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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.

Politics Generally
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 Structure
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.

General Resolutions
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.)

Additional Pressures
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.

by cfmcguire on Wed, 2006-10-04 19:45
Anytime that two or more people are engaged in any sort of endeavor, politics is inevitable. The significant difference that I percieve here is that the discussion is public, another sign of an open society.

by vharishankar on Thu, 2006-10-05 01:39
Great article. You said everything I wanted to say and with great choice of words.

by russofris on Thu, 2006-10-05 04:44
For Debian, being composed of free software is a duty, and not just a political decision. In the world of linux distros, there needs to be 'at least' one distro that is composed entirely of free software. If a user wants to work on Debian, but requires an encumbered package, they are free to install it themselves or use a derivative distro (like Unbuntu).

Gentoo is in the same boat. Difficult 'from scratch' installations, dependency bugs, and errors caused by bleeding edge software aren't Gentoo's problem, they're Gentoo's duty. Gentoo detects bugs and dependency issues "before" they make it into other distros. Bugs are reported upstream or fixed in place with patches going upstream so that RHEL users can blab to gentoo users about how stable 'their' distro is. All I can say to them is "You're welcome".

Thank you Debian developers. You make sure that free software is properly supported, integrated, and available. Even though I don't use your OS, your contribution is (indirectly) felt by each and every linux user in the world.

Thank you for your time,
Frank Russo

by normanlinux on Wed, 2013-11-20 17:11
I don't use Debian. I tried it some years ago in a situation where Internet access was unavailable. There was a lot to like, but everything was just too old. Not for me.

Debian developers have a very clear, focused vision. Good for them. They know what they want to do - and how they want to do it. Their stance is unbending. Does this make them wrong? does it make them evil? does it make them too political?

No. This is their distribution. They have a right to take up any position that they want. Likewise we, as users, have the right to use or not use it. Millions choose to use it. Good. That I do not use it, is not related to their position. It is most easily explained if I say that I am using Arch and looking into LFS. I don't use Debian because it is not what *I* am looking for.

by frankbell on Wed, 2013-11-20 22:25
Though I sometimes find Debian's stance of aggressively free, from the FLOSS point of view, has caused me inconvenience, I agree with normanlinux. I respect their consistency, and, after all, every inconvenience I have to figure out is an opportunity to learn something new.

I don't use Debian. I tried it some years ago in a situation where Internet access was unavailable. There was a lot to like, but everything was just too old. Not for me.
I've not yet run into a situation where a bleeding edge version of an application gave me any functionality that I needed that was not in an earlier, more stable version (I didn't start using Linux until 2005). I guess that's just stodgy old me; after all, my two favorite distros are Slackware and Debian, both of which value stability over bleeding edge.

by Shadow_7 on Wed, 2013-11-20 22:52
The age of the current debian software is years younger than my hardware. I don't see the issue?

by aus9 on Wed, 2013-11-20 22:56
my two favorite distros are Slackware and Debian, both of which value stability over bleeding edge.
I guess Debian sid is not allowed?

Actually I can think of areas where bleeding edge has relevance to some users altho I accept not frankbell.
From time to time, software features, new software features, new config files resolve some matters for "stable" users.
Non-exhaustive list includes grub2.

I guess we can thank Debian sid users for testing that eventually filters into stable via testing.
OK you don't need to thank me personally.

by frankbell on Thu, 2013-11-21 20:39

Actually I can think of areas where bleeding edge has relevance to some users altho I accept not frankbell.
I did say I was stodgy!

If I ran into a piece of broken software and needed a newer version to unbreak it, I would certainly not hesitate. Maybe I've been lucky, but I have not encountered that yet.

Also, if I were a developer, I would certainly want to test on bleeding edge, but I'm not, so I don't. I'm just an enthusiastic user.

by normanlinux on Fri, 2013-11-22 05:09
"I've not yet run into a situation where a bleeding edge version of an application gave me any functionality that I needed that was not in an earlier, more stable version"

There is a difference, however, between stable and outdated. When I first encountered Debian I was stuck without internet access. I had been using KDE3 for about a year, but Debian came with KDE2. This prevented me from continuing my exploration of programming QT. I am currently using Arch for bleeding edge and openSuSE. I would have been using LFS had I not missed one of the steps in the first phase (not discovered until underway in the real build), meaning that I will have to start again ab initio.

To reiterate my earlier point. Debian is political (with a small 'p') inasmuch as it has a clear focus and purpose. There is *nothing* wrong with that. If you don't like it stop moaning and use one of the many other distros out there. I have no problems with their stance and that is not my reason for not using it.

by Randicus Draco Albus on Mon, 2013-12-02 04:18
The reason many people complain about Debian's political stance is because certain distributions actively court Windows users with the lure of a free (no money) OS that includes all the proprietary crapware necessary to do everything without any configuration. The result is hordes of new Linux users who do not know anything about free software. When they encounter a system like Debian that requires the user to install and configure proprietary software, they do not understand the inconvenience they are subjected to. When it is explained to them that so-called non-free software is not included, because the OS is dedicated to the cause of free software, they do not want to understand what free software is (and how it makes their Linux system monetarily free) and complain that a system should do what they want it to do, regardless of the past and future of free software. To them, the free software movement is nothing more than an OS that does not cost any money, and they do not give a damn about the "politics" of free software. Those people then make a big fuss about the political stupidity of distros like Debian. Welcome to the downfall of Linux. The end is nigh.


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