Gobuntu: A Truly Free Linux Distro or a Free Drivers Experiment?

There’s disagreement about whether Gobuntu lives up to its goal as the “strictest possible interpretation of the Free Software Foundation's ‘Four Freedoms.’”
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"It has nothing whatsoever to do with Freedom," argues one of Gobuntu’s contributors. The contributor, Keith G. Robertson-Turner, is a longtime, passionate advocate of free software. Before joining Gobuntu, he was among the first package maintainers on the Fedora project. Yet recently he opted to leave the Gobuntu project after what he sees as continued disappointment.

"In fact, [Mark] Shuttleworth has just confirmed on-list that his only interest is the kernel (i.e., disable as much of the contentious drivers as possible) ... and see what still works," he continues.

In contrast, Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu, disagrees with Robertson-Turner. The developer's complaints "reflect one person's recollection of a vigorous discussion on the Gobuntu development mailing lists," Shuttleworth replied in an email response to Robertson-Turner's claims. Indeed, in Shuttleworth's view, "Gobuntu is about building a platform that expresses freedom in software and in content." He urges those interested to read key parts of the Gobuntu mailing list (linked to below).

Before examining Robertson-Turner's experiences and findings, let's delve into a little background. Later on, internal problems will be explained and ways to improve Gobuntu's direction will be suggested.

What Makes a Linux Distribution Truly Free

A truly free GNU/Linux distribution is one that honors the idea that full access to and control over program source code is both valuable and necessary. Such a distribution should avoid software and hardware drivers that cannot be controlled by the user. Moreover, all expressions of creativity, including artwork, should permit derivative work. All in all, this ensures that there is no restriction that ties the user to the software and hardware vendors.

There are several projects that strive to create such a Linux distro, for instance, Ututo and gNewSense. These projects make their work widely available, not necessarily for profit. The main goal of projects that follow this route is to reverse a growing trend in which hardware and software turn against their users. Examples include compromise of privacy, restriction on access, and forced upgrades, which can be expensive.

Gobuntu is a project whose purpose is to deliver a Linux distribution that is free not only in terms of cost, but also free in that it facilitates user freedom. Gobuntu essentially comprises a reduced set of packages that are used in Ubuntu Linux, with possible replacements for "non free" software packages and drivers.

Drivers vs. Applications

A complete operating system can be looked at from several levels of abstractions or operation. Two such levels are the applications and the kernel. In a truly free Linux distribution, source code should be openly available at all levels. But what does this mean in practical terms?

At the level of the kernel, things are relatively simple. All code, including that which operates peripheral devices such as printers and keyboards, as well as internal storage media, should be made available for inspection, modification, and even redistribution. The user is in total charge of the way software interacts with the hardware and can therefore tweak the computer's behavior to his or her heart's content.

When it comes to applications, the notion of "free" becomes more complex. Above the level of source code there tends to exist a graphical user interface with images, sounds, and other forms of art. Applications, unlike kernel code, can be very large and complex.

Dedication to both levels – the kernel and applications that sit on top – is needed when producing a truly free Linux distro. Without the conditions of freedom being satisfied, the computer that runs that software is not entirely under its user's control. The user is forbidden from doing certain things on their own computer. The user is sometimes forced to do undesirable things, too. For instance, the user is not permitted access to vital personal information, or very sensitive data is sent over the network without the user's consent.

Next page: Is Gobuntu a Free Linux? (And Who Controls It?)


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