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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.


Stallman needs to give


Stallman needs to give GNU/Linux a rest. It's just Linux. That's what my friends call it. That's what I call it. We can be thinking in our minds "GNU/Linux", but it's just Linux. It's short and easy to say and doesn't confuse people because they thought you said "new Linux". This is all water under the bridge, beating a dead horse kind of thing. None of my friends, nor I, will go around saying GNU/Linux to people.

Stallman may have had some interesting things to say in the past, and perhaps a good movement here or there on some issue, but other than that the man has been proven to be quite the nut. People have posted a video of the man eating toe skin at lectures while someone else is speaking, and he calls it "recursion". In an interview I once read where Stallman was in Europe, the interviewer said that Stallman actually suffers from a psychological condition. When he met with the UN in Tunisia, he showed up with a tinfoil hat on his head because they forced him to wear an RFID chip on a badge. (I agree with his protest, just not the method there on the tinfoil thing.)

Stallman clearly is quite a


Stallman clearly is quite a nonconformist. If he had not been one, do you think he would have made FSF and GNU what they are now? I think it's rather stupid to think if someone behaves different from others, their opinions aren't worth much. It's like saying Clinton was a bad president because he cheated his wife (although I believe that is fairly common behavior Sticking out tongue ). Let's use rational arguments only, shall we?

So after removing the ad hominem bull from your post, two arguments are left:

1) All my friends say "Linux" instead of "GNU/Linux".

Yes, and all my real life friends use MS windows.

2) "GNU/Linux" sounds like "new Linux".

You mumble.

I disagree with you Mike

I disagree with you Mike here, and I think Taco gave you a good response. You don't have to like RMS, nor even agree with him. It's fine by me, but just getting some facts straight would still be nice.

I would actually say that RMS is becoming even more important today than ever before, and even more confirmed and validated than ever. Where is ESR? Cooked up somewhere on Linspire's board plotting how to take over the world by mangling proprietary software with GNU/Linux - aha - really nice long term strategy.

All the while RMS has had a line he followed without wavering to this day, and the Free Software movement he started and, contrary to what you seem to think, continues to lead, has only been getting stronger. If RMS is so irrelevant today then why is his license the biggest thing bothering Microsoft regarding their anti-GNU/Linux strategy? Why are they coming down on GPLv3 lately? Could it perhaps be that this nut you are talking about and people who work along with him have outwitted Microsoft and cornered them to a wall?

RMS is more relevant than ever before, despite his behavior not fitting some limited social norms of today. RMS wrote the original GPL and the whole concept which makes it a license that it is. I think it wouldn't be exaggerating to say that the Free Software movement wouldn't exist or wouldn't go this far if it weren't for him. There probably wouldn't be GNU/Linux to talk about either, considering that most of the core OS is GNU plus Linux kernel added. The rest are non-essential for the basic operation of the system (Xorg, window managers etc.)

As near as I can tell,


As near as I can tell, Debian requires you to actively add the non-free repos to apt. Therefore, if the distro is not etch and you don't have the non-free repos activated then it qualifies as Libre GNU/Linux by the FSF definition. They had to compromise with etch to release it according to their website. What about Sarge? That would be libre and qualify? If you exclude Debian because you have the choice to add non-libre repos and install non-libre software, then SLAG, gNewSense and the others on the FSF's approved list should be logically excluded as well since you have the capability to install non-libre software on each and every one of the FSF's sanctioned distributions.

The way Stallman was quoted explaining the FSF's use of Debian in this thread sounds a little like a definitional retreat fallacy. Debian is not a libre GNU/Linux, but it is Libre because of the way we installed it. Or perhaps hedging as well. "Debian IS not libre GNU/Linux, but we didn't install any of the non-free stuff." So by definition (barring etch being used) Debian GNU/Linux IS a free distribution, or can at least be installed as such, rendering the blanket statement that Debian GNU/Linux is not a libre distro false.

Good points. I'd say that,

Good points.

I'd say that, as far as I understand, the compromises made in etch are in areas where the issues is quite close to the "gray area". A good example which I recently got clarified is a microcode in a Radeon R300 driver which barely even qualifies as "software" because it is not code, but rather a data set, a binary configuration file. Being under a free license gives you all the four freedoms, but lack of the readable version of this dataset is a technical constraint to the freedom to modify.

But the bottom line is that these kinds of cases might, even for the FSF, fall into the "too insignificant to make a fuss over" area (because energy could be better spent elsewhere). Correct me if I'm wrong on that though.

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