Exploring the FSF's free distributions for the desktop

Free as in Really Free

© Lead Image © skvoor, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © skvoor, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 234/2020
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The Free Software Foundation maintains a list of GNU/Linux distributions that meet their strict standards for free software – and your distro probably doesn't qualify. Meet the distros that pass the test.

Linux is frequently called a free operating system, but that all depends on what you call free – and what you call an operating system. When Richard Stallman launched the Free Software movement in 1983, he had a very specific vision in mind that was codified in what became known as the Four Software Freedoms (see the "Four Freedoms" box) [1]. Although the Linux kernel is distributed under a free license and is thus classified as free software, many other components are commonly packaged with the Linux kernel, and some of them aren't so free. Furthermore, a Linux distribution (or GNU/Linux distribution in the parlance of the Free Software community) is more than just the kernel and often contains thousands of software packages, including applications, libraries, firmware, drivers, codecs, and other components – all with their own licenses and development goals.

Four Freedoms

According to the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation, a program is free software if the program's users have the four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

A program is free software if it gives users adequately all of these freedoms. Otherwise, it is non-free. While we can distinguish various non-free distribution schemes in terms of how far they fall short of being free, we consider them all equally unethical.

The truth is, since 1996, the Linux kernel has included what are known as proprietary or binary blobs – software or firmware that is free to distribute but is not free-licensed and does not come with source code. These blobs often include drivers for WiFi, sound, or Ethernet. To make matters worse, many distributions come with proprietary tools that require proprietary software, such as VirtualBox.

Most mainstream distros accept binary blobs, because they believe including these components with the distribution makes the system more user-friendly and improves hardware compatibility. The Free Software Foundation (FSF), however, considers binary blobs a violation of the Four Software Freedoms, because these blobs are distributed without source code and therefore cannot be studied or improved. Moreover, since the blobs cannot be studied, no one can be sure what they contain, and they are a potential threat to privacy and security.

Even if a distribution ships without any binary blobs or other non-free software, if the developers maintain a non-free software repository, the distro loses the endorsement of the FSF. For instance, many Linux users consider Debian the quintessential free Linux, but it is not regarded as free by the FSF, because it supports a non-free repository. According to the GNU website, "Debian's Social Contract states the goal of making Debian entirely free software, and Debian conscientiously keeps non-free software out of the official Debian system. However, Debian also maintains a repository of non-free software. According to the project, this software is 'not part of the Debian system', but the repository is hosted on many of the project's main servers, and people can readily find these non-free packages by browsing Debian's online package database and its wiki."

In addition to its objection to binary blobs and non-free repositories, the FSF also withholds the title of "free" from distros that do not meet its standards for:

  • Documentation – all documentation included with the project must come with an open license, and, according to the FSF, "it must take care not to recommend non-free software."
  • Trademarks – trademarks are another form of intellectual property, and the FSF does not support including products that place restrictions on distribution of trademarks.
  • Name confusion – the common practice of developing parallel versions of a software product (one free "community" version and one non-free proprietary version) and giving them the same or a similar name leads to confusion and promotes non-free software.

In short, the FSF has very strict requirements for what is a free distribution, and very few Linux distros qualify. However, a small but dedicated group of developers and maintainers continue to work to produce functional Linux systems that meet the FSF's Free System Distribution Guidelines [2].

The FSF maintains a page that lists completely free distributions [3]. The list has never been long. Major distributions have not made it a priority to meet the strict FSF requirements for a free system, although some, like Gentoo and Arch, have information on their wikis about how to deblob.

Currently, the FSF list of free distributions includes only nine entries. Of those nine, Ututo is included only for its historic interest as the first deblobbed distribution. Similarly, Dyne:bolic has not had a release for eight years, and gNewSense is on hiatus, although developer Matt Lee says that he plans to revive it. As for Guix, it exists mainly to demonstrate the Guix package manager, rather than as an everyday alternative. In the end, only four distributions are listed that an average user can use on a modern computer: Dragora, Parabola, PureOS, and Trisquel.

Dragora GNU/Linux

Like Ututo, the Dragora project [4] is based in Argentina. The distribution is currently in beta, and English documentation is sparse, although a YouTube video can get users started [5]. Even finding basic information like logging into the Live DVD with root and Dragora can be challenging.

However, those with patience to persist will find much that is original in Dragora. For example, it is built from scratch and uses its own package manager called qi, as well as using runit for an init system. The result is a light and highly responsive distribution. Admirers of Slackware should be responsive to Dragora's philosophy – others not so much (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Dragora GNU/Linux takes a do-it-yourself approach reminiscent of Slackware.

Parabola GNU/Linux

Parabola [6] (Figure 2) was originally proposed on the gNewSense IRC and went on to become a distribution in its own right. Drawing on the Arch Linux repositories, it is available for the i686, x86-64, and ARMv7 architectures. An alternative spin called TalkingParabola includes Braille and sound tools for the visually impaired.

Figure 2: Parabola is a free distribution based on Arch Linux.

Parabola's main difference from Arch is its dedication to a totally free distribution. According to its Wikipedia entry, some 700 packages were removed to reach this goal. The default installation produces an LXDE interface, with a limited set of packages designed to be lightweight.

Parabola can be installed either from a Live DVD or by changing the repositories for an Arch system to Parabola's and then updating. The result is a serviceable but relatively uninspired distribution, best suited to older hardware – and to those already familiar with Arch.

PureOS

PureOS [7] is the Debian and Gnome-based operating system used on Purism's line of Librem computers (Figure 3). It is one of the most recent additions to the FSF list, having been added for the first time in 2018, and the Librem laptops have been awarded the Respect Your Freedom certification by the FSF as well. So far as I have been able to determine, PureOS is the only free distribution to run Wayland as a graphical environment.

Figure 3: PureOS is a distribution used on Purism's line of Librem laptop computers.

On the Purism website, PureOS is described as "A user-friendly, secure, and freedom-respecting OS for your daily usage. With PureOS, you are the only one in control of your digital life." This description makes PureOS sound like an ideal choice, except for one thing: No details about the security and privacy have been released. Nor are many details from the selection of software included in the interface. The few that are obvious are small touches, such as including Enigmail for sending encrypted email and defaulting to DuckDuckGo as a search engine. In addition, PureOS gives far more notifications than the average distribution, allowing users to know far more about what is happening.

Possibly more security may lie in configuration defaults, but the references to security presumably refer to features such as the camera and WiFi kill switches that are part of the hardware. For this reason, PureOS seems to best suited to those who run Librem laptops rather than any general hardware.

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