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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.


This is a really clueless post.


In essence, the position taken by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation is that:

a) They do not use non-free software unless it is absolutely needed as a base for developing Free replacements. For example, in the early years of the GNU project, proprietary Unix was used as a development platform for creating replacement Free Software. Since modern GNU/Linux distributions contain a complete set of development tools, this is no longer necessary.

b) The do not recommend non-free software to anyone. When they make lists of recommended GNU/Linux distributions, they exclude distros like Debian and Ubuntu that include optional proprietary components, since they rightly regard proprietary software as a trap to be avoided. An inexperienced user of a distro like Ubuntu may come to depend on certain optional proprietary components without being aware of it, so they cannot recommend these. The separation between Free and non-free is more carefully preserved by Debian (who make it easy to avoid the latter), which is probably why they use it themselves.

As far as I know, they have been faithful to this policy for years, so... what is this "hypocrisy" you speak of? Their words and actions are entirely consistent. Rather than Debian, the FSF could just as well use SuSE or Ubuntu without any hypocrisy, provided they did not themselves make use of any optional, non-free components.

The FSF provides a list of completely Free Software distros as a convenience to those who are looking for one. Whether or not that list includes a distro that is useful for you, them, or anyone else will probably depend on your specific technical requirements and abilities. I doubt very much whether they care whether or not anyone uses a particular distribution; what they do care about is whether or not people are creating and/or using Free Software.

Can you grasp the difference?



I am a big supporter of GNU and the FSF, I mention something about Free Software all the time. Unfortunately, I have to agree with this article. The FSF should not be recommending something to others, and not doing it themselves.

No, you don't have a proper


No, you don't have a proper understanding of Debian then.

Debian puts all its non-free applications under non-free/ section for the use of its users. But it doesn't recommend or support.

In simple, Debian primarily is main/ and that is what RMS is trying to explain.

As far as putting it on the list is concerned, the distros listed are the ones which don't support non-free/ at all. Thus it makes sense to have them listed.



You expect way too much from a distribution that was just released and has no more than two or three active developers. Replacing Firefox is on the list of things to do.

Give it time.

The biggest difference between gNewSense and Ubuntu is that gNewSense DOES have ALL the binary blobs removed. A significant amount of work went into removing all the drivers and firmware in the kernel. All the software installed by gNewSense is free, and there is no ability (through the packaging system and official repositories) to install non-free software. THAT is the point, not whether or not the gNewSense developers have had the time to make sure Firefox doesn't recommend the installation of Macromedia's player (replacing firefox is on the todo list, I believe).

Good point about maturity


The FSF runs web servers that see a large amount of traffic. Even if they recommended gNewSense--do they? for all purposes?--it is still new and it might be premature to jump off their working platform right away. Who is to say they're not working on a move right now?

comment threads

As it usually goes with controversial negative-leaning issues, this story has gotten quite a bit of attention around the related web. Just for the record here are the two interesting thread links:


@ BLAG forums.

You can find the author of the article at BLAG forums. Interestingly the topic there has been titled as "bad press for Libervis". Oh well, maybe, for those who read this, I should again note that articles published here are opinions of their authors. Bad press or not, freedom of speech is what matters here.

Oh and there seems to be a portugese translation as well.

If LXer links to a piece of


If LXer links to a piece of MS FUD, is that bad press for LXer? Eye

I can see a problem though:

LWN wrote:

Libervis asks why the FSF sites...

Libervis never asks anything. Sure, libervisco, the mods, and the regular users have some opinions similar to each other and so sometimes they ask the same questions, but that doesn't mean everything published on Libervis is the shared opinion of our group.

The funny thing is..


..that I heard Stallman recommending Debian in an Interview once.
And saying how it completely consisted of free software and "will not try to subjugate you".
All that while the non-free section was already there.



When was that?

Richard Addressed This Point at a Recent UC-Berkeley talk


Hi, Mr. Stallman addressed this in a recent talk given to the EECS department at UC-Berkeley on Friday, Feb 23. His argument (don't shoot the messenger) was that it's a matter of what the distribution *chooses to endorse* through inclusion in the package listings.


Kevin Schultz
Citrus Heights, CA

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