Debian, free software, and critical consumption

[ italian version ]

About a month ago I've been interviewed (in Italian) for la Repubblica, a major general-interest Italian newspaper. Below you can find an English translation of the interview, kindly contributed by Matteo Cortese.

Questions and comments in bold or italic are by Giulia Belardelli, answers by yours truly.

Free Software moving forward

Don't give up control

(by Giulia Belardelli)

Stefano Zacchiroli, leader of the well-known Debian project for a free operating system, warns the youngsters: "Be vigilant about what is organizing your life." The recipe for changing: education and critical thinking.

When he began hacking with open source, Stefano was little more than a child. Back then, while studying Computer Science at the University of Bologna, he could not imagine that in ten years he would find himself at the lead of Debian, one of the most important projects for the distribution of free software: an establishment for anybody who grasps the fundamentals of the open source universe. Today Stefano lives in Paris, where, besides coordinating a lively community of programmers, he teaches Computer Science at the University Paris Diderot. contacted him to learn the present of free software, and to try to imagine its future. A future where — Zacchiroli warns — users will have to develop their own critical thinking, or they risk losing a bit of their freedom day after day.

Let's start from here. How can software impact our freedom?

The software is free when the user has full control over it. Whether such software runs on a computer, tablet, phone or TV set, it really does not matter. Freedom means being able to use it with no limitations of purpose, to copy it, and, what is most important, to examine how it works, to access its source code and to change it. Every programmer can understand the source code, while the binary code is not very useful. Accessing the source code means enabling the programmer to change the software and give the modified version back to the community, as an act of collaboration.

Any example from our daily life…?

Take a toaster. Fifty years ago, any moderately skilled craftsman could fix a broken toaster or adjust it to a different power outlet. Today, if you take a toaster that runs proprietary software, you do not have this possibility anymore. Software has brought us countless opportunities that used to be impossible, but people often fail to understand this difficult concept: we cannot do much with proprietary software; it is like owing an object but being allowed to actually access only a small part of it. As software increases its penetration in devices that we daily use, I don't see why users should abdicate the control over their objects, and thus their freedom. The goal should rather be to extend our control to whichever software-operated device we use. We see plenty of those: from computers to phones, from cars to airplanes, up to pace-makers and other medical equipment that we literally depend on to survive.

Through which steps an open source program is born and is distributed?

Free software is all about how programs are released: the author can decide whether to release his software under a "free" license. Then there are "distributions": projects that collect pieces of software developed by different people, put them together and make them available to final users. That results in easier installation of an operating system, simpler search for new software, quicker upgrades.

Since 2010 you have been leading the Debian project, one of the first initiatives of development and distribution of free software.

Debian was born in 1993 and has been one of the first distributions in the world. It has been the first to adopt the concept of "community", understanding that a free software distribution reaches its full potential when it is maintained not by two-three people, but rather by a complete group. Ours is made up of volunteers: today the project has over 1000 members and 3-4000 contributors from all around the world. Together, we cooperate to build a completely free operating system that we call "Debian". A lot of members come from universities: students, researchers, professors. Many are system administrators, geeks, hackers and technology fans. Some are from humanities. Debian may be cited as a working example of a political society. Everything works according to the principles of democracy; there is a mentoring and examination process to get in. Membership compares to citizenship: each member becomes a citizen of the Debian society, based on a true constitution. A social contract also rules the voting mechanism: the leader is elected by citizens every year. There are procedures for applying as a candidate, campaigning in a more or less political fashion, and finally voting. This is peculiar to Debian: other distributions usually are a mix of business-driven companies and community.

How many distribution projects are there today? What are the most promising ones?

To date, the most popular is undoubtedly Ubuntu, which actually is 90% based on Debian. They take our distribution and built a new system upon it (this is the beauty about free software!) [initially] targeting home desktop users. Others are SuSE, Red Hat, Fedora, and other hundreds, each one with its own targeted audience and peculiarities.

It is hard for not expert people to understand why free software is spread everywhere, even in non-free programs or systems. Can you explain why?

Whoever believes in free software, agrees that the software is a common good: the product, once finished, is for everybody. There are no restrictions on the possible uses of the software. It just happens that one of the possible uses is making money out of it. This is why free software is present in many commercial products. There might be liabilities, like the commitment to share any change back with the community, but nothing that makes reuse illegal. Therefore there are many companies that show huge interests in our work. The sponsors of our conferences are Google, IBM, HP, or the company behind Ubuntu which is a ~500 employees corporation. The amusing thing is that these big companies mostly depend on the work done by us, 1000 brave volunteers.

Apple is missing in this list: it is considered hostile to fee software.

I think the key of Apple's success was its ability to convert computers users from "content producers" to "content consumers". If you add its fanatical attention to details, you may well say that its supremacy is well deserved. But personally, I think that Apple is harming its users. To begin with, we do not know what their devices do. For example, iPhones were reported to track their users' movements: quite scary if you ask me. Then there is the question about DRM (Digital Rights Management): whenever we buy a song from iTunes, we do not know whether we will own it forever, and we cannot lend it to a friend. Instead, when we buy a CD we know that it will be ours forever. Apple transformed its appstore (a concept born with distributions some 15 years ago) into a censorship device: the software available for the iPhone is not decided by the users, it must be formally approved by Apple. Compare this with the Android world, where non-official stores are available, too.

Beside freedom, what are the other advantages of free software with respect to proprietary one? Why someone talks of alleged superiority of free software?

For quite some time we have known that free software has nothing less than proprietary one. Right the opposite! I would refrain from making generic statements, as there are proprietary programs very well written and others very badly coded. But regarding security, we know that free software has important advantages. Everything is visible, so although the evil hackers (crackers) might potentially have more chances to find flaws, there is a lot more people checking and fixing. Generally speaking, a company whose core business is proprietary software has an interest in hiding security issues, as they may undermine its reputation. With free software, instead, everything is already visible and there is no interest in hiding.

So why, despite all these advantages, the free operating systems are not widely spread among most users?

Today, there is no rational reason why a Linux-based operating system should be less popular than Windows or Mac. Some bleeding-edge hardware might still lack full support in Linux, but it is usually solved pretty quickly. What really matters, usually, is the cost of the change. We belong to the first generation that grew up with computers. Unfortunately many of us learned to use it in a "visual" way: we got accustomed to the idea that, in order to achieve a certain result, we must click on a certain icon. If the icon shows a different emblem on it, we panic and we do not know what to do. This is a problem with education, mainly. Usability tests have proven that computer neophytes find many Linux-based user interfaces friendlier than their proprietary counterparts. At home, I made parents and grandparents use Debian with no issues at all.

How can we "educate" users?

We must change the way we teach computer science at all levels, to both basic and advanced users, and we must stimulate critical thinking. A contribution may come from the argument about privacy that is getting momentum on newspapers. Users begin to realize that if Facebook and Twitter give away accounts "for free", they are getting something precious in return. Similarly, they are becoming aware that you cannot be free when you have no control over your data. These are steps in the right direction, because they stimulate us to wonder who is actually controlling the software we use.

Do you think Italy is particularly behind others, in this regard?

We are behind countries like France and Germany. If free software were more widespread, many small companies could rise and specialize in modifying and optimizing certain software. Such scenario would have a positive influence on the IT labor side, without the artificial barriers imposed by the inaccessibility of the source code. In Italy we do have companies offering such services, but their number is still low. The issue is also a political one: the Government and the Public Administration should be the first ones to turn to free software, as there is nothing worse than seeing tax money wasted in developing and maintaining non-free software. How can we shift mentality? Focusing on the competence of skilled people, who — after all — are not missing in Italy.