free media alliance
free software, free culture, free hardware
linux-libre vs. distro-libre[lit]
the linux-libre kernel has an outstanding bug that prevents loading many non-free kernel modules. this is not a goal of linux-libre, it is more of a side-effect.
one of our purposes as an organisation that supports free software is to encourage people to replace all non-free software with free software. we are working towards a future where all software is free software.
the fsf approach to this was originally to replace the components of a modular operating system (unix) with free-as-in-freedom components (gnus not unix.) this was a success; it is possible to run a completely-free operating system. for the fsf, "mission accomplished" means that whenever they want to, they can stop supporting a system that has non-free components. to be endorsed by the fsf, you need to meet certain requirements: (we list some of those here)
1. you must have a commitment to removing non-free software
2. you must have a free kernel
3. you must not include non-free software in the repos or the boot media
getting the fsf to support software or operating systems that do not meet their requirements is entirely at the discretion of the fsf. but it happens sometimes. if they want you to use a patent-free video format, they will encourage you to use software that supports ogg or possibly webm, whether it is a gnu[lit]/[lit]linux player or on some other operating system. they have chosen to support a libre-flavoured android repository, as well as a version of the android platform that moves closer to freedom than regular android.
rather than try to paint the fsf as hypocrites, lets put forth the idea that these are usually reasonable compromises that are designed to make the user more free.
another approach would be to insist on a phone that uses a completely free version of gnu[lit]/[lit]linux, but the fsf does not do that. at their discretion, they made an informed decision that moves android closer to being a viable free software platform.
linux-libre is an actively-maintained, software-based effort to remove non-free code from the standard linux kernel. in the past, it has produced scripts and kernels for various free software distributions-- there is a linux-libre for arch, a linux-libre for ubuntu, and i once used a linux-libre-based distribution of slax. it originally referred to "slax" in the name, which prevents it from being a candidate for fsf endorsement, though the authors were willing to change the name (which incidentally, was "rms".)
another thing that prevents your distro from being endorsed by the fsf, is whether it encourages the user to install non-free software. having "slax" in the name encourages the user to install slax, the argument goes (this time, calling the fsf out on a double standard could be difficult to avoid-- shouldnt the name "gnu" encourage users to install unix?)
but thats not actually the point this article is written to quibble with. as a general, and (obviously) breakable rule, avoiding endorsement of non-free software really isnt a terrible idea at all-- if your goal is to promote free software. giving the user 5,000 non-free options and 5 or 10 free options doesnt sound like a very shining endorsement of free options, but perhaps "its how you do it" that counts.
either way, the free media alliance does not place "dont encourage the installation of non-free software" above the more important 4 freedoms: (simplified version here, as usual)
0. the freedom to use the software for any purpose
1. the freedom to study the software
2. the freedom to share the software
3. the freedom to change the software (also commonly phrased by us as "the freedom to modify the software.")
to comply with the likely more recent, "dont encourage the installation of non-free software" requirement for approved distros, linux-libre paints itself into a corner where freedom 0 is moved to a rung lower than "dont encourage", which we argue hurts free speech not once, but twice:
1. to have scholarly[lit]/[lit]academic commentary on free software-related concepts, it is necessary to discuss non-free software. the fsf in general discourages open discussion about this, while their operating system requirements prevent this entirely. your fsf-approved distro probably cannot include an academic essay on free software, unless it fails to mention the names of any other non-free software titles-- an unrealistic and unreasonable constraint on an academic work.
if the free software foundation gets everything else right, this is probably the one thing it gets wrong.
you might argue "there is no need to include academic essays in a free software distribution." this is not the point we are making-- the fact that the fsf relies on aversion to such topics to promote free software isnt exactly leaning on free speech.
is excluding non-free software a reasonable measure to promoting free software? probably, yes. but exluding all mention of non-free software (which even the fsf makes exceptions to on occasion, for example, in this article where they mention many of the non-free distros they would prefer you not mention: [url]https://www.gnu.org/distros/common-distros.en.html[url]) creates interesting new problems (at least according to us, they are problems.)
the point again is not to label the fsf as hypocrites going against their own rule, but to say "look-- there are obviously exceptions to this rule. even if its a good rule, lets be honest about the fact that sometimes, exceptions are called for."
if that isnt obviously true, then the fsf has no business making the exceptions themselves.
we would argue that "free speech" is too limited by this policy, but what about "free software"?
freedom 0 says: (for once, we will quote the fsf definition word-for-word)
"the freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0)."
it should probably be noted that the fsf website mentions this freedom was added "around 1990", and that freedoms 1, 2 and 3 predate it. the fsf was founded in 1984.
2. our argument is that if freedom 0 is more fundamental to software freedom than "do not encourage installation of non-free software," then linux-libre has very innocently taken a step backwards not only in its design, but its design goals.
this is going to take a bit of explaining.
the principal author of linux-libre, the fsf, and we already agree: "must include only free software" does not mean "prevent the user from installing non-free software."
no free software can really "prevent" installing non-free software, because the user can really change the software to remove whatever way the installation is prevented.
we are not trying to be sophists about this; you can certainly "fail to support" non-free software without "actually preventing" non-free software from being installed.
it is the opinion put forth in this article that no "free software"-- including linux-libre-- actually tries to prevent non-free software from being installed and run (not even librejs, which also calls attention to non-free software by design and encourages you to write to its authors complaining that it is non-free. just saying! censorship and special pleading are such common bedfellows that one might argue they are two aspects of the same thing.)
linux-libre does not try to prevent non-free software from being installed, but it has that as a side-effect that we think goes beyond simply "not supporting" non-free software.
we recommend removing adobe plugins from your distro, whether adobe requires you to or not. free software does a decent job of producing alternatives to those plugins, while it does not come as close to replacing non-free kernel modules (it would actually be a lot more difficult. a lot of hardware just doesnt work otherwise.)
do we recommend removing non-free firmware too? absolutely, for reasons that the fsf adequately explains. we recommend removing non-free firmware first, by making it into separate modules (which we think makes the kernel entirely free software, and makes it easier for the user to control or choose the non-free modules. whether you then distribute the non-free modules or not, the distribution of non-free modules is probably better done by people who are not free software supporters-- but at least theyre out of the kernel by then.)
but again, the side effect of the linux-libre design is to prevent most non-free modules from loading.
incredibly, not all completely-free versions of the linux kernel do this.
in a move towards greater software freedom, debian (as of version 6) moved all non-free software from the linux kernel to separate modules. this is similar to the linux-libre approach, but differs in one vital way:
the only reason linux-libre is preventing you from loading non-free kernels is, it doesnt want to "encourage you to install non-free software." and here, "encourage" means "show an error message that scrolls by very quickly on boot saying that it was unable to load a non-free module that was not present."
our argument is that this design decision makes freedom 0 of lower importance than the "do not encourage" requirement, and that freedom 0 is actually more important and a requirement, while "do not encourage" is only a good idea insofar as it doesnt interfere with the 4 freedoms.
we do not expect mr. stallman or mr. oliva to agree with us on this assessment, but this goes beyond calling out "hypocrisy" or "special pleading." we believe that the 4 freedoms are more important than the fsf requirements for distro endorsement, and that the debian kernel (as of debian 6) actually respects the 4 freedoms better than the linux-libre kernel does.
thus, if you are trying to have a "completely free-as-in-freedom operating system," we would actually encourage you to choose (and recommend to us) a "debian-like" kernel rather than linux-libre: (in order of how much freedom you are afforded by choosing one of the following)
1. vanilla kernel (standard, not very free, we dont trust this one. we recommend against it.)
2. linux-libre (free software with unintended non-free effects, at least if you ask us.)
3. free kernel (free software without unintended non-free effects, beyond telling you that a non-free module failed to install because it wasnt there.)
if we have to compare this unintended effect of linux-libre to drm, it could be fair.
certainly we expect this article to eventually be refuted (to some degree) by the free software foundation, of boston or latin america. please, feel free to write to them and ask them to do so (please be polite. they suffer enough rudeness already.)
now, what to do with this position? because this isnt being written just to make fun of the fsf, but to explain our own goals:
distro-libre is software-related effort to make gnu[lit]/[lit]linux distros into versions that "make it easier for users to choose freedom." by this, we mean a number of things that may be talked about in another article.
while we expect the fsf to say we are "making it easier for users to choose non-freedom as well," we consider that to be a side effect of increased freedom.
promoting non-free software does not "increase freedom." at least, it does not increase software freedom, per the definition we agree on (4 freedoms.)
using non-free software does not "increase freedom" either. at least, not software freedom, per the defintion.
but permitting people more freedom in their commentary does increase freedom of speech, which we feel software freedom is based largely on.
non-free software itself does not increase freedom of speech-- by definition, it limits what you are allowed to express, and the ways in which youre permitted to express it.
so how does distro-libre make you more free?
it starts with distributions that people are already using, and gives the user more control. sometimes, this is greater control over minute details, which we would warn "isnt everything." the windows registry also gives the user more control over "minute details." and is basically a complete mess that may help a monopoly take control away from the user as a net effect.
we want to make it easier for users to choose the kernel in the distros they already use-- whether they wish to use the non-free kernel it uses already (we advise against this, and we also advise people to assist each other in replacing the non-free kernel with free alternatives) or whether it is linux-libre, or whether it is a debian-like kernel.
(as a sly bonus, if we make the term "debian-like kernel" or "free kernel" popular, we might get a spot on the fsf page of taboo "ungood gnu-speak" phrases. while that page has at least some merit, it is one thing the fsf does that is truly worth harsher critique and parody. if that page were tongue-in-cheek itself, it would be alright. some free software supporters encourage users to take it more seriously than they really ought to. if you would like to submit entries for a parody of that page, we encourage you to.)
we want to give the user more control over existing distros, because 1. distros are more fun that way and 2. because it is a great way to teach about free software. put the power of free software into everyones hands, not just a few developers.
ultimately, distro-libre is (almost) just about remastering. it is also about reducing the overhead (and thus, the authority-- we reasonably expect some major countering tactics from such organisations in the future) of creating distros and derivatives. some distros have forgotten the importance of this, other distros (and software developers) forget this from time to time, and distro-libre is a response that lets the user have more of a say.
moving from remastering software to creating a "software master" (alright, a distribution) is a long-term goal as well. so distro-libre is also about the future (or the end) of the gnu[lit]/[lit]linux distro, and the beginning of something a little more autonomous and a little more free-- or probably, a bunch of different options that increase your freedom. some will be easier to predict, (will automation help users create and change distros? absolutely, yes) and others not so easy: (will ai make it easier for users to create distros? hard to say. ai is real and its application can be very gimmicky and full of weird promises, while some obvious problems and side-effects are already noted.)
do we think distro-libre has more potential as a concept than linux-libre?
absolutely. but that depends on how many people like the idea, how many people choose to work on related ideas, and whether or not people care that the fsf will likely say its a step backwards.
unlike linux-libre, distro-libre will not make it as easy for the fsf to pursue their perfect list of distros. it will muddy the waters a little, they may accuse us of having that as a goal, like we sometimes accuse open source of being shills.
and we will continue to promote software freedom (as a noble goal and ideal outcome) the way that we do, and (also sometimes) the way that the fsf does.
after all, they did invent this stuff for the same freedom we are trying to promote.
this is not "open source"-- this is free software, free culture and free hardware.
though the route we take, the fsf may consider "more historical" than their present trajectory. maybe theyre right, maybe we are too.
a note, regarding making fun of the fsf-- youre certainly free to make fun of them, whether they get made fun enough of already (or whether they get made fun of unfairly) or not. a lot of past critiques of the fsf are probably unfair.
we do encourage questioning the fsf sometimes, we also defend them sometimes, but its important to be aware of why youre doing so-- is it because you disagree with the concept of software freedom? if so, you should probably make fun of our organisation too. we want your software to be just as free as the fsf does, but we are willing to make quite a few "stops" along the way-- we insist they already make certain concessions in this regard themselves, for similar and strategic purposes.
the fsf is also more principled than some (or all) other organisations that work towards similar or related causes, and we try to lean in that direction. unfair critiques and even less fair attacks are common, and have increased the number of misunderstandings about the fsf, which we dont wish to contribute to significantly. parody is a weapon-- it can be used for good or for evil. wield it with heart and integrity. some of us are silly bastards and that can be a strength, but the best of us will at least try to be fair for the most part-- even when we make fun of something. dame edna knows what we mean, but she wont let on.
figosdev, aug 2018