Linux, politics, and other interesting things
In a comment on a previous blog entry I was described as an active Fedora advocate, I don’t think that is an accurate description. I advocate it to appropriate people, which is mostly non-programmers – but as I mentioned that means a larger proportion of the population than to whom I can advocate Debian. It’s not that I’m trying to advocate Fedora, just that it fills a need for many people. I believe that the term Fedora advocate means someone has an objective of increasing the use and to use Fedora, I don’t have such an objective. I am a Linux advocate, a Free Software advocate, and sometimes a Unix advocate (Unix meaning the entire family of Unix-like operating systems). Merely promoting something does not make you an advocate for it. I don’t think of myself as a Debian advocate at this time, but as I am a Debian developer this may change.
It seems that the people who run the Fedora Planet think that my blog has suitable Fedora content, it’s been added to that planet. Also the Fedora Planet appears to be running an older version of the Planet software as it has the same problem with my blog that Debian Planet had before the upgrade.
Now on the issue of gratis vs libre: As I am not a Red Hat employee I can’t maintain a kernel-xen-nopae package and give it the same status as the kernel-xen package. Even when I was a Red Hat employee I couldn’t have done that – it would require some amount of management approval. I believe that this fundamentally makes Fedora less of a libre distribution. There is no room in Fedora for someone who is an upstream developer and who just wants to maintain their own package. There is Fedora-Extras, but that has a second-class status. Only Red Hat employees can maintain packages in Fedora Core. This makes Fedora fundamentally less libre than Debian. I am not trying to suggest that Red Hat change things in this regard, I believe that Fedora is meeting all it’s goals and that making Fedora as libre as Debian is not possible given the goals of making a profit on selling support of RHEL.
Chris made a good point. I also believe that MP3 codecs should not be in Debian/main. But I believe that people making mistakes about some issues is not a factor in judging the entire project. I believe that Debian is more libre although some bad decisions were made – largely due to lack of overall management. Fedora has hierarchical management, so when the legal team declares that some software can not be distributed then it gets removed without debate. I guess I could propose a GR to exclude MP3 codecs from main.
Also it should be noted that RHEL Extras has some of this software that is not in Fedora (RealPlayer for example). The Red Hat legal advice was that MP3 codecs need a license, so they ship a licensed version in their commercial distribution. This is the right thing to do for their customers (it’s handy to have and I’m sure that they get a good deal by paying license fees for all their customers) and removing such things from Fedora is the right way to offer a gratis product without unreasonable legal liability.
Naturally Fedora is much more libre than any secret-source OS. Every user has the option of downloading the Fedora source and recompiling it as they wish. I could compile Fedora with a Xen kernel that runs on my hardware and with SE Linux policy that is more restrictive than that which Fedora currently has. I could build custom Fedora install CDs to install things the way I want (which I considered doing when I worked for Red Hat). But the liberty to fork a project does not compare to the liberty to join it, and the liberty to create your own packages in extras does not compare to the liberty to add your own packages that do things differently to the default package.
There are of course positive and negative aspects to this. I started work on SE Linux in Debian in 2001. In 2003 I joined Red Hat to work on SE Linux, in Red Hat I was not the only person dedicated to SE Linux work and other people spent part of their time working on it. The SE Linux work in Red Hat soon eclipsed that of Debian because there was management support. There was no possibility for a package maintainer to refuse to fix a bug that affected SE Linux simply because they didn’t care for it. The positive side of this is that the SE Linux work proceeded quickly and efficiently. The negative side of this is that things which don’t have management support don’t appear in Fedora Core. Exim is a fine MTA but is not in Fedora Core. Some people think that AppArmor is a better option than SE Linux, they are wrong – but in Debian any developer has the option to add AppArmor support and neither I nor any other DD can prevent them. The libre nature of Debian means that as long as basic technical criteria are met DDs can add any package that they wish to the distribution.
These issues however are all related to people who are actively involved in Free Software development. For a typical Free Software user it often doesn’t make much difference, until of course your favourite program doesn’t get management approval to appear in Fedora Core. But the counter argument is that the quality of some of the >10,000 packages in Debian is not so high. You can install a Fedora Core package and have a reasonable expectation about how well it works, but Debian packages are sometimes rather experimental.
I also don’t believe that Debian is a very functional Democracy. Some of the problems of Direct Democracy are demonstrated in Debian. In many ways it is more anarchistic, anarchy gives you liberty for good and bad. Maybe we should consider a Representative Democracy model for Debian.