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Proposal: Keep non-free

I propose that the Debian project resolve that:

Acknowledging that some of our users continue to require the use of
programs that don't conform to the Debian Free Software Guidelines, we
reaffirm our commitment to providing the contrib and non-free areas in
our archive for packaged versions of such software, and to providing the
use of our infrastructure (such as our bug-tracking system and mailing
lists) to help with the maintenance of non-free software packages.

It is my belief that continuing to provide such support does not require
any changes to our social contract, and that consequently the project may
resolve the above by simple majority.

It is my belief that this proposal is best considered as an amendment to
Andrew Suffield's proposal so that the two alternatives may be considered
concurrently on a single ballot, under sections A.1(D&A).3 and A.3.1.

I would obviously appreciate seconds for the above resolution.

Rationale follows.

I believe this is a better option to be voting on now than Raul's
proposals as it makes the forthcoming ballot a simple decision on whether
to keep non-free or not; without either requiring any later decisions to
be made whatever the outcome here, nor tying the outcome on that question
with other independent changes that people may or may not support.

I believe keeping non-free continues to be useful in a number of ways.

First, it allows us to provide useful packages that we could not otherwise
provide. In the future, we can probably expect non-free to be the only
way we can distribute such things as the GNU Manuals and Centrino wireless
drivers. In the past it's allowed us to distribute such things as Qmail,
Qt, netscape, ncftp and Java.

Second, it allows us to ensure that our operating system works well
with popular pieces of non-free software, and vice-versa; software
that's in non-free can be maintained with all the usual tools we have
for the main Debian distribution: dependency analysis, autobuilders,
even security support. Without that software in the Debian archive, it
becomes significantly more difficult for developers of free software to
reproduce reports of bugs in their packages that show up when used with
particular non-free applications.

Third, it allows us to establish productive relationships with upstream
authors of non-free software, which gives the free software community
an effective channel for communicating their needs and desires. In some
cases this results in the package being relicensed under a free license,
in others it gives us the opportunity to get increased compatability
across apps, in others it simply makes it clear that the appropriate
arguments have been presented to upstream but won't be accepted.

While none of those arguments can be proven in any sense, they all have
supporting evidence -- the fact that people bother to maintain it and
install it is evidence that some non-free software continues to be useful,
there are numerous examples of packages in non-free being relicensed to
be free (and far more examples of that than the converse, despite there
being far more packages in main), numerous non-free packages are better
integrated into Debian by us than they are by upstream, and so forth.

By contrast there is not, to the best of my knowledge, any evidence at all
to support the claims that supporting non-free costs as anything notable.
The costs in resources of non-free are trivial: the amount of diskspace
and bandwidth it uses up in its entirety are less than the number of
uploads we get to main most days. The costs in manpower are also fairly
small: all the ongoing support is a freebie from supporting software in
main (and contrib); and the setup support is (by my estimation) trivial,
and having already been spent isn't able to be recovered. Similarly, there
have been claims that without non-free, we'll have a bigger incentive to
encourage people to relicense their software freely: that if they don't,
we won't distribute it, but those claims haven't been supported by any
evidence at all, anecdotal or otherwise.

On the other hand there are reasonably measurable potential costs to
removing non-free. It's been speculated that if Debian's infrastructure
really is valuable for non-free software, then if we stop providing it,
someone else will set it up and maintain it. This is, IMO, a significant
cost: maintaining the Debian infrastructure isn't trivial, even if you
exclude all the development: ensuring the servers you run are secure,
making sure the appropriate people have upload access, avoiding spam, and
making sure the system keeps working all take time, and the only people
that seem likely to invest that time seem to be people who would have
otherwise invested it in doing things beneficial to Debian -- either
doing a better job maintaining non-free software for Debian users, or
more likely working on free software or Debian infrastructure that's
useful for free software users.

Finally, I believe that making a resolution to keep non-free is a better
outcome than further discussion so that we can ensure that it's clear
to all our members and all our users what our intentions are on this
controversial issue for the forseeable future.


Anthony Towns <aj@humbug.org.au> <http://azure.humbug.org.au/~aj/>
I don't speak for anyone save myself. GPG signed mail preferred.

             Linux.conf.au 2004 -- Because we could.
           http://conf.linux.org.au/ -- Jan 12-17, 2004

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