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By rickh at 2006-10-03 07:05
Debian is often held up as an example of a too political Linux community, by people who toss it off as a pejorative without considering just why it is so. In fairness, I decided to provide an explanation of the circumstances that encourage that politcal activity. I hope that seen in this light, Debian politics can be shown for what it is; the glue that holds this community together, and the reason that Debian continues to be the standard of mature Linux distributions.
The subject of political infringements into Linux comes up every so often, and generates the same kind of heated exchanges that political discussions of any nature are known to do. Politics and religion are often recognized as taboo subjects in delicate company, but they are nearly impossible to avoid.
In spite of the desire of some people to avoid it, politics is not inherently a bad thing. It is simply a structure for arriving at decisions, the enactment of which will affect a group of people. The number of people that will be affected, and the number of people involved in the decision-making process, directly affects the potential antagonism between people with the common goal of reaching the most beneficial conclusion. When the final decision is controlled by one person, much of the uproar can be avoided, but if a decision is to be reached democratically, there will be vigorous and vocal dissension before the issue rests.
One of the longest continuously printed books is Robert's Rules of Order, a guide to political etiquette in situations when a large number of people are assembled in one room for political discussion. But what happens when the discussion is based in a much larger arena, worldwide, in fact, and the discussion is equally personal, immediate, and spontaneous. There are no rules, there is no moderator, and there are no holds barred.
Debian is a large organization governed by a "Social Contract" with this as the prime directive.
We will be guided by the needs of our users, and the free software community. ... We won't object to commercial software that is intended to run on Debian systems, and we'll allow others to create value-added distributions ... without any fee from us. To support these goals, we will provide an integrated system of high-quality, 100% free software, with no legal restrictions that would prevent these kinds of use.
The "users" are the primary concern of the Debian organization, and it is at their final benefit that all distro related goals and decisions are (theoretically) aimed. Users of Debian can be as involved in its political goals as they wish, but political in the sense of "voting rights" resides with the developers.
The Developer Community
Any person knowledgeable about Debian packaging requirements, Debian policy, and the Debian community who is willing to exert the effort to get a sponsor (who is already a developer) can become a developer. This is not a quick process, and involves passing the scrutiny of developers other than your sponsor, and a review of contributions already made to the community.
There are currently about 1,000 developers scattered all over the world. Debian, perhaps more than any other distro, is international in scope. Only developers can add a package or an update to the official Debian repositories. Consequently, they work very closely with the actual package maintainers. Each developer is the absolute authority regarding the packages over whose maintenance he has oversight. Nobody, not even the Project Leader can tell a Debian developer what to do.
Annually, these developers elect a Project Leader, currently Anthony Towns. Every developer has one vote, and every developer can be a candidate. The Project Leader has the authority to delegate broad areas of responsibility and to focus attention on problem areas and short term goals. There are also various high level assistance committees with clearly defined responsibilities. Assignments to these committees can be made by the Project Leader, but for obvious reasons, special skills and knowledge tend to encourage stability in those positions.
If a developer decides that some element of the Debian structure should be changed, the method available to him is a General Resolution. Any developer can propose a General Resolution on any subject, and if it receives enough seconds, it will be immediately submitted to all developers for a vote. If the proposal achieves a majority, it will be enacted immediately, and can not be overturned, except by another General Resolution. This is Debian's primary method of reaching consensus on non-trivial issues.
Obviously, before a developer decides to submit a General Resolution, he will sound out the idea with other developers to gauge the potential support. Since the primary method of communication among developers is internet lists, with their inherent tendencies toward exaggerated reactions, this will, equally obviously, lead to the kind of political discussions that delicate people prefer to avoid. If you want to see real wars, not the pansy ones that outside press reports try to magnify, check out the irc #debian channels. (Instructions to connect, here.)
Debian is currently involved in a high pressure effort to release a new Stable version, Etch. The last major release ran about 18 months past it's stated target date, and a lot of Debian developers attach significant importance to not repeating that experience. Others posit that release cycles should be low on Debian's priority list, and that absolute application stabilty and the "free" content of the official distribution should take precedence. Anthony Towns, Project Leader, has adopted the "release on time" standard, and has also taken a controversial action related to the inclusion of Sun Java in official Debian repositories (albeit, not the "main" repo). He sees these decisions as cutting red tape, and circumventing the inherently slow process of democracy. I don't have a clear stand on those goals, myself, but I can see why people in positions of political influence would take up attitudes of vocal, even defiant opposition.
Recently, an unusual (even for Debian) number of spats between developers have spilled over into Linux and mainstream press reports. People who are not particularly familiar with "The Debian Way" tend to interpret this as some kind of sign that Debian is falling to pieces. In fact, it's merely business as usual in a democratic society. This is not to suggest that democratic principles are the best solution to political differences, but it's the way Debian does it, and it has produced the largest, and (IMO) the best base Linux distribution for the greatest number of people. Certainly, the majority of Linux users are Debian or Debian-derivative users, and all of you are participants in this political network.
Love it or leave it, Pal!
Note: I am indebted to the Martin Krafft book, The Debian System, for many of the details of the Debian structure, but I don't think anything here is plagiaristic.