GNU::Free Distributions Increase Agency, Actually
My good friend Xe wrote a post complaining about fully GNU::Free distributions, and I disagree with some things xe says in it. Xe challenged me to a 1v1 fite irl fox only final destination no items but xe can’t meet up with me in person and nintendo’s netcode is garbage, so I’m writing a response blog post instead. I think that the existence of fully GNU::Free distributions is important for increasing people’s agency in the broader sense. On the other hand, I agree with Xe that some of the communities around these projects have problems.
Please note, I’ll use “free” and “libre” as shorthand for GNU::Free in this post. I won’t be making a distinction between “free” and “libre”, but I’ll use both to mitigate semantic satiation. Some people consider these words to have different meanings; I ask you to suspend your concerns for this post.
Also, I want to be clear that I think GNU and FSF have a lot of bad takes, especially regarding the actual nuance of the FSF’s device firmware beliefs, and I’m not endorsing them as organizations. We’re using GNU’s definition of “free” here because it’s what Xe was talking about originally, and it’s used as a reference definition around a lot of the free software community.
Ok so what’s all this about? Well if you don’t want to read Xe’s post, xer thesis is that distributions which use de-blobbed kernels and only package libre software limit the user’s agency, because the user can’t use proprietary software they might want to use to get their hardware working or to run software they want to run.
If I was forced into using those distributions, I would agree with that. But here’s the cool part, I’m not. If I want to use software which is proprietary (I do), I can just choose to use a different distribution. I disagree with a lot of GNU’s choices and opinions, and I often avoid projects that follow their doctrines. That’s agency!
On the other hand, consider someone who finds GNU’s stringent requirements for a distribution to align with their own desires. They really care about what licenses the software they run is released under. They will not compromise on this. In this case, a distribution that allows proprietary software actually decreases their agency. Let’s step into that user’s shoes:
Hi, I'm a Libre Enthusiast Strawperson Argument, but you can call me Leina. I'm diametrically opposed to using any sort of proprietary software on my system, and this is invariant. What are my options?
I have a few actually! I could use Debian, with the non-free repos disabled, and this gets me quite far. Xe believes that distributions should have "an escape hatch into a less pure environment" if they want to use non-free software on a distribution that offers a free-software only option. I don't think that's necessary, but, Debian has it anyway.
On the other hand, I could use something like Parabola, an arch-derivative with only libre software in the repos, or Guix, which also has some cool technical advantages with its declarative system configuration. There's a whole list of other options GNU thinks are cool. These don't have escape hatches, is that a problem?
Well no, it's actually an advantage. With no escape hatch, I know that no matter what I do on my system, I'm not going to accidentally turn on the non-free repos. What's more, my distribution maintainers are designing with this in mind, so they'll be more likely to actively look for free alternatives to proprietary software that other distributions might handwave on account of already providing a non-free option. All their documentation will be written with the assumption that using non-free tools is something I never want to do. If I wanted that escape hatch, I could install a different distribution.
Thanks Leina, I’ll take it from here. I think that the existence of a hardline free-software-only distribution is a useful thing and I support them existing. Leina also mentioned that they could use Debian if they wanted free software now with an escape hatch later, but GNU thinks Debian’s approach is not ok. To quote their page, Explaining Why We Don’t Endorse Other Systems:
"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 maintains 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 find these nonfree packages by browsing Debian's online package database and its wiki.
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.
Debian is the only common non-endorsed distribution to keep nonfree blobs out of its main distribution. However, the problem partly remains. The nonfree firmware files live in Debian's nonfree repository, which is referenced in the documentation on debian.org, and the installer in some cases recommends them for the peripherals on the machine.
In addition, some of the free programs that are officially part of Debian invite the user to install some nonfree programs. Specifically, the Debian versions of Firefox and Chromium suggest nonfree plug-ins to install into them.
Debian's wiki also includes pages about installing nonfree firmware."
Some of this is kind of nit-picky but I get what they’re going for here, and it’s something we discussed with Leina earlier; Debian is designed around the existence of the non-free repos, so it’s going to creep into the documentation, installer, and infrastructure, and so sooner or later there’s a decent chance you’ll need it during normal use of the system for lack of the maintainers exploring other options for you.
The problem begins when the passion for free software leads to viewing users of non-free software as immoral, committing acts of sin. Some free software extremists see using proprietary software as a state of damnation that they’ve been given a holy command to save people from, whether those people want to be “saved” or not. In this mindset, the mere mention that perhaps someone might want to use proprietary software is seen as a moral failure, worthy of excommunication. This builds a very isolationist community that’s hostile to outsiders that might want to learn from and contribute to these libre distribution projects, but don’t care for it becoming core to their identity.
This sort of thing isn’t unique to GNU, or libre distributions really. You see the same dynamic play out with ubuntu users that mock or shun windows users, arch users that mock or shun ubuntu users, and so on.
The question is, is this the mindset of the majority? Is it the mindset of the leadership? And, are leadership willing to break the toxic cycles down when they see them and substitute a more welcoming and conversational tone. I don’t spend time in these communities, so I simply don’t know. There’s a good chance this stuff does come from the top, but I try to avoid exposure to GNU/FSF leadership as much as possible so I’m blissfully unaware either way.
Free as in GNU’s Opinions distributions are not the problem themselves. Their existence increases the agency of people using linux in general, and provide useful ecosystems for developing more software in line with their principles. But that can only be the case when using them is a choice, and the alternatives are not forbidden from discussion simply for being non-free.