09.07.20

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Debian Expulsions and Defamation Were Also Common in the 1990s

Posted in Debian, GNU/Linux at 11:44 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

It’s not a new or “woke” thing but a long tradition — a conservative habit of distrusting and banishing particular developers, sometimes wrongly (and mistakes/misjudgments can be corrected)

The king's gravesSummary: The ‘gossip mill’ in Debian is potentially harmful to innocent people and their reputations; the problem is, due to secrecy there’s no accountability for slander and self-serving horse trading tactics

THE Debian-Private E-mails from 1996-1997 were published here 10 days ago. That’s more than 8,000 E-mails. We try to refrain from linking to pertinent mails if or where it can harm the privacy of those who are no longer involved in Debian (or may no longer be alive). So far we’ve mostly highlighted mails from active contributors (Ts’o, Perens, Jackson, Shuttleworth and so on) because they at least have an opportunity to respond, just as Torvalds did earlier this week.

So far nobody has found an error in anything that we published on this topic. Some try to label it “old news” even though the E-mails in question were published for the first time just 10 days ago (and are therefore newsworthy).

“So far nobody has found an error in anything that we published on this topic. Some try to label it “old news” even though the E-mails in question were published for the first time just 10 days ago (and are therefore newsworthy).”These E-mails are relevant to the present. For instance, we’ve noticed one expulsion (later revoked, as it was based on a misunderstanding), whereupon Ian Jackson encouraged to use the phone (order to avoid misunderstandings, due to lack of nuance/verbal tone). Bruce Perens lost his temper when he spotted what seemed like an ethnic word (generalisation, not a slur). This was later clarified and rectified.

On another occasion we saw an eager developer, at one point a technical student, being denied access based on nothing but wordings in an E-mail sent to Perens. Some developers were fanning the flames of a fire (presumption of red flags) and also using hearsay/malicious rumour to block this person’s access to “master” (the name of the main machine/source repository), albeit the policy later changed (probationary) when clarifications were offered. What I personally disliked or what truly troubled me about the whole thing/espisode is the degree to which rumours and gossip were used to malign a potentially productive contributor (never confronting him directly!), painting him as some sort of mischievous cracker looking to vandalise Debian from the inside (based on the perception of some past behaviour, unverified or not properly verified based on actual sources or first-hand accounts/experiences). Only years ago something similar happened to Jacob Appelbaum, who would soon be expelled also from Tor, Linux Australia and then be morally silenced by public shaming at Twitter (he phased out his participation in Wikileaks and focused on his doctoral studies instead, never to be a published author again). Words can hurt reputations and when trust depends so heavily on people’s reputations those words can finish people’s careers.

“…a lot of the political issues of Debian aren’t a new thing; they’re persistent and recurrent because ‘herding cats’ is difficult (Perens admittedly hated his job as DPL and eventually handed over the role to Jackson, who was the only person to step up as a candidate as soon as Perens bailed out).”We’ll avoid adding links to pertinent E-mails; they’re in the archive, which is now public, but direct links are omitted for privacy reasons (the people whose reputation was harmed in a secret mailing list are named explicitly).

It’s important to note that those practices are very common also in the proprietary software world (part of what background checks and job interviews are all about), but those rarely become public knowledge or trickle out to the press. A culture of secrecy is by no means superior to one of open collaboration and mailing lists' transparency. As we noted over the weekend, a lot of the political issues of Debian aren’t a new thing; they’re persistent and recurrent because ‘herding cats’ is difficult (Perens admittedly hated his job as DPL and eventually handed over the role to Jackson, who was the only person to step up as a candidate as soon as Perens bailed out).

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