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working with FSF on Debian Free-ness assessment


I think we should either get Debian in FSF [free-distros list][1], or
document (from our POV) why Debian is not there. I'm looking for Debian
volunteers interested in the topic and willing to participate in a joint
Debian / FSF team that will work toward that goal without prejudices.
The ideal outcome is an agreed upon list of Debian "bugs" that need to
be solved, according to the usual Debian mechanisms, and with no special
treatment due to their "political" origin. The public
[fsf-collab-discuss][2] mailing list has been setup for the activities
of such a team. If interested, please join the list and say "Hi" there.

[1]: http://www.gnu.org/distros/free-distros.html
[2]: https://lists.alioth.debian.org/mailman/listinfo/fsf-collab-discuss

Long story follows.


Opinions on the usefulness of working on getting Debian in the
free-distros list within the Project will surely be, erm, diverse :-)
I'm convinced there will be advantages in getting Debian there, both for
Debian and for the ecosystem around us. Namely:

- Reducing duplication of efforts: The fact Debian is /not/ on the list
  has motivated over the years the development of distros that are
  essentially Debian, modulo the changes necessary to be listed. This
  extra work could have been better directed to improving a common
  distro.  We do collaborate with some of those distros (see the
  -derivatives list), but the potential for collaboration would be
  higher if we could get rid of the political divisions.  As most of the
  involved distros are driven by volunteers, any duplication of efforts
  is a waste that we should try to avoid.

- Common public: A relevant part of our public has chosen Debian due to
  our adherence to Free Software principles. That public is arguably the
  same that the FSF targets with their initiatives. Dividing such a
  public, of users and potential contributors, over several distros
  works against sustainability of the underlying projects.

  From a communication angle, not having Debian in the free-distros list
  is something that invariably puzzles some of our (potential) new
  users.  That might be warranted by profound disagreements, but if it
  is so it should be properly documented and communicated to our public.

- External review: Debian has ambitious software freedom goals for our
  archive, but we are self-referential in judging how good we are at
  reaching them. That hasn't stopped us to exert self-criticism
  (e.g. the series of GR prior to the Squeeze release about non-free
  firmware). But for something as important as our main goals,
  encouraging review of our achievements by other important Free
  Software actors would be laudable.  Entering the free-distros list ---
  or documenting why we are not there --- will be a way of declaring
  that we welcome external review and criticism about what we do.

Work thus far

Historically, one of the main argument to exclude Debian from the
free-distro list (argument we have share with essentially all other
popular distros) has been non-free firmware in main. This argument has
become moot since the early days of Squeeze development (early 2010).

During DebConf10 (August 2010) I have approached John Sullivan --- then
FSF representative and nowadays FSF Executive Director --- to discuss
the reasons of Debian absence from free-distros. I presented the
rationale given above and also discussed how IMHO FSF Free Software
advocacy would benefit from having a distribution like Debian in the
list, provided we could reach an agreement on the "bugs" that need
fixing.  Following that initial discussion, the FSF (in its various
branches) has [publicly][3] [appreciated][4] the Squeeze release; I've
been happy to acknowledge that [5]. Later on, I've further presented and
[discussed][6] the [state][7] of the Debian-FSF relationships at the GNU
Hackers Meeting in 2011.

[3]: http://www.fsf.org/news/debian-squeeze-makes-key-progress-toward-being-a-fully-free-distribution
[4]: http://www.debian.org/News/2011/20110304
[5]: http://upsilon.cc/~zack/blog/posts/2011/02/squeeze_debian_and_the_FSF/
[6]: http://upsilon.cc/~zack/blog/posts/2011/09/gnu_hackers_meeting_2011/
[7]: https://lists.debian.org/debian-project/2011/09/msg00004.html

At this point of the story, and according to FSF, the
[remaining argument][8] for Debian absence from free-distros is the
unclear separation between Debian main and contrib/non-free. As a
project, we assert such a clear separation: it is in our Foundation
Documents and is the motivation behind a lot of the work we daily
do. But the devil is in the details.

[8]: http://www.gnu.org/distros/common-distros.html#Debian

Next steps

The fact that main/non-free are "not clearly" separated is a bit vague
as a benchmark. Which is why the FSF also collects a more precise
[list of issues][9], sometimes Debian-specific, sometimes more broad.

[9]: http://libreplanet.org/wiki/List_of_software_that_does_not_respect_the_Free_System_Distribution_Guidelines

If we want to advance on this topic --- and I think we should, for the
reasons mentioned above --- the needed exercise is to work with the FSF
to review the issues they claim apply to Debian. It will essentially be
a bug triaging exercise. Some of the bugs will be valid, some of them
will be not, and on some there will be disagreement between submitter
and "maintainer".

This triaging work is the work for which I'm looking for volunteers.
Ideally, for each valid issue a patch could/should also be produced and
submitted to the corresponding responsible person in Debian. As it is
naturally happens, maintainers will be free to exercise their judgement:
accepting, rejecting, or reworking the proposed patches.

What I'm proposing is basically a soft approach in verifying if all
remaining issues that cause friction among Debian and the FSF can be
solved in the most typical Debian way.  The approach might fail,
e.g. due to disagreements on bug validity. But at that point we will
have obtained a list of blockers, that could than be used as
documentation for Debian users who wonder why Debian and FSF disagree on
the Free-ness of Debian.

The FSF is supportive of this process of, and has agreed to publicly
celebrate any positive (in their view) step we take during it, as
[they did][3] with the non-free firmware removal from Squeeze. I don't
think should play an important role in our motivation to do this, but it
is encouraging and show interest in working together in uniting our


I know this is a controversial topic. There are project members who
couldn't care less about the free-distros list, and there are others who
do care. If you're in the "couldn't care less" camp: that's fine, you
could simply ignore all this; there will be patches and people deciding
what to do with them, as usual. If you're in the "do care" camp: that's
fine too, there is no need to convince others of your position; what is
needed is your contribution to fix low hanging fruits and document the
more difficult ones.

Stefano Zacchiroli     zack@{upsilon.cc,pps.jussieu.fr,debian.org} . o .
Maître de conférences   ......   http://upsilon.cc/zack   ......   . . o
Debian Project Leader    .......   @zack on identi.ca   .......    o o o
« the first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club »

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