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on firmware and freedoom

I found the juxtaposition of two articles on the front page of LWN this
week[1] to be interesting, and it motivated me to put down some thoughts
which I also posted as a reply to one of them.

Rather than contributing directly to the current discussion on what types
of bitstreams we should or not not apply our definition of "Free Software"
to, I thought I'd share my personal view on the reasons why would bother to
ask for free firmware in the first place, and what message I think we would
send if we cease demanding it.


It may be that a consequence -- intended or not -- of Microsoft's
aggressive new Windows Activation strategy is that it's driving a wave of
refugees to Linux who previously ran Windows because it "just worked" and
they could get it for free, as in free beer.

With the tedium and risk of Windows Activation, the influx of free beer
users is now greater, and many of them care not a whit about exercising
authority over their computers in the way to which we, as skilled
practitioners of "apt-get source", are accustomed.  They don't know a
machine register from a check register, and they don't know the value of
comments in an assembly listing.

I don't demand that every computer user be an expert, but I do lament our
failure to promulgate the value of free computing to our new users.  In the
name of "pragmatism", an honorable school of philosophical thought now
reduced to a makeweight for any argument that is short-sighted and
antisocial in content, our community now flirts with squandering the
successes that have been won over the past 15 years.

"Open Source" and "Free Software" are not terminological fairy dust we can
sprinkle onto something and thereby make it good.  The latter, at least, is
a set of principles which have been fought for, and which we must guard
jealously if we want to see them preserved.  Unless you are one of the
fortunate few who is born the purple, the liberties you enjoy were won
through struggle.  That includes the freedom to modify code and share
modifications with your neighbors.  That this freedom has seen sacrifice
more in terms of livelihoods than spilled blood makes it no less real.

I, too, have often been frustrated by a lack of complete hardware support
in Linux for any device I can purchase.  I compensate for this by
attempting to be an informed consumer, not buying hardware by firms that
are Linux-hostile, and learning to accept the fact that I can't have
everything I want.  For me, hardware that doesn't have a free driver just
isn't an option.  If I end up with some because it's bundled with a
motherboard, for example, then I know that when I buy it, and for me it
might as well not be present.  It's not a "feature" of my purchase.

With Free Software I can put my labor towards creating that which I desire.
Without Free Software, I am an insignificant supplicant to the whims of big

Free applications, free drivers, free firmware -- these are all cut from
the same cloth.  All empower you to assert authority over your computer.
With the principle of Free Software, you have a tool with which to exercise
that power.  If you lack the personal expertise to implement a new feature
or fix a bug, you can join a community and attempt to arouse interest, or
hire anyone with the requisite skill.

Without the principle of Free Software, you stand alone before the
monopolist, with only your wallet to offer.  In whose favor will terms be


I posit that the distinction we make between "main" and "non-free" is an
important one, quite apart from the minutiae of disputes over what
constitutes a "clarification" of the Social Contract, for instance.

What we put in "main" carries our imprimatur, whether we like it or not.
While it is true that we have qualified reservations about all sorts of
things in main, and these are frequent fodder for discussions on -legal and
occasionally other mailing lists, I believe it is also true that when we
put something in "main", we endorse it.  (We certainly pledge to provide
security updates for it.)

I personally am not comfortable with extending this imprimatur to what
we've lately been styling "blobs", be they executable instructions for the
host or an auxiliary CPU, graphical images, audio/video streams, or manuals
that have post-processed by some sort of tool.

For me, our insistence on Free Software is our insistence that we, as
developers, extend to our users equal access and equal empowerment over
their computing experience.

I believe that computers should be controlled by those who own and operate
them.  Withholding the source form of anything, be it an application, an
object loader, a device driver, or a "blob", erects a barrier in front of
the user, and communicates to them their lack of entitlement to change the
operation of their machine as they see fit.  To ship this stuff in main
despite the deficiency of a lacking source form is to tell our users that
we are complicit in withholding control of their computers.

In my view, you should be entitled to no fewer rights to customize and
share with your friends a "blob", as you are anything else that flows
through the buses of your machine.  To call something a "blob" seems to
diminish its importance relative to the bit streams we're accustomed to
calling "software" -- yet, if these blobs weren't important, there would
not be a push to retain them in main.

Each of us can, of course, choose to accept on our machines all sorts of
things which society doesn't recognize our right to modify and distribute,
from Hollywood movies on DVD to Associated Press articles.  The Debian
Project, however, does not distribute such materials in "main".  To do so
would be to undermine our pledge to keep the Debian system "100% Free", as
our Social Contract puts it.

If a thing is worth proposing a General Resolution to keep in main, it's a
thing that is worth upholding our rights to modify and redistribute, both
in the abstract and the practical senses.

[1] http://lwn.net/Articles/195820/

G. Branden Robinson                |    One man's theology is another man's
Debian GNU/Linux                   |    belly laugh.
branden@debian.org                 |    -- Robert Heinlein
http://people.debian.org/~branden/ |

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