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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.


Further Hypocrisies


Further hypocrisies:

The FSF just officially sanctioned GNU Sense as their official distro. It is based on the commercial distro Ubuntu, which has its roots in Debian.

I thought I would try GNU Sense after hearing RMS on a talk show, where he was castigating anyone who would use "flash" in their browser. The first thing I tried was to see how well "gnash" was working now. And, since this was an official FSF sanctioned distro, surely installing "GNASH" would be no problem. Guess again! Firefox tried to install flash! Not only that, but I couldn't find gnash anywhere in the GNU Sense repositories.

I have communicated with RMS on quite a few occasions. He requires that you run the gauntlet of semantical minutia, and will pounce on any references made that aren't just so.

So, is my mention of the fact that the FSF is officially supporting a commercial Debian variant, and even it doesn't offer any alternative to flash, in any way nitpicking? Not when you're playing by RMS's rules it isn't!!


Anonymous wrote:

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

Fedora is currently doing an audit of the software they distribute, so as to verify they only ship Free-software. The audit for Fedora Core was just finished a couple of months ago, and several non-free packages were removed from the distribution. They are about to begin an audit of the packages in Fedora Extras (which should be a lot easier, since the review process for new packages includes verifying that it's under a free licence before inclusion).

For more information refer to:

Quote: I thought I would


I thought I would try GNU Sense after hearing RMS on a talk show, where he was castigating anyone who would use "flash" in their browser. The first thing I tried was to see how well "gnash" was working now. And, since this was an official FSF sanctioned distro, surely installing "GNASH" would be no problem. Guess again! Firefox tried to install flash! Not only that, but I couldn't find gnash anywhere in the GNU Sense repositories.

You're catching on straws. GNewSense is still a work in progress, as basically any software in development. They plan on replacing Firefox with IceWeasel which wont encourage downloading flash.

However, by running Firefox you are still running Free Software. Just because it allows for or even encourages installation of a non-free package doesn't mean that you have to do that. The same goes for Debian.

I don't actually agree with that FSF is being a hypocrite for not recommending Debian and yet using it. All they promote is use of only Free Software. Recommending distros that do not encourage installing any non-free software perfectly fits that goal. It is just a recommendation, not an order, not a sacred letter of some sort. If you recommend something to someone, does that mean you absolutely must be using that exact thing or else you are a hypocrite?

It is a question of separating out non-free stuff.


I have never come across such a misinformed blog.

You are the one who is being a hypocrite here. All Stallman and the FSF are doing is simply to separate the free and non-free stuff so you know what you are installing - they are not preventing you from using anything. This is very important because it governs how products can be distributed. To do this without accidentally infringing on licenses (GPL as well as non-free licenses of various types) requires the repositories to be separated. This is how free software distributions like Fedora, Debian, and Gentoo are shipped. Novell also does this with OpenSuSE. This is simply for your own protection and convenience. You add the repositories and packages which are non-free yourself, so you know when you are violating licenses or laws associated with the non-free, export restricted, or DMCA restricted. It does not stop you using non-free software, nor should it. Unlike Windows or Apple OSX, with Linux you have incredible flexibility over what packages you choose, and it is simply not practical to go through each and every package and library to check and agree it's license. Therefore if FSF did not push for this separation according to license, Linux would become unusable because of license administration issues.

is it hypocrisy?


The list published by the FSF lists the distributions that do not contain non-free software. QED. Its simply a categorised list. The list is either correct or it is not. That the FSF runs a distro not on the list does not invalidate the list.

You might equally well produce a list of distros that have a default blue wallpaper. If the group that produces the list of blue-wallpaper distros runs one with a red wallpaper - so what?

I think Stallman is simply identifying these all-free distros as a guide for those that do not want to have a distro conatining any non-free software. His ultimate goal is to achieve a situation where free software is all pervasive and one never needs to use non-free software, but that goal is not yet achieved and compromises have to be made.
But the list is still valid regardless.

Quote:I have never come


I have never come across such a misinformed blog.

I should note that the content on this "blog" is not necessarily written by one author. It depends on submissions. If you have something of significance to say we will publish it even if the main editor (erm.. me) disagrees with the view presented. Freedom of speech no less! Eye

Back to topic.

"Debian Etch will as far as


"Debian Etch will as far as I know include certain binary blobs in the system by default"

Nothing new: Debian has always contained these. Do you even realize the amount of work that goes into releasing a huge multi-arch OS like Debian? It's never perfect.

Even Further


Stallman insists that all Linux distributions be called GNU/Linux. However, most distributions have elements that are not GPL and GNU compatible. I would think that he should instead insist that only distributions that meet the full criteria of GNU and GPL compatibility be called GNU/Linux. By including non-free software in his definition this creates a contradiction. It also puts him on shaky legal grounds if someone uses that term GPL and GNU for something that is not free and FSF has not enforced the proper use of their name.

Joe Kaplenk

They are holier than thou.


They are holier than thou apparently.

There is a difference


There is a difference between the two situations: In one, you don't have an alternative to non-free software. In the second, you decide some distro is not recommendable, yet you use it, despite the fact that there are alternatives which work just as well. There is the inconsistency claimed by the article. Personally I don't care much, but it does seem contradictory.
Also, Debian officially is only the main repository. contrib and non-free are extensions. Quote from
All packages that are included in the official Debian distribution are free according to the Debian Free Software Guidelines. This assures free use and redistribution of the packages and their complete source code. The official Debian distribution is what is contained in the main section of the Debian archive.

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