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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.


Indeed. You can pretty

Indeed. You can pretty easily stay 100% free with Debian and many other distros, but that doesn't mean that they will be recommendable by FSF because they may in a practical way at least endorse distribution of non-free software (even if it is not in the default install).

To see whether it fits for FSF's list a good way to check would be to compare it to gNewSense, which not only doesn't endorse distribution of non-free software officially, but modifies any reference to non-free software in free packages. It basically shows what are people behind the distro really dedicated to and whether their goals include a 100% Free OS.

It is all about the blobs


The optional components are really not much of an issue as far as I am concerned. At least not if they are not installed by default. What IS a huge problem however is if the default kernel is tainted with non-free blobs. This is a far greater problem because it corrupts the very core of your system, it runs at all times, and there is no way to avoid it without manually stripping the kernel of hundreds of non-free components and then recompile it. This is more than good enough reason for the FSF not to recomend Debian, and it will probably change in etch+1. However, the non-free optional components is really not something they ought to lecture about given that even some of their own licenses ( read, GFDL ) have optional non-free sections. The moment debian removes the blobs from its default kernel I'm switching, because it is probably by far the distribution that has provided one of the best free software systems in existence, and that they allow the user to make his choice about non-free components is not an argument against them as there are quite a few cases of free software that will not work to its full extent without some of thsoe non-free components. I have yet to see a laptop running exclusively on hardware supported by free drivers as an example.

I really don't see this


I really don't see these blobs as a huge problem, because they are on the border between hardware and software. If they were burned into a chip of the device they are used for, then no one would notice them. I see these blobs as an external firmware, something completely different from the drivers.

If they work and cause no problems, then I'd say it's all good. It would be better if those blobs were really in the hardware, but I think this is a small difference. The core of the system is already corrupted anyway, with all the non-free firmwares running around, bios and such. These are mostly changeable (ie flashable) binary blobs too. Will anyone stop using their computer because of them? I doubt so.

Anyway, aren't those blobs active only when you have some specific hardware that needs them? If so, then Debian is simply doing its best to support the hardware that is out there. These blobs are bad for you (but needed) only if you have the hardware that needs them, which definitely isn't Debian's fault.

I don't see what is so wrong with the mere presence of these blobs, if they are distributable but not actually being used on the system in question. For example, would you consider that downloading some freeware (proprietary but free to distribute software) and then putting it in some obscure corner of your hard drive without ever using it is somehow unethical or exposes you to proprietary software? I think that would be a big stretch.

There was much talk lately on Libervis about compromising temporarily for the greater good. I think that Debian shipping some blobs in one of its releases is a perfect example of a tiny compromise that is good for many people and only slightly inconveniences the rest (if at all).

December 8th 1997


Stallman made an additional remark about Linux. Many different distributions are available, and one day, he tried to install one of them called "SUSE". He noticed that SUSE installed non-free (from a GPL point of view) software, but didn't tell you so. They were concealing the fact that non-GPL software was being installed on your computer. Asked about this, the SUSE people told RMS that it was intentional, that they didn't regard this detail as important, but that mentioning it might worry people and discourage them from using SUSE. Bottom line : RMS says "Don't Use SUSE" (for those interested, he recommends the Debian, which is one of the rare things him and I agree on :-)).

From the first page of Google results, search was "stallman recommends debian" (without the quotes).



It's worth bearing in mind that even though the software maybe free,the hardware that its installed on certainly isn't, and will be couvered by hundreds of patents and restrictions.
The key is to take a balanced view between the worthy ideals of the FSF and functionality.
If users can't play mp3 files or watch video files they will quickly give up on Linux and stay with a proprietory OS. Once Linux has a larger user base hardware manufacturers will be keener not only to support linux but to open source drivers as Intel do already.
Propreitory file formats such as mp3/wma/aac are all most casual pc users have heard of,once they discover how much better .ogg files are and the smaller file size of Open Office documents there will be more pressure for totally free file formats.
There is already interested in Europe in government and commercial circles for interopability and open standards,as well as large scale Linux deployment on the desktop.
It's no good slagging of the competition,in this case proprietory alternatives,in flame war's and comming across as zealots and extremists,no-one likes extremists of any kind,and the vast majority of people won't listen then.What we need to have is reasoned statements such as "free software benefits everyone because of this,this and this" and look how good this GPL licened software is.

Quote:If users can't play


If users can't play mp3 files or watch video files they will quickly give up on Linux and stay with a proprietory OS.

Get up to speed, this is already possible with Free Software (yes, most popular video formats and mp3s).


in flame war's and comming across as zealots and extremists,no-one likes extremists of any kind,and the vast majority of people won't listen then.

Sure not, but striving for 100% Free Software is no extremism, although I would suppose it depends on where you are looking from. Those on the one extreme side will rather view the ones on the opposite side as extremists. Who will determine which is the right side?

I don't respond well to being branded an extremist for what I am believing, especially considering how relative this is.


What we need to have is reasoned statements such as "free software benefits everyone because of this,this and this" and look how good this GPL licened software is.

I agree with that. And that's what every good Free Software advocate, including idealists, does. Besides, with freedom all around, everyone wins. That's the whole point. Otherwise it's not freedom we seek, but undeserved amount of power (it's when you ask for more freedom for yourself than others, which is power not freedom).


We are not perfect beings, we can make mistakes. All we can do is strive to be as good as we can be. Continuous improvement requires an open mind, and sometimes we need to change our mind. Prevailing circumstances may at times prevent us from implementing our ethics fully.

Despite not having a record of having always been true to our beliefs, we must share our beliefs in discourse and try to help others to improve, this can be called hypocrisy. I welcome that, it is for the greater good, whereas the alternative of silence upon imperfection is not.

Let's not create a requirement that anyone taking a position must be, and always have been, in everything they say and do, the living embodiment of that ideal in it's perfect state. If that were the rule Rosa Parks would've given up her seat to that white man as usual.

Good point. Maybe there

Good point. Maybe there could be a better world for it than "hypocrisy" though.

Anyway, I'm not sure Rosa Parks is the best example. The ideal that she should be treated equally was probably prioritized by her to the ideal of being nice to all people and giving up her seat. Well, at least if I understand it correctly.

The point you're making leads to an interesting question; if we sometimes fail to live up completely to the ideal we believe in, should that mean we should give up the ideal? What exactly is the better way to go? Of course, the conclusion is that ideals ought to be kept despite our inability to sometimes live up to them fully.

As long as we're striving, we can be genuine about it.

Yes 'hypocrisy' has negative


Yes 'hypocrisy' has negative connotations, that's fair enough where a person is simply a liar, saying one thing but covertly doing another in a cynical way.

Rosa Parks is a deliberate example to highlight when the word hypocrisy is taken to unfair extremes. The day she refused to move, she could have been accused of hypocrisy because she may have given up her seat on previous occasions (not sure if that's true, but she definitely said she used to pay at the front, step off and re-enter by the back door - the blacks entrance). She was a secretary for the NAACP for a few years already, and had experienced traveling on a federal bus without segregation, but during that time went along with segregation on the local Montgomery buses (in fairness often walked too).

But who would seriously call Rosa Parks a hypocrite? That's the point, in many cases it's a totally unfair simplification to bandy that word about on technical grounds given it's contemporary negative connotations, so I was going for a thought-provoking challenge rather than a genuine attempt to change the worlds perception of the word.

You got the wider view anyway, whether those who accuse the FSF and RMS do is another question :-)

I understand now about the

I understand now about the example.

Thanks Smiling

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