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Re: [GNU-linux-libre] is this work-group still serving the community?

From: Ivan Zaigralin
Subject: Re: [GNU-linux-libre] is this work-group still serving the community?
Date: Mon, 1 Nov 2021 14:13:45 -0700
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On 10/31/21 18:03, bill-auger wrote:

rather than each distro repeating the same auditing work and
deciding for itself what "libre" means; it would be more
efficient if a collaborative team audited contentious software
for all distros, and presented the results to the FSF for the
final decision, binding upon all distros - IMHO, it would be more
respectable as well; because it demonstrates a base-line
consensus among the FSDG distros, regarding the minimal
liberation procedures

thats not to mention, that these are among the grunt-work for
any distro - its not the fun or sexy stuff that any dev perfers
to spend time on - people should be eager to pool their efforts
on these boring administrative chores

I agree, this seems like a more efficient way of doing things. I am
not sure that FSDG, as it is today, allows this to happen in an
objective manner.

i believe that most FSDG issues are purely objective questions
with clear answers and solutions, requiring no re-interpretation
of the FSDG; so any conflicting interpretation would be easily
proven erroneous

eg: which licenses?
     which files do each license apply to?
     are these two licenses compatible?

in most cases, there should be no disagreement about such
obvious properties

This would be great, though even the licenses can be vague enough that
it becomes hard to decide, even from the legal point of view, whether
they are free, or whether they are compatible, and then I don't see
why FSF's legal opinion should be taken over some other competent
legal opinion.

But this aside, FSDG has really problematic parts: problematic for the
program envisioned above.

> A free system distribution must not steer users towards obtaining any
> non-free information for practical use, or encourage them to do so. The
> system should have no repositories for non-free software and no
> specific recipes for installation of particular non-free programs. Nor
> should the distribution refer to third-party repositories that are not
> committed to only including free software; even if they only have free
> software today, that may not be true tomorrow. Programs in the system
> should not suggest installing non-free plugins, documentation, and so
> on.
> For instance, a free system distribution must not contain browsers
> that implement EME, the browser functionality designed to load DRM
> modules.

These are the clauses which were/are instrumental for arguments
against including things like Firefox (includes a catalog of addons,
some of which are non-free) or Debian-style kernels (load non-free
firmware blobs if those are present).

There are several tacit assumptions here which I would like to
challenge. First one is the assumption that it's the job of the
Operating System or the Distribution as a whole to determine whether
every piece of software out there is free or non-free. As distro
maintainers, we already spend resources on trying to determine whether
the software we include directly is free or non-free. And if a piece
of software we included talks to a repository or a library of any
kind, or merely mentions it, FSDG implies we are now responsible for
vetting that repo, continuously. And if that repo is itself an
aggregate of some other sources, we have to vet those sources
too. Couple it with the fact that nearly every complicated piece of
software these days will have at least one community repository of
auxiliary code, or plugins, or what have you, and now the distro
maintainers end up combing the entire software ecosystem: free and the
fringes of non-free, to figure out if any one of literally thousands
of separate free software packages can be seen as "steering" towards
non-free resources, of which there must be millions now.

I believe this assumption should be regarded as wrong, for practical
reasons, and that the responsibility sits with the user of a
free-and-libre Distribution to vet the packages they get from the
Net. From the point of view of distro maintainers, there is no practical
way of protecting a user from himself, when that user refuses to be
responsible for vetting his own software sources. Only appropriate
legislation can protect such users, and only to some extent.

****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ******

Another assumption FSDG makes, a stronger one, even, is that
"steering" or even "referring" a user toward non-free sources is
bad/unacceptable. I believe that forbidding such references amounts to
censorship, and is a worse outcome than just letting the user accept
the responsibility. A free distribution user may have a legitimate and
ethical interest in both using and studying non-free software for a
variety of reasons and in a number of ways. Some non-free software is
open-source, and can be effectively studied in detail. Binary blobs
can be studied with the intent of reverse-engineering them. To take
one particular example, Firefox' implementation of EME can and should
be studied in order to actually conclude that it implements something
that's bad for the user. Non-free plugins for Firefox can and should
be studied from the functional point of view, so that their features
can be re-implemented in libre software. There is nothing inherently
wrong with telling the user that a vast repository of non-free
software exists out there. We cannot have an honest conversation about
non-free software if developers feel a constant pressure to pretend it
does not exist.

Some users may also be forced by circumstances to use non-free
software without doing anything unethical, in cases where they do not
actively contribute to further proliferation of that software. And
even if they do contribute in some way, the sum total may well be
judged as ethical, because no perfectly libre solution exists, and not
using any software would produce vastly worse results. (Think of
software running within specific medical devices, as an example.)

And since there are plenty of legitimate reasons for users to
download, use, and study non-free software without contributing in any
way to the overall harm, then it should be OK for a free Distribution
to acknowledge that such software exists, and to provide a reference,
when appropriate.

****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ******

Besides these two assumptions, which I believe are ill-founded, FSDG
also fails to provide objective-enough criteria. There is absolutely no
way this "steering" language is not a slippery slope, and how! No
wonder the community can't figure out even the simplest issues, like
whether or not Debian-style deblob is acceptable.

Distribution comes with Web browser, the home page is But
Google has no commitment to free software, and sponsors bad
links. Fail.

A distribution based on Debian includes docs which refer to Debian by
name, because a full rename of everything within distro is intractable?

A web page for a libre software package has a reference to a non-free
code repository which was instrumental in some way for the creation
and the design of that free package? Fail.

If we want to move somewhere, we should at least agree that
Debian-style deblob is perfectly fine. If the mere ability to quickly
plug in a non-free module crosses the line, then why the heck are we
allowing ELF execution in our free Operating System? Isn't letting
users run binaries just going to open flood gates to non-free blobs?

****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ******

If we agree that FSF should only handle issues where a somewhat
objective and binary decision can be rendered, then we cannot go on
with FSDG as it currently is. It would make sense to insist that a
free and libre Distribution should not *force* a user to adopt
non-free software, or to participate in a non-free software
ecosystem. It would also make sense to stamp out all attempts at lying
and deceit about what is being suggested. But we cannot possibly start
our journey to a free-and-libre ecosystem by insisting that no one can
mention non-free software, or discuss how and where it can work, and
what it can do. The job of FSF should be cracking legal nuts that the
public cannot hope to solve, and organizing the community to help it
crack technical nuts. Things like the cited FSDG clauses are pointless
and counter-productive: they amount to censorship of our discourse,
and should be thrown away.

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