or “I’m Amicably Breaking Up With The FSF and GNU.”
Yellow Dog Linux was my first “daily driver” Linux. I browsed and read about linux-y things, and eventually I read about the Free Software Foundation, Software Freedoms, and Richard Stallman. This really resonated with me. It was like my punk rock music but if it was expressed with software. I learned about blobs and Lemote Yeeloongs and BLAG Linux and GNU. BLAG Linux and GNU was a distribution, with vaguely anarchist politics, made by the Brixton Linux Action Group. It also happened to be recommended by the Free Software Foundation as a Linux distribution which 100% Respected Your Freedoms. In addition, BLAG was based off of Fedora Linux which used the same core software as Yellow Dog Linux.
It was an easy transition. By the time I got on board with BLAG, it had one last official release and died a slow and exhausting death. A loose knit group of developers, power users, and enthusiastic forum users tried multiple times to relaunch BLAG multiple times to no avail. If a person was so inclined they could connect the dots, read the docs, and animate the bones of the distro to continue updating until about Fedora 20. I was so inclined. I stuck with BLAG because I both believed that Stallman was right, because I resent that punk rock is dead, and because I can be obstinate. I rebuilt my BLAG packages by hand, using the SPEC files and SRPMs, the “Freed-ora” linux-libre kernel. I was missing major version updates, but ultimately dragging my Distro of Theseus to a gasping and overdue death at Fedora 28.
I needed a new distribution. I’m not a developer but I can read. By this point we are in another Golden Age of Linux. I might not be able to walk into a Circuit City and grab that brand new computer, big box SUSE Linux, Quake III and magazine anymore. I can go online, Buy a brand new Thinkpad with Fedora Linux, buy dozens of AAA titles, and use that Thinkpad to watch or listen to years worth of Linux content. I follow blogs, podcasts, subreddits, and mailing lists now.
I am a better, more knowledgeable, more capable Linux user now than I have ever been at any other time in my computing journey. I also still believe in the ideals of the Free Software movement. This is where my relationship with the FSF and GNU has reached a parting of the ways.
I want a distro which 100% Respects Your Freedoms in the year 2020. (Un?)fortunately I am a higher caliber Linux user than I was before.
The FSF recognises nine distributions which run completely libre. Other distributions have been in approval limbo, but share the goal to be FSF approved. It is important to remember that seeking FSF endorsement is allegedly about accepting a strict software philosophy and not about software convenience
Dragora GNU/Linux-Libre, an independent GNU/Linux distribution based on concepts of simplicity.
Dyne:bolic, a GNU/Linux distribution with special emphasis on audio and video editing. This is a “static” distro, normally run from a live CD. Since it will not receive security updates, it should be used offline.
gNewSense, a GNU/Linux distribution based on Debian, with sponsorship from the FSF.
Guix System, an advanced GNU/Linux distro built on top of GNU Guix (pronounced “geeks”), a purely functional package manager for the GNU system.
Hyperbola GNU/Linux-libre, a long-term support simplicity-focused distribution based on Arch GNU/Linux.
Parabola GNU/Linux-libre, a distribution based on Arch that prioritizes simple package and system management.
PureOS, a GNU distribution based on Debian with a focus on privacy, security, and convenience.
Trisquel, a GNU/Linux distribution based on Ubuntu that’s oriented toward small enterprises, domestic users and educational centers.
Ututo S, a GNU/Linux 100% free distribution. It was the first fully free GNU/Linux system recognized by the GNU Project.
Here is an accurate status report of each of these projects.
Dragora GNU/Linux-Libre: No updates for a year, you can’t even download the last stable version ISO. Apparently they are transitioning to musl C? Mailing list is dead and social media essentially 404s.
Dyne:bolic: “1.4 GB ISO, run from DVD, USB or VM Codename: MUNIR – released in September 2011” surprisingly contains the
xvapplication which is considered nonfree and a reason GNU doesn’t endorse Slackware. More on this later.
gNewSense: “As of 2019, gNewSense has not released in several years, but active development has restarted … I hope to have a release ready in 2021.”
Guix System: Really developed, not user friendly. Soft-line approach to Free Software, see below.
Hyperbola GNU/Linux-libre: We are going BSD now. Linux image is on the backburner.
Parabola GNU/Linux-libre: Up to date with probably the most active development team. There is some systemd hate leaking from management but this is the gold star of Libre distros. Hard-line approach to Free Software.
PureOS: No UEFI support by default. Literally the distribution which has caused me to change directions. I’m going to touch on this below.
Trisquel: Not kidding – while I was typing this they finally officially released Trisquel 9 based on Ubuntu 18.04. They have been unofficially releasing ISOs in a forum thread since last June. I really wanted to dunk on them for this but they sure showed me by releasing software from 2018 in late 2020.
Ututo S: No updates since 2017, a Release Candidate, but no word on further development.
This is not an ideal situation and it really exposes the low personpower and tiny purview of the FSF and GNU.
Free Software and Free and Libre Open Source Software
As I have said elsewhere on the forum, I believe that Purism has taken advantage of the glacier-like movement of the FSF and GNU to “libre wash” their PureOS project. They ship software which has not passed muster by other FSF-endorsed projects and, by shipping vanilla Firefox and Chromium, I really don’t see how this isn’t identical to Debian. (I’ve read the documentation and watched the anime, I understand the FSF and GNU objections to hosting nonfree repositories) Debian main is Free Software, Debian only installs a system with main enabled by default, but you could potentially manually enable nonfree repositories. The FSF and GNU have a problem with this and other distros which don’t go to enough “effort to stop users from installing nonfree software”.
Try this fun Free Software Foundation practical exercise where you can be the FSF.
- Install PureOS on a VM.
- open the terminal
- DON’T ADD A SINGLE SOFTWARE REPOSITORY (Very important.)
sudo apt install snapd
- log out and log back in
sudo snap install code --classicor
sudo snap install makemkvor
sudo snap install slack --classicor
sudo snap install spotifyor uh-oh. oh noooo.
- Give this distribution full FSF (and GNU too) endorsement anyways while telling Debian they aren’t pure.
On the other end of the linux-libre field is Parabola GNU/Linux. Parabola is a great distribution which takes pride in their adherence to Libre Software. This means that although I get Arch-like current packages, I will never get access to any package which relies on chromium (specifically thinking of qtwebengine here). The FSF and GNU have taken anti-chromium stances.
So I can use PureOS and have no problem installing chromium and chromium-based software with FSF endorsement or I can use Parabola GNU/Linux and not be able to install them being told by FSF I can’t use these because they are nonfree. What the heck is going on?
When I read GNU’s explanation of “Explaining Why We Don’t Endorse Other Systems” it doesn’t ring as earnest to me as it did when it was first drafted.
tl:dr The FSF (or GNU) doesn’t have what it takes to reliably protect user freedoms or software freedoms anymore, it is causing them to make highly inconsistent, contradictory, and petty decisions. It is up to me to live my own Free Software life. So we have broken up.
Happy 35th Anniversary, FSF.