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Editor's Note: Linux Needs Fewer Friends

Dec 31, 2008, 22:03 (37 Talkback[s])

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

It's a cliche, but it's an apt one: "God save me from my friends - I can protect myself from my enemies." Theodore Ts'o wrote an anti-Free Software rant this week that could have come straight from the massive, never-sleeping Redmond FudMachine, Debian, Philosophy, and People. He seems to blame Free Software for Debian's ills.

If you're not familiar with Mr. Ts'o, his achievements are legion. He is a Debian maintainer and a filesystem guru, and has been a key Linux kernel developer since the early days of Linux. Next year he will go on leave from IBM to serve a stint at the Linux Foundation as their Chief Technology Officer.

All of those amazing creds makes his rant all the more perplexing. In a few paragraphs he delivers an impressive number of loaded anti-Free Software terms: militant, zealot, no compromises, absolutist, idolatry, and Politically Correct. He drags in the war in Iraq, Jesus, the Ten Commandments, Victor Hugo, Thomas Aquinas, and Gordon Dickson.

Why?

Why is Mr. Ts'o so down on Free Software? After reading his article several times, it seems more correct to say he is down on the Debian project because of the recent brawl over Lenny's release. Now that I can understand-- the Debian project is the Berkeley of Linux: twice as many opinions as people, and four times as loud. Trolls and dorks of all kinds are accorded maximum free speech rights, but anyone who complains about them is shushed with "It's just another viewpoint," as though insults and personal attacks were just honest differences of opinion between reasonable people of goodwill. The torrents of vitriol are overwhelming, so being upset is understandable and natural.

But that doesn't explain Mr. Ts'os peculiar rant, which blames Free Software for Debian's problems. It seems that someone with his skills and experience would have a better understanding of Free Software, and not say things like:

"More blood's been spilled by the militant adherents of prophets of change than by any other group of people down through the history of man."

"It is the notion of Free Software as a philosophy, with no compromises, which has been the source of many of the disputes inside Debian."

"The conflict between idealism and pragmatism is a very old one in the Free and Open Source Software Movement."

That first quote leaves me speechless. Thanks a lot, dude, I guess I should be happy you saved Hitler for later instead of whacking readers with him right off the bat. The second one is just plain daft. Debian has long had what I think is a very sensible compromise in place: the official supported Debian release is 100% Free Software. For folks who want unsupported third-party or non-free applications, there are separate Debian repositories. It's a beautiful system that gives users maximum control of what goes on their own computers. (Actually it is somewhat less than 100% because of binary kernel blobs for which no sources are available, which is part of the recent dispute. See the References for more information.)

The third quote is a key point. Like so many people, he is confusing pragmatism with expedience. Free Software licenses are the most pragmatic licenses there are, because they guarantee maximum freedom and benefits to both users and developers. We are protected from vendor lock-in, obsolescence, sneaky backdoors, DRM (digital restrictions management) crud, and all forms of vendor abuse. Developers who contribute to Free Software know that their work will not be locked up and hidden away. Everything is open, transparent, and accountable. What's not to like?

It is not pragmatic to tolerate closed, proprietary, binary drivers in the kernel, but expedient. It is a short-term tactic that does not contribute to a sustainable long-term solution. The poster child for this is Nvidia-- after all these years is Nvidia any closer to releasing FOSS drivers? Not one whit.

The obligatory "yes but" makes an appearance:

"I personally believe that "100% free software" is a wonderful aspirational goal, but...."
I guess I should be glad he didn't use the even more cringeworthy "Don't get me wrong, but..."

Freedom Is Bad?

Linus' disdain for Richard Stallman, the Free Software Foundation, and enforcing the GPL in regards to the kernel is well-known. Now we have another high-ranking kernel developer dissing on Free Software. Why? What is about freedom that turns off so many people? Is there suddenly so much Free Software in the world that we need to pollute it with closed, proprietary gunk? I'm not going to go all pundit and claim this is a trend that signals the doom of Linux, though it is tempting. A core, essential freedom of Free Software is the end user gets to control what goes on their systems. All these people who think freedom means forcing more proprietary junk on everyone are missing the point by several country miles.

There are a number of same old oft-repeated responses to these issues: "I just want it to work. Leave the politics out of it. Too much idealism is bad." etc etc... a lot of these are answered in "Myths, Lies, and Truths about the Linux kernel". That is Greg Kroah-Hartman's famous talk that states plainly "Closed source Linux kernel modules are illegal." Greg K-H went on to launch the Free Linux Driver Development! project, which has succeeded in attracting a lot of vendors to the world of GPL drivers. Mr. Kroah-Hartman is also a leading kernel developer, so it is good I did not cry doom.

Free Software is not responsible for the Debian project providing a safe haven for unpleasant people. I'm no ace kernel hacker, nor even a college graduate, but you don't need those to see the obvious.

References

General Resolution: Lenny and resolving DFSG violations
Debian goes to the polls
Myths, Lies, and Truths about the Linux kernel
Free Linux Driver Development Questions and Answers!
"I'm tired of people thinking they have a right to violate my copyright all the time."
Would I be violating the GPL?; Alan Cox weighs in on blobs