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DFSG violations in Lenny: Summarizing the choices

On Fri, Nov 07, 2008 at 12:47:01PM +0000, David Given wrote:
> In which case things have changed within the past couple of years ---
> after all, the whole purpose of the Atheros HAL was to inforce those FCC
> limits. Do you have any references? Like, to an FCC statement of policy
> change? If so, it would be extremely useful to have.

There are corporate lawyers who are very much afraid that the FCC
could, if they were alerted to the fact that someone had figured out
how to reverse engineer the HAL and/or the firmware to cause their
WiFi unit to become a "super radio" that could transmit on any
frequency, that the FCC could prohibit the *hardware* from being sold
anywhere in the US.  Given that the US is a rather large market, and
that some of these providers sell a very large number of WiFi units in
laptops (i.e., HP, Lenovo, Del, etc.), and where only a *small*
percentage of said units will ever run Linux, and even smaller, vastly
infintisimal percentage of those systems will run Debian, the reality
is that you look at the downside risk of not being able to sell, say
iwl4965 chipsets and having millions and millions of suddenly useless
pieces of silicon become the governments stop allowing said unit from
being sold, and weigh that against a very small number of Debian users
not being able to use the wireless unit out of the box, it's really a
no-brainer to guess how the WiFi manufacturers will react.

So realistically, let's be honest with ourselves.  Not supporting
devices that require non-free firmwares is not going to help make the
world a better place.  What it will probably do is that users, once
they find out that that a Debian install will result in various bits
and pieces of their hardware being non-functional until they figure
out how to download various magic firmware components, or manually
configuring the non-free repository, will probably simply switch to
another distribution, such as Fedora or Ubuntu.  At which point there
will be even *fewer* Debian users, and so Debian will have even *less*

Now, if the majority will of Debian is that all bits distributed by
the Debian distribution must be DFSG free, even if it doesn't run on
host processor, and we should hold up the release until this can be
accomplished, that's a legitimate choice.  That choice will have
consequences; in the meantime more users will simply switch to other
distributions, and Debian can be the distribution with a tiny niche
number of users, with developers shaking their fists about how they
are Free, just as OpenBSD users can shake their fists about how they
are Secure (but have almost no users).

Another choice open to Debian is to make it easier for users to opt
into downloading firmware --- perhaps by making very easy through the
installer to select the non-free section.  That choice also has
consequences.  For one, it won't help in the cases where the non-free
firmware is needed for the system to boot, or to access the network in
order to download the non-free .debs.  (I'm assuming for the sake of
argument that it would be considered verboten to ship non-free
firmware in the Debian installer CD-ROM.)  Fortunately for us, at the
moment I am not aware of large numbers of highly popular laptops or
servers for which non-free firmware is necessary before the firmware
would be able to access the network.  This could potentially happen in
the future if there are netbooks that only have wifi networking, for

Another consequence of making it easy for the users to add non-free to
the repositories so they can download firmware necessary to make their
hardware useful is that a huge number of users may end up enabling
non-free just to make their hardware work, and then they may end up
installing even more non-free packages on their system.  It's much
like the argument that the current copyright laws around downloading
music is insane, because it increases the disrespect of all laws, and
we are training an entire generation of users that breaking copyright
law so they can download their favorite music or video torrents is OK.

Yet another choice which Debian could choose is to create a new
firmware section; this would allow users to only be able to select
non-free firmware, without accidentally installing other non-free
packages.  This has the advantage of more fined-grained control of
what users might want or not want to install on their systems.  The
firmware section would be just as non-free as the non-free section,
but for people for whom the distinction of running on the host CPU or
not has meaning, it gives them a way of allowing some non-free
packages on their systems, but not others.  For people who feel
passionately that they will not abide any non-free software, they can
choose not to install from the firmware and non-free sections.

The final choice which Debian could make is to ignore the problem and
punt making one of the above decisions for yet another release.  This
seems to be the path that the Release Manageers have chosen to follow.
There has been work to separate out the firmware from the kernel so as
to make it easier to implement one of the above mentioned options,
without making the "Debian Stable == Debian Obsolete" tautology even
more painfully true.

The passionate argumentation on the list is due to the fact that it's
pretty clear that we do *NOT* have consensus about the path forward.
Some feel very strongly that non-DFSG free firmware a fundamental evil
that they can not abide for even one more Debian release.  Others
think getting a release out the door is more importants; still others
have advocated for some other intermediate solutions that have
different tradeoffs between how much the release is delayed with what
kind of functionality will be lost by users who have hardware that
absolutely requires non-free firmware, for whatever reason, and how
hard those users will have to work to install Debian.

How do I feel about this whole mess?  Given I'm a kernel developer who
builds my own kernels, it doesn't affect me much personally, except
that we may end up being in freeze for a very long time while these
issues are being sorted out, which would be highly annoying on a
number of levels.

If it would stop the flames, maybe the best thing to do would be to
simply strip all non-free firmware from the kernel, and if a driver
needs a non-free firmware, to simply not configure it.  That way the
people who believe very strongly about DFSG for everything can get
their wish.  If it produces a huge number of regressions, and large
numbers of users find that their hardware doesn't work, so be it.  It
might end up pushing a large number of users to Ubuntu; it might cause
people to do a mini-fork of Debian which replaces the installer and
kernel with a version that works on commonly available laptops, and
users who want, you know, a useful system and not a paperweight, will
simply switch to that mini-Fork.

At least it would stop the constant flaming.

It seems pretty obvious that the two sides (those who care about users
having useful systems that previously worked with Etch be able to
upgrade to Lenny without losing functionality and those who care about
enforcing a strict DFSG on all bits distributed by Debian) have views
that are irreconcileable, given the reality as it exists today --- and
furthermore, this reality is one that is not likely to change in the
near future.

So while I am personally of the DFSG only makes sense for executable
*software* that runs on the host CPU, previous GR's have shown that
this position has a distinct minority.  So why not let the DFSG
hard-liners win this one completely?  The current kernel team, if they
can't abide by making a largely useless .deb package for symbolism's
sake only, can also help out on creating an alternate kernel and
alternate installer which many users who have need of it can actually
use.  Yeah, it's more work, but compared with all of the time people
have wasted flaming on the subject, maybe it would be a way to make

Just a thought.

						- Ted

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