Debian Doubletalk

Sat, 16 Nov 2013

I was recently re-reading the Debian Project's Social Contract. It seems good, until you start thinking about it.

I have no reason to doubt what their Social Contract says. It is, after all, an official document. I also have no reason to doubt what Debian Developers say either. Both of these seems like official and reliable sources to me.

In listening to Debian Developers I hear them say that people are on their own if they decide to go and install proprietary software on their computer but this seems to conflict with their Social Contract. In regard to proprietary software it specifically says that "we support their use."

Their Social Contract goes on to say that the Debian Project provides "infrastructure for non-free packages (such as our bug tracking system and mailing lists)." This means that people can file bugs against these packages and get things fixed or new features added, and even get help with using these proprietary programs on official mailing lists maintained by the Debian Project.

This seems to match with their Social Contract, that the Debian Project supports proprietary software but it seems to conflict with what Debian Developers say that people are on their own. I'm not sure why they say that. Perhaps they misspoke. Either way, the available evidence does seem consistent that the Debian Project does actually support proprietary software by helping people to install and use it and even says so in their Social Contract.

It appears that it's not just limited to just support. The classic piece of proprietary software is the one that comes in binary form only with no source code and a license prohibiting modification, redistribution, etc. Not everything in Debian's "non-free" repository is like that: Some do come with source code and can actually be modified but are in that repository for some other reason to do with the Debian Project's guidelines.

Since people are able to file bug reports against these packages (since the Debian Project does officially support it), Debian Developers are then able to make changes to them to fix those things, or to add additional features to them (such as bugs tagged as "wishlist.")

I'll skip over talking about how proprietary software mistreats people and why developing and distributing proprietary software is an unethical activity as these are issues well known within the free software world already.

In doing these things, if you think about it, Debian Developers are engaging in the process of developing proprietary software and therefore behaving unethically.

It's worse than that. In addition to developing proprietary software the Debian Project also distributes it, thereby engaging in another unethical activity. The Debian Project doesn't deny that they engage in any of these activities. It seems that the Debian Project instead tries to distance themselves from this by stating in their Social Contract that these packages are not "part" of the Debian GNU/Linux distribution. The Debian GNU/Linux distribution is often considered a 100% free distribution because of this statement. Is it really? Can you really behave in unethical ways and then simply wash your hands of it, saying that it's not your fault if someone installs proprietary software as a result of your actions of distributing it and telling people how to install it? The distribution is only 100% free if you accept their argument that it is and only evaluate a subset of the activities that the Debian Project is doing. The argument quickly falls apart if you examine everything that the Project is doing. It certainly isn't necessary to consider everything that project members do in their lives -- just what they do in their official duties as part of the Debian Project.

As I see it all that the Debian Project has done is draw a circle around certain packages -- the inclusion of which would normally make them a non-free distro -- and then flip an administrative switch saying that the packages inside said circle are somehow not "part" of the distribution.

Let's think on this. What if, for example, Canonical decided to move all of Ubuntu's proprietary software packages into a repository called non-free? What if they then decided to not enable that repository by default and then make a public statement that those packages are not "part" of the distribution? Yes, I understand that there are additional issues beyond proprietary software (like spying) but in this hypothetical example, all such problematic software would go into non-free.

Well, they're already part of the way there because Ubuntu does in fact have a repository called non-free. All that's missing is a couple of more steps. Keep in mind that Ubuntu would not need to stop supporting non-free software in any way, since Debian also supports it, or make any other changes to what they currently do. They could even offer to turn on that repository for people if it were needed because Debian does this in their installer and also talks of it in their documentation.

This makes me wonder: If the project behind a distribution is able to support, develop and distribute proprietary software while at the same time redefining what constitutes their distribution so as to be considered 100% free then can't all distros do the same thing and make the same claim? Would we then not be required to accept them as being 100% free if they do these very same actions that Debian has done so as to avoid being hypocritical? Is it not becoming too easy for a distribution to say that they're 100% free?

Of course not. A distribution that is committed to freedom means that they behave in an ethical manner. Part of that means not developing or distributing proprietary software, regardless of how they might try to excuse or disclaim it. Being 100% free is more than a question of what packages live where, whether those packages are "part" of the distribution or not, whether a repository is "on" by default or not, how people are "warned" before installing proprietary software, etc.

Some have said to me that they need proprietary software in order for some peripheral to work or in order to do some particular task. Some have claimed that if the price of admission into the free world is that someone can't, for example, use their WiFi then we'll have fewer people using free software. When people make these arguments I am reminded of Bradley Kuhn's article called "Have To" Is a Relative Phrase. To these people I say that there can sometimes be hard choices to make but proprietary software can't be the answer because proprietary software is the problem. Furthermore, more people using free software doesn't necessarily mean more people believing in free software ideals. It's almost more important to spread the ideals of free software than the actual software itself. People will naturally start using the latter if they believe in the former.

Ultimately, the Debian Project doesn't seem to see anything wrong with the development and distribution of proprietary software. The Project would not engage in these activities if it did. That is really the core of the issue, I think. The statements made in their Social Contract seem like nothing more than an attempt at misdirection so as to avoid focusing on the real issue: That the Debian Project is engaged in the development and distribution of proprietary software. Whether that software is "part" of the distribution that they also maintain (as a separate activity, according to their Social Contract) or not is totally irrelevant. They can't engage in those activities and then just wipe their hands of it as they try by disclaiming it as not being "part" of the distro and therefore okay.

The sad part is that many people seem to buy their argument, believe it, and repeat it to others.