Debian GNU/Linux seeks alignment with Free Software Foundation

Very free distro still doesn't make the FSF cut

The Debian Project, developers of the Debian GNU/Linux distribution, are making a concerted effort to get within the good graces of the Free Software Foundation.

Debian Project Leader Stefano Zacchiroli proposed the plan over the US holiday last week, specifically stating that project members "should either get Debian in FSF free-distros list, or document (from our [point of view]) why Debian is not there."

Newcomers of the Linux way of doing things are usually surprised to see Debian not on the FSF's list of free distros, particularly since Debian has always made a strong public stance to adhere to free software principles. Not to mention that it is one of the few Linux distributions that actually uses "GNU/Linux" in its proper name, a nomenclature endorsed by FSF President and founder Richard Stallman.

But GNU alone hasn't been enough to get Debian on that list of FSF-endorsed distros.

In the past, the problem was that Debian once included non-free software within its main software repository. That all changed in the 2011 release of the Debian 6.0 "Squeeze," which moved all of the non-free software out of the main repository and into a separate non-free repository.

That still wasn't enough for the FSF, it seems. They explain:

"Debian's Social Contract states the goal of making Debian entirely free software, and Debian conscientiously keeps nonfree software out of the official Debian system. However, Debian also provides a repository of nonfree software. According to the project, this software is 'not part of the Debian system,' but the repository is hosted on many of the project's main servers, and people can readily learn about these nonfree packages by browsing Debian's online package database.

"There is also a 'contrib' repository; its packages are free, but some of them exist to load separately distributed proprietary programs. This too is not thoroughly separated from the main Debian distribution.

"Previous releases of Debian included nonfree blobs with Linux, the kernel. With the release of Debian 6.0 ('squeeze') in February 2011, these blobs have been moved out of the main distribution to separate packages in the nonfree repository. However, the problem partly remains: the installer in some cases recommends these nonfree firmware files for the peripherals on the machine."

This is a pretty detailed list of issues, which may help Zacchiroli with his documentation idea. But the Debian project leader would prefer to get Debian fully aligned with the FSF. It's not a new goal for him, either. Zacchiroli approached then-FSF member (now Executive Director) John Sullivan during DebConf10 to discuss what it would take to have Debian within FSF's good graces.

Since the discussion began, the FSF has publicly noted the progress of Debian towards its Guidelines for Free System Distributions, but has remained firm in its stance that Debian GNU/Linux has not made the cut yet.

For Zacchiroli, getting Debian aligned with the FSF is not just a way to avoid confusion over free software political devisions. There's a practical side, too.

"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," Zacchiroli wrote. "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."

To meet this challenge, Zacchiroli is proposing to get more specific than the vague set of issues the FSF has outlined and treat the project as a bug triaging program, using a specific list of software that does not follow the FSF's guidelines as a base to start.

"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," Zacchiroli concluded. "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."

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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