Distributive policy

Debian Linux Accepts Proprietary Firmware in Major Policy Change

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In Debian Linux’s 29-year history, there was one constant: Debian would be entirely free software. Debian has also defined exactly what free software is in its Open Source definition. So far. Starting with the next release, Debian 12, aka Bookworm, Debian Linux will include proprietary firmware.

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Debian has always offered a choice of installation images that include proprietary software, but these were also labeled as experimental. This decision officially makes the proprietary software part of Debian.

The Debian community knows exactly what it’s doing. In September, the group voted on incorporating non-free firmware into Debian. This vote, like all decisions of the Debian community, was done with the Condorcet method. The winning option, Proposal E, Choice 5, clearly indicated that it replaced the Debian Social Contract.

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Going forward, Debian will now include non-free firmware packages on its official install images and live images. Additionally, these firmware binaries will be enabled by default when required. For example, if your computer has Wi-Fi hardware that requires Binary Large Objects (BLOB) firmware to run, the new Debian installer will offer to install it by default.

This is too often the case. While Linux kernel developers have long offered to write open-source drivers for hardware vendors free of charge, some hardware vendors have nevertheless refused to cooperate.

That said, many Linux distributions, such as Arch Linux and Fedora, have long included the “necessary” proprietary drivers. Other Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and Linux Mint also include drivers and proprietary software such as media codecs, which are not essential.

In Debian’s case, one of the choices was to continue to lock down proprietary software. This selection did not garner much support. This would have been shocking to an earlier generation of Debian developers.

Because adopting proprietary code in Debian would also require a change to the Debian Social Contract, it had to go through a three-to-one supermajority. Surprisingly, it passed easily.

It’s not your father’s Linux Debian. The vast majority of Debian users accept this decision. As Leah Rowe, lead developer and founder of Libreboot and OSBoot, an open source boot and firmware, said, “Freedom is far better and a world where everyone can use free software, exclusively, should be welcome. However, we still don’t live in this world.” Therefore, says Rowe, they “unreservedly endorses this decision.”

Plans on how to effect this change are already underway. Debian Linux 12, with the new closed-source software, will arrive in 2023.

Of course, if you insist on running a Linux distro without proprietary code, you can. These include Debian-based PureOS and Ubuntu-based Trisquel. Although neither has made an official announcement about it, it seems certain that they will continue to ship without proprietary code.

Of course, a year ago most of us would have said the same thing about Debian. Times are changing.

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