09.20.08

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Software Freedom Day: A Lesson in Free GNU/Linux Distributions

Posted in Free/Libre Software, FSF, GNU/Linux, GPL, Ubuntu at 6:19 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Today is Software Freedom Day. It is an excellent opportunity to educate our family, friends. and colleagues about the importance of Free(dom) software. To mark this event, I’m posting an old article of mine, which refers to a distribution that’s now retired. This also coincides with the Ubuntu/Mozilla EULA kerkuffle.


“It has nothing whatsoever to do with Freedom,” argues one of Gobuntu‘s contributors. The contributor, Keith G. Robertson-Turner, is a longtime, passionate advocate of free software advocate. Before joining Gobuntu, he was among the first package maintainers on the Fedora project. Yet recently he opted to leave the Gobuntu project after what he sees as continued disappointment.

“In fact, [Mark] Shuttleworth has just confirmed on-list that his only interest is the kernel (i.e. disable as much of the contentious drivers as possible) … and see what still works,” he continues.

In contrast, Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu, disagrees with Robertson-Turner. The developer’s complaints “reflect one person’s recollection of a vigorous discussion on the Gobuntu development mailing lists,” he replied in an email response to Robertson-Turner’s allegations. Indeed, in Shuttleworth’s view, “Gobuntu is about building a platform that expresses freedom in software and in content.” He urges those interested to read key parts of the Gobuntu mailing list (linked to below).

Before examining Robertson-Turner’s experiences and findings, let’s delve into a little background. Later on, internal problems will be explained and ways to improve Gobuntu’s direction will be suggested.

What Makes a Linux Distribution Truly Free

A truly free GNU/Linux distribution is one which honours the idea that full access to and control over program source code is both valuable and necessary. Such a distribution should avoid software and hardware drivers that cannot be controlled by the user. Moreover, all expressions of creativity, including artwork, should permit derivative work. All in all, this ensures that there is no restriction that ties the user to the software and hardware vendors.

“The main goal of projects that follow this route is to reverse a growing trend where hardware and software turn against their users.”

There are several projects that strive to create such a Linux distribution, e.g. Ututo and gNewSense. The projects make their work widely available, not necessarily for profit. The main goal of projects that follow this route is to reverse a growing trend where hardware and software turn against their users. Examples include compromise of privacy, restriction on access, and forced upgrades, which can be expensive.

Gobuntu is a project whose purpose is to deliver a Linux distribution that is free not only in terms of cost, but also free in that it facilitates user freedom. Gobuntu essentially comprises a reduced set of packages that are used in Ubuntu Linux, with possible replacements for “non free” software packages and drivers.

Drivers versus Applications

A complete operating system can be looked at from several levels of abstractions or operation. Two such levels are the applications and the kernel. In a truly free Linux distribution, source code should be openly available at all levels. But what does this mean in practical terms?

At the level of the kernel, things are relatively simple. All code, including that which operates peripheral devices such as printers and keyboards, as well as internal storage media, should be made available for inspection, modification, and even redistribution. The user is in total charge of the way software interacts with the hardware and can therefore tweak the computer’s behaviour to his/her heart’s content.

When it comes to applications, the notion of “free” becomes more complex. Above the level of source code there tends to exist a graphical user interface with images, sounds, and other forms of art. Applications, unlike kernel code, can be very large and complex.

Dedication to both levels – the kernel and applications that sit on top – is needed when producing a truly free Linux distro. Without the conditions of freedom being satisfied, the computer which runs that software is not entirely under its user’s control. The user is forbidden from doing certain things on the computer that he/she actually owns. The user is sometimes forced to do undesirable things, too. Examples include a scenario where the user is not permitted access to vital personal information or a scenario where very sensitive information is sent over the network without the user’s consent.

Is Gobuntu a Free Linux?

According to recent arguments in Gobuntu’s mailing lists, focus has been shifting toward freeing the kernel. This effort comes at the expense of freedom at a higher level, which still includes popular “non free” applications. At present, the applications layer in Gobuntu resembles those which can be already found in Ubuntu (the less free version).

Mark Shuttleworth defends his stance on such issues by highlighting key parts of a long mailing list thread.

“At present, the applications layer in Gobuntu resembles those which can be already found in Ubuntu (the less free version).”

One vision that some Gobuntu developers have in mind is a free laptop. Free, that is, in the sense that the hardware requires no proprietary code in order to be used with Linux. This admirable goal was set by Mark Shuttleworth himself. In an interview with Robertson-Turner we found out that this goal may have been a distraction that led to the project losing sight of its more important goal. The most important goal should involve no actual product like a laptop, but establishing a generic system that is free in every sense. It leaves room for choice when selecting hardware rather than impose restriction on diversity.

Shuttleworth, though, disputes that Gobuntu’s goal is a free laptop. “A key point is that the idea of the free-software-only laptop and Gobuntu are entirely orthogonal and independent of one another,” Shuttleworth wrote in an email response to us. “I’ve had a number of people say they would like to know if such a laptop existed, so I invited people to register their interest in that idea separately from Gobuntu. I’m not sure what would make Keith think the two ideas are connected, except in the obvious way that both are about demonstrating a commitment to free software.”

Who Controls Gobuntu?

There appears to be a certain fear among the Gobuntu development community when it comes to voicing criticism, especially because the project meets the public eye. It thrives in transparency, but concerns about the project’s direction are sometimes raised off-list instead. We are told by Robertson-Turner that discussions among the contributors tend to be philosophical, but only in the sense that there is a ‘political’ power struggle, not in the sense that free software philosophies are encouraged though free and open expression.

Paraphrasing from memory, Robertson-Turner says that Mark Shuttleworth “comes in and says, stop bickering, this is supposed to be a devel[opment] mailing list, so talk about development stuff, and stop wasting time on trivial matters like Freedom.”

But Matthew East, a member of the Ubuntu Community Council, strongly disagrees with this assessment. “With limited exceptions, no one has yet (or at least until recently) stepped up with any concrete work which actually furthers Gobuntu’s aims of developing a completely free derivative of Ubuntu,” he tells us. He does, however, acknowledge the fact that mistakes were made. He believes that the company failed to give the Gobuntu project more substantial guidance about the scope and methods of the project, until recently. However, “This has been recognised and is being addressed,” he assures us.

There appears to be a mild confrontation between those who are volunteers and those who are associated with Canonical, which is the company behind Gobuntu. Robertson-Turner says: Somebody else pointed out that, if we can’t even establish what is or isn’t Free, then how are we supposed to proceed? This is core to the goals of this project. Where is the advisory board? Where are the mentors? Where is the information necessary to actually get involved? It’s all very well telling us to talk devel stuff, but what is it that we’re supposed to be developing … etc., etc.”

He argues that this was never the case when he participated in Fedora, where it was easier than ever to be a contributor. “They’re tripping over themselves to help volunteers,” he said, referring to Red Hat, which took over Fedora.

Robertson-Turner further complains that, “I suggested various non-Free packages be removed, and the reaction was, to put it mildly, aggressive. There seems to be core of contributors who are blind to the dangers of certain software, such as Mono, and argue vigorously in its defense, despite it having a particularly untrustworthy so-called ‘RAND’ clause from Microsoft. It is poison for the well, but certain Gobuntu contributors just don’t seem to care, and embrace this encumbered Microsoft technology with open arms. It’s deeply unsettling to discover this kind of attitude, especially in, of all places, the Gobuntu project.”

As it stands, other than the supposed changes to the kernel, Robertson-Tuner claims that one is hard pressed to find any difference between Gobuntu and Ubuntu at all, likening it to “little more than a new paint job,” adding that “as for changes in the kernel, even that was done without any consultation to the list, and to this day it remains a mystery as to what, if anything, has actually been changed.” A direct request from Robertson-Turner to Shuttleworth, on the mailing list, for information regarding those changes, went unanswered.

Firefox Divides the Development Team

What broke the camel’s back turns out to be a discussion about the inclusion of Mozilla Firefox in Gobuntu. It was only days beforehand that Mark Pilgrim, an influential technology writer, described this as the reason for failure in Gobuntu.

“What broke the camel’s back turns out to be a discussion about the inclusion of Mozilla Firefox in Gobuntu.”

Firefox is widely-known as an open source success story, but it is does not meet the requirements of free software. A few such issues led to the creation of a sibling project called IceWeasel, which is intended to resolve issues pertaining to artwork. A controversy revolves around the Firefox logo and its effect on derivatives (forks). In the developers’ mailing list, Mark Shuttleworth insisted that maintaining two copies of the codebase of the Firefox browser — one for Ubuntu and one for Gobuntu — will have “such little benefit.” Several volunteers immediately begged to differ in off-list coversations that we saw.

Outraged by this apparent disregard for the significance of the issue, Robertson-Turner responded “It’s time that Gobuntu started living up to the ‘very strict’ policy that motivated it’s inception, otherwise it will be nothing more than a different coloured Ubuntu, with a slightly smaller kernel,” and he concluded that “I don’t know about you, but that isn’t quite the vision that got me excited enough to want to get involved in this project.”

The Gobuntu Laptop

Towards the end of his long affair, which ended just recently, the main concern about the project had a lot to do with goals, maybe even a hidden agenda. “I’ve discovered the truth about Gobuntu. Essentially … it’s a hardware experiment,” Robertson-Turner tells us. He then refers to the idea involving a laptop, as mentioned at the beginning of this article. He likens it to a contest where people run a poll out of sheer curiosity.

Shuttleworth, however, begs to differ. “Contrary to the assertion made by Keith, there are no other private agendas or conversations about Gobuntu,” he states in our correspondence with him.

With the vision of pre-installed Ubuntu laptop that was free of proprietary drivers in mind, he calls this idea a response to Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child. Mark Shuttleworth’s blog post, which spoke about working in collaboration with a laptop manufacturer to produce a system favourable to free software drivers, certainly rang a bell here.

“It’s an experiment to produce a laptop independent of proprietary drivers (GPU, Wi-Fi, etc.), presumably so he can then capitalise on the idea,” we are told by Robertson-Turner. This ambitious statement did not escape a solid counter argument from Shuttleworth, who stepped in to clarify:

“A key point, though, is that the idea of the free-software-only laptop and Gobuntu are entirely orthogonal and independent of one another. I’ve had a number of people say they would like to know if such a laptop existed, so I invited people to register their interest in that idea separately from Gobuntu,” says Shuttleworth. He clarifies that the two ideas are not by any means connected “except in the obvious way that both are about demonstrating a commitment to free software.”

Ways Forwards

Gobuntu can hopefully be improved by reminding Canonical that the project should stick to things it was intended to achieve. As promised, it should also be driven by a community, as opposed to becoming a project that — at least in part — absorbs criticism against inclusion of proprietary components in Ubuntu. At worst, this is maybe a case of capitalization. The project can — and probably should — be built to provide what free software enthusiasts sought in the first place. Only then can it make a big impact and draw a community large enough to help it grow and thrive.

Shuttleworth asserts that “Gobuntu is about building a platform that expresses freedom in software and in content. Debating what constitutes freedom is essential to the process of building it.” The latter part — the past which is all about debating freedom — seems to contradict the experience of at least two Gobuntu developers whom we heard from (one prefers to remain unnamed). The project may be suffering from a disconnect, or simply a case of miscommunication. Canonical is already responding to these issues. “I’m personally quite positive that the project will soon be pointed in the right direction,” adds Matthew East, so it is encouraging to know that the problems are already taken into consideration and addressed.

Originally published in Datamation in 2007

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