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Censorship in Debian

Hi all,

I was recently at the UN forum on business and human rights, listening to an Iranian dissident talk[1] about the extremes that his country goes to in censoring and silencing people who don't agree with their rulers.  I would encourage people to watch the video.

At that very same moment, the anti-harassment team were censoring[2] a Debian Developer's blog from Planet Debian.  Chilling.

I actually looked at Planet shortly after attending that panel discussion and immediately noticed that Norbert Preining[3] had been censored.  Disappearances of Khashoggi[4] and Kamphuis[5] came to mind.

At that moment, being surrounded by experts on human rights and freedom of _expression_ who may have far more experience than most of us in Debian, I did a quick survey.  I couldn't find one person who supported the actions of the censors.

Some of Norbert's blogs make people think, but they appear to be overwhelmingly motivated by legitimate issues and his recent blog thanking[6] Lars[7] appeared to end in an upbeat and sincere manner.  Whether I agree with either of them or not, I'd like to take this opportunity to wholeheartedly thank both Lars and Norbert for their contributions as fellow Debian Developers and fellow bloggers.

Norbert had also made political statements[8] concerning the way codes of conduct are used in our communities.  People who speak up like this are frequent targets for political plots, protecting these people is imperative.

Looking at Debian's code of conduct[9], there is no compelling violation of the code in Norbert's writing.  Indeed, the only violation of the code of conduct may be the act of censorship itself: the very first point tells us "inevitably there will be people with whom you may disagree, or find it difficult to cooperate. Accept that, but even so, remain respectful."

Even without contemplating the code of conduct, censorship has a sinister effect on discussion.  People notice when somebody disappears and they become hesitant to speak about problems, whether they are technical issues or social issues.  I feel compelled to speak up but as I write this, I contemplate the risk that some people will try the same tactics as the Iranians, censoring me, threatening me or dragging my name through the mud.  If they try that, they may give each other a pat on the back but they don't fool our community at large.

Nonetheless, article 30 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[10] clearly states that no institution should act in any way to destroy the rights enshrined in the UDHR.  The definition of an "institution" there clearly applies to a group with the influence of Debian, it is not only for states and courts.

Wake up, people.  If we are repressing members of our own organization like this, we haven't got a hope in hell of achieving our mission[11] for society at large.

The UN calls on us to "stand up 4 human rights" on this 70th anniversary of that declaration.  You can do that now by standing up for Norbert.  It takes minutes for anybody, Developer or not, to submit a merge request in Salsa[12] to uncomment his blog.  You can also email the Debian Project Leader, leader@debian.org

If you know people in other organizations concerned with human rights, discuss Norbert's case with them and get their opinion, just as I did.

You can't pick and choose human rights, having some freedoms and not others, the declaration even implies this too.  Anybody who tries to do that is on a very slippery slope indeed.

In my role as a representative in another organization and in my extensive work with Debian, various people have approached me about incidents of censorship and overbearing efforts to control participation in the free software community.  It is far more widespread than many people realize.  It only happens because people fail to speak up.  For example, an FSFE volunteer was censored at 34C3 after distributing leaflets questioning Google's funding to FSFE.  There is increasing fear that "anti-harassment" efforts are being used as cover for political agendas, they are operating in a bubble and diverging significantly from what would be acceptable in any other organization or field of endeavour.  They post big newsletters to debian-devel-announce boasting about their work but many people feel those reports reek of gloating and one-upmanship.

On a technical level, we may want to consider whether Planet is fit for purpose: if we want to showcase best practice in creating a platform where freedom of _expression_ can thrive and remain immune to abuses, should we simply make more efforts to migrate to a decentralized tool, eliminating the risk that any subgroup or faction within Debian will be able to carry on like that now or in future?

As somebody more famous once said, "I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It".  I welcome responses to this topic whether you share my concerns or not but if nobody cares about this stuff, please tell me, so I can stop contributing to Debian and go elsewhere.



1. http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/forum-on-business-and-human-rights/watch/panel-on-safeguarding-human-rights-defenders-forum-on-business-and-human-rights-2018/5972123912001/?term=
2. https://salsa.debian.org/planet-team/config/commit/99662c1548fac57813e5288002e3c6eeccf25ec6
3. https://preining.info/
4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamal_Khashoggi
5. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/sep/14/speculation-over-fate-of-missing-dutchman-linked-to-wikileaks
6. https://www.preining.info/blog/2018/11/on-lars-wirzenius-fun-and-debian/
7. https://blog.liw.fi/posts/2018/11/18/retiring_from_debian/
8. https://www.preining.info/blog/2018/09/sharp-did-it-again/
9. https://www.debian.org/code_of_conduct
10. http://standup4humanrights.org/en/article.html?article=30
11. https://www.debian.org/social_contract
12. https://salsa.debian.org/planet-team/config

Debian Developer

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