There’s a discussion going on on my LUG mailing list today which seems to have diverged from its original topic to the question of the inclusion of officially supported non-free repositories in distributions: is this merely facilitating freedom or does it have more sinister implications for free software?
As I see it people argue for the inclusion of non-free repositories in two ways: firstly they say that these repositories provide freedom of choice for the end user, without risking destabilisation of their systems; secondly, and not unrelated to the first, they help to make GNU/Linux more accessible thus increasing the number of users. The question isn’t whether freedom of choice is an admirable goal—it is; the question is whether enabling easy access to proprietary applications increases a users freedom of choice.
In the first of these arguments there’s a contradiction in the claim that non-free repositories enables freedom of choice: proprietary applications restrict a user’s freedom to choose. Whether this is in the context of a user’s freedom to choose to modify the software, or a user’s freedom to choose to share that software with friends, or any of the other freedoms talked about by the GNU project, doesn’t matter—these are all freedoms of choice which are restricted by proprietary software. Providing easy access to non-free repositories, on the other hand, only provides one additional freedom—that to choose between free and non-free solutions.
In the second argument, one must presume that users who have come to free software after realising that non-free repositories (and the abilities these enable) are available have chosen on the basis of a superior technical platform and/or a lack of understanding about the ideological questions surrounding free software. If we fail to provide another reason to stay with free software—such as educating them about the ideological questions—what happens if a proprietary platform becomes the technically more attractive solution? Obviously they will decide to use the proprietary platform and in the process they will lose all the aforementioned freedoms.
Promoting proprietary solutions also has an effect on the sustainability of free software; during the discussion on the list this was said:
Proprietary code that is promoted over and above a free software alternative takes freedom away from those who want to use the free alternative in the future because the free alternative might not develop fully.
After thinking about all of this I don’t believe that non-free repositories genuinely help increase freedom of choice for users. Proprietary software as supplied by non-free repositories is a convenience for us now, and perhaps some people who are aware of the issues believe it is an acceptable convenience, but it is also a threat to the freedoms of people in the future and this is something we must take responsibility for. Does this mean that non-free repositories are unacceptable? Possibly. Does this mean that this is a question that should be debated and maintained at the forefront of our consciousness? Definitely.