Short version: Dear FSF, thanks for your appreciation of Debian Squeeze achievements in getting rid of non-free firmware blobs. We still disagree on the overall freeness assessment of Debian, but I'm positive that steps like this one can further future collaboration, in the interest of both projects.

Long version follows.

Historically, the relationships among Debian and the FSF have gone through mixed fortune (and that's quite an euphemism). On the one hand, Debian is committed to 100% Free Software, is an open project explicitly inspired by "the spirit of GNU", has been sponsored by FSF in its infancy, and properly calls itself "GNU/Linux" (or even "GNU/kFreeBSD"). On the other hand, Debian is the project who considers the GNU FDL license to be only conditionally free and which is not considered to be an entirely Free system according to FSF.
So much for the history corner.

As a long time member of the Debian Project, as well as an FSF(E) fellow, I've always felt a bit sad about this state of affairs. Not because the two projects should have aligned goals; they clearly focus on different aspects of the quest for a Free (Software) world. Not even because they should agree on how to build a Free distribution: history has shown that FSF technical positions do not always get along with Debian's more "pragmatic" style, as embodied by point 5 of the Social Contract. Rather, my sadness is rooted in the belief that not getting along have encouraged duplication of efforts which could have been easily avoided (e.g. multiple distributions concurrently freeing up kernels).

Furthermore, I'm more and more convinced that Debian nowadays enjoys a rather privileged position among Free Software vendors. Indeed, even though GNU/Linux distributions have reached a popularity we didn't dare to imagine 15 years ago or so, most distributions are under the direct or indirect control of commercial vendors. Those commercial vendors play a very important role in the promotion of Free Software. For instance, they are structured in ways that enable them to seal OEM deals with hardware manufacturers to sell computers with GNU/Linux pre-installed. Commercial vendors, by their own nature, are also in general better at marketing than non-commercial vendors. On the flip side however, commercial vendors are not yet relevant enough to drive proprietary drivers out of the market and, as a consequence, cannot yet afford not to support hardware which need such proprietary bits to work. Among mainstream GNU/Linux distributions[1] Debian is one of the very few vendors—if not the only one—that is both very relevant and, thanks to its independence, can afford taking Free Software's side: no commercial urgency can force Debian to negotiate on that. That is quite an asset to be used in the promotion of Free Software, especially to a public that is interested in and willing to understand what Free Software really is about. Such an "aware" public is on the rise as of lately, together with the general awareness increase of risks entailed by living a digital life, when that life is not under our control (think, as an example, at how often the "Facebook privacy debate" has hit mainstream medias in the last year). The "aware" public is the natural target of both Debian and the FSF. Dividing it would not serve well the cause of Free Software.

With all that in mind, last August I took the chance of being on the "right" side of the Atlantic Ocean for DebConf10, to discuss possible venues of collaboration among Debian and the FSF. I sat down and discussed at length with John Sullivan, who I happen to know for his Debian involvement, in his capacities of FSF representative and operations manager. We discussed various topics, with the intention of bringing them up to the respective communities[2]. Then, inevitably, we ended up talking about the overall freeness of Debian and his exclusion from FSF listing of Free systems. (FSF is of course entitled to such judgements, pretty much as Debian is entitled to its own judgements on FSF licenses. Nevertheless those judgements contribute to dividing our public and might lead to wasteful duplication of efforts, where Free Software could better be served by collaboration.) The main ground for exclusion from that list used to be the compromises Debian has made in the past about non-free firmware blobs. But, as I pointed out back in August, those compromises would have been gone starting with Squeeze, making that argument moot.

Today—6 months later—I'm delighted to cheer at FSF's decision to publicly recognize the achievements Debian has delivered with Squeeze.
Thanks! It's a nice gesture that I've very much appreciated. I'm confident steps like this one will help future collaboration if, on both sides, we will be able to spot actual venues for collaboration.

Needlessly to say, I still disagree with the overall FSF assessment of Debian non-freeness. Apparently, it still stands on the basis that Debian also provides a repository of nonfree software […] [which] is “not part of the Debian system.” […] but users would be hard-pressed to make a distinction and that people can readily learn about software available through it by browsing Debian's online package database. I respect the principle of non advertising non-free software and I even agree that it is a good principle. But unfortunately it's also a very blurry principle on which, in my opinion, Debian actually scores very well. No non-free software is offered to users by Debian; it's just for users that really want to have non-free software (or need to, in order to run a Free OS on their computers), that Debian tries to stay out of their way. For the "aware" public discussed above, I think it's much better to draw the line where software freedom ends and use that line to explain what does crossing it entails, than locking them up pretending non-free software do not exist. But fair enough: for the time being, I guess, we will need to agree to disagree on this one.

Getting a little bit closer in the occasion of the Squeeze release is still an important step forward. It's up to each of us now to seek out initiatives which attract the interest of both projects and that can benefit from synergies.

[1] Sorry, I've no decent definition of "mainstream distribution" to offer, besides folklore and well-established distribution review sites. (Heck, I don't even have a decent definition of "well-established distribution review site" to offer!).
[2] which hasn't happened yet, due to the proverbial amount of available spare time.


Would the FSF be pleased if the default section of the search engine on is switched from "any" to "main"?

Comment by Vincent Bernat Mon 21 Feb 2011 02:08:13 PM CET
Joining forces is something that we still must continue learning in the FLOSS world. I really like your respectful-but-yet-real-and-complete approach to it. Let's hope we can all do interact like this.
Comment by Lisandro Damián Nicanor Pérez Meyer Mon 21 Feb 2011 02:37:50 PM CET

I am also an FSF follower and feel very disappointed with the decision of not including Debian to the list of free software distributions. I don't recall if non-free is by default included in sources.lst (if this is the case it would be nice to change it in the future so that it is not included) but still Debian makes clear what non-free is and I don't think that it encourages the users to use non-free software in any case. The lack of support and security updates for non-free makes things even more discouraging for users that want to use non-free software.

Thank you FSF, but please reconsider adding Debian to because GNU/Linux newbies do never choose to pick the distributions that you recommend. Instead, they choose to use distributions like Ubuntu which harm the community much more by killing all the philosophical aspects of using free software for the sake of popularity...

Comment by faif Sat 26 Feb 2011 11:49:52 AM CET

I don't recall if non-free is by default included in sources.lst (if this is the case it would be nice to change it in the future so that it is not included)

JFTR, neither "non-free" nor "contrib" are enabled by default in any Debian installation. Only "main" (i.e. the "real" Debian) is enabled by default.
The same is true for installation media: by default you only get Free Software, down to the firmware level.

To fetch stuff from "non-free", or even "contrib" (which is Free Sofware per se, although it might depend on stuff from "non-free"), users should know it exists and explicitly look for it.

Comment by zack Sat 26 Feb 2011 06:41:37 PM CET

Both contrib and non-free repos are disabled by default on Debian.

The user is presented with the option to enable them during installation, but there's an educative text that precedes the question.

IMO, Debian is doing very well in the Free Software front, and it would be really nice of FSF to recognise that!

Comment by Cassiano Leal Tue 01 Mar 2011 03:45:29 PM CET
Debian makes life difficult for those who need non-free firmware and don't know how to get hold of it during installation. I think an exception should be made for the package firmware-linux-nonfree; it should be included on all CDs, etc.. This is more important than keeping FSF happy which Debian failed to do anyway. Ironically, they recommend distributions based on Debian but not Debian itself!
Comment by R S Chakravarti Wed 02 Mar 2011 07:18:18 AM CET
After thinking for some time about it, I think the name “Debian GNU/Linux” does not really make sense. Debian is a project of its own, with strong roots in the GNU project but also benefiting from programs and culture from other projects like X, BSD, Linux, Xfce/GNOME/KDE, and so on. I don’t think or talk about it as a Linux distribution, but as a free operating system, with a linux kernel as implementation detail. I just call it “Debian”. :)
Comment by Éric Araujo Mon 07 Mar 2011 09:49:03 AM CET

I agree with you zack - Debian should try to cooperate as much as possible with the FSF but it does have a different, more pragmatic mandate. That mandate is one of Debian's core values "putting the user first" and should continue to be front and center for Debian. Having non-free repositories for the many people who need them is an example of putting the user first. The FSF (to whom I contribute, and I am also a fellow of the FSFE) has a different mandate. Their mandate is to put the principle of freedom first and inevitably as we transition from a proprietary software world to a free software world, we are going to find conflicts between these two mandates.

The best we can do is have the kind of dialog that you have initiated, remain true to our social contract, and continue to put the user first. Other things, like the philosophies of various groups, are beyond Debian's control.

Comment by jeremiah Tue 08 Mar 2011 11:22:59 AM CET

I just wanted to say that I have been using Debian on servers for years, and I quite happily ignore the contrib and non-free repositories.

Not only are they not enabled by default, they aren't even listed in the default apt/sources.list file.

As a supporter of both the Debian Project and the Free Software Foundation, I hope that both sides will continue to work together to promote the strong alignment of their interests and values.

Comment by Chris Snyder Mon 18 Apr 2011 06:33:15 PM CEST

I've been a Debian user for the last five months, coming from Ubuntu, and I've never seen any community making such an effort to come closer to Freedom. I find it courageous how you have been fighting for a fully free Debian install and apt configuration.

It may be of your interest this Debian forums post (original taken from the FSF user forums):

As far as I've seen, the only reason why the FSF doesn't endorse Debian is because of the official contrib and non-free repos. But making them "unofficial" wouldn't make the trick, since they want the fully free distros to eliminate any kind of propietary software when detected. Although I think there is another freedom, the one to choose whether or not to have propietary software installed, as long as you understand the risks and problems that it may cause.

Well, just wanted to show my appreciation for your work. Good luck!


Comment by danielmarti Sat 14 May 2011 03:22:01 PM CEST