs in the system by default. It is something even they admit is a compromise to the Debian Free Software Guidelines. Will FSF use Debian etch would be an interesting question then. Maybe they will, but just remove non-free blobs from it, as many other Free Software supporting individuals already do.

I used Arch which mixes proprietary and free software in same repositories, but I avoided installing non-free components from it to my own system, which is all that mattered to me. Now I am on Ubuntu Edgy and I have removed the restricted modules package. I'm also considering taking a deeper look into the system to remove the specific binary blob files (with the exception of the one I need, the ati firmware) which pretty much leaves me with a free system.

So it's certainly possible to run a fully Free Software system even if your distribution of choice isn't one recommended by FSF because it serves a non-free repository.

In the end I'm not yet sure what would be my definitive answer to the above question, but I'm interested in this discussion.


When you start coming in to

When you start coming in to the world of GNU/Linux 'Free Software' most likely means software for no price. People new to this world don't know the differences between proprietary, open source and free software. With these ideas in mind I understand why the FSF want's to recommend 'totally' free distributions such as BLAG and gNewSense - if you only make free software available in the repositories it reduces the chance of inadvertent proliferation of proprietary software.

But there are problems with this. Since the new user doesn't know what Free Software is, and they've been using e.g. the Adobe PDF reader on Windows, they go out and download the 'free' version for GNU/Linux which of course is proprietary and all the good of having a free distribution is lost.

On the other hand if someone who knows what Free Software may not need a 'totally' free distribution, they may use e.g. Debian because they can still run a free system with it because they know how not to install proprietary software. I think this is the category which FSF are in. The question is "when are you 'mature' enough to use such a distribution and not install proprietary things on it". The official front via the 'recommended distributions' shows the FSF don't think the rest of us are 'mature' enough, thus in my view they don't trust us as users to make the right decision when it comes to software.

I use Blag since I don't wan't the hassle of reading every license of every tarball which comes my way, or trying to remember if a certain dependency for some software in my package manager is free or not. I know this is lazy, but I just want a computer which is free and works.

Thus from all of this I think the FSF are slightly confused as to who they are targeting their recommended distributions.




"The Free Software Foundation acts as the benevolent force guiding the computer industry."
No, it doesn't. The FSF doesn't care about the "industry", it doesn't "guide" the "industry", either. All the FSF cares about is software licensing and the freedom of software users. Of course the FSF actively exercises political influence in order to achieve their goals. And no, they don't restrict themselves to the "industry", they are going after everyone of us. However, to imply that they "guide" a whole "industry" as a whole for every matter conveivable doesn't sound very educated.

The list of GNU/Linux distros they recommend is quite correct. Only the distributions listed do not include any non-free software in any form. For instance, Debian does include non-free software in two ways atm:
1. There are binary firmware blobs in the kernel that are non-free. This issue will be tackled in etch+1 but the Debian project has decided to compromise for etch itself in order not to delay the release any further.
2. Debian officially maintains the contrib and non-free repositories. Non-free contains software with licenses not compliant to the DFSG but can be distributed over the net legally. Contrib contains software that complies to the DFSG depending on software in non-free.
If you had installed Debian at least once in your life you'd have noticed that the contrib and non-free repos are not included in the default /etc/apt/sources.list

However, FSF's argument is quite right when viewed from their own perspective. FSF doesn't care about nifty bling and working 3d acceleration, they care about freedom. From their point of view, the only distros they can actively recommend are these making explicit efforts to exclude non-free software completely. That doesn't prevent FSF from using Debian as long as they don't enable the contrib and non-free repos. The issue with the binary blobs in the kernel is a wee bit unfortunate, but only a temporary one. That's something FSF can and will have to live with. Alas, until Linus Torvalds started off writing the Linux kernel the only way of running GNU software was to run it on non-free operating systems. According to your argument, even to start writing free software using non-free software as development tools would have been hypocritical. Well, how could the GNU project have been kicked off then in the first place?

You call the FSF a hypocrite, but your argument doesn't support that statement. Their argument is quite sound and has merit.

perhaps it is a problem of attitude


I don't really like when the FSF recommends one distro over another. I think it should either point the finger when it does not agree with some licensing choices or that it should simply state that they are against the inclusion of non free software in linux distros....


charles wrote:

I don't really like when the FSF recommends one distro over another. I think it should either point the finger when it does not agree with some licensing choices or that it should simply state that they are against the inclusion of non free software in linux distros....

Haven't they done that for a million times already?



Why wouldn't Fedora Core be considered free by the FSF?

Digg it


Nonsense problem


I think you are just trying to find wholes in a cheese.

Anyone can prefer something then other thing. Microsoft is doing it all the time.

semantics and firmware


I'm pretty sure it's because official Fedora requires OSI OR FSF license, even though everything actually is both.

Also, Fedora still has the binary firmware.

hypocrit? Of course YES


FSF must to eat your it's food.

What is good for the rest of us is not good for you?

Whatever arguments you have to use Debian, is not valid for the rest of the world?


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