Explaining Why We Don't Endorse Other Systems
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We're often asked why we don't endorse a particular system—usually a popular GNU/Linux distribution. The short answer to that question is that they don't follow the free system distribution guidelines. But since it isn't always obvious how a particular system fails to follow the guidelines, this list gives more information about the problems of certain well-known nonfree system distros.
To learn more about the GNU/Linux systems that we do endorse, check out our list of free GNU/Linux distributions.
Except where noted, all of the distributions listed on this page fail to follow the guidelines in at least two important ways:
They do not have a policy of only including free software, and removing nonfree software if it is discovered. Most of them have no clear policy on what software they'll accept or reject at all. The distributions that do have a policy unfortunately aren't strict enough, as explained below.
The kernel that they distribute (in most cases, Linux) includes “blobs”: pieces of object code distributed without source, usually firmware to run some device.
Here is a list of some popular nonfree GNU/Linux distributions in alphabetical order, with brief notes about how they fall short. We do not aim for completeness; once we know some reasons we can't endorse a certain distro, we do not keep looking for all the reasons.
A distro may have changed since we last updated information about it; if you think one of the problems mentioned here has been corrected, please let us know. However, we will study and endorse a distro only if its developers ask for our endorsement.
Arch has the two usual problems: there's no clear policy about what software can be included, and nonfree blobs are shipped with their kernel, Linux. Arch also has no policy about not distributing nonfree software through their normal channels.
Canaima GNU/Linux is a distribution made by Venezuela's government to distribute computers with GNU/Linux. While the overall plan is admirable, Canaima is flawed by the inclusion of nonfree software.
Its main menu has an option, “Install nonfree software”, which installs all the nonfree drivers (even the ones that are not necessary). The distro also provides blobs for the kernel, Linux, and invites installing nonfree applications including Flash Player.
We're not aware of problems in CentOS aside from the two usual ones: there's no clear policy about what software can be included, and nonfree blobs are shipped with Linux, the kernel. Of course, with no firm policy in place, there might be other nonfree software included that we missed.
Debian's Social Contract states the goal of making Debian entirely free software, and Debian conscientiously keeps nonfree software out of the official Debian system. However, Debian also provides a repository of nonfree 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 learn about these nonfree packages by browsing Debian's online package database.
There is also a “contrib” repository; its packages are free, but some of them exist to load separately distributed proprietary programs. This too is not thoroughly separated from the main Debian distribution.
Previous releases of Debian included nonfree blobs with Linux, the kernel. With the release of Debian 6.0 (“squeeze”) in February 2011, these blobs have been moved out of the main distribution to separate packages in the nonfree repository. However, the problem partly remains: the installer in some cases recommends these nonfree firmware files for the peripherals on the machine.
Fedora does have a clear policy about what can be included in the distribution, and it seems to be followed carefully. The policy requires that most software and all fonts be available under a free license, but makes an exception for certain kinds of nonfree firmware. Unfortunately, the decision to allow that firmware in the policy keeps Fedora from meeting the free system distribution guidelines.
Gentoo includes installation recipes for a number of nonfree programs in its primary package system.
Mandriva does have a stated policy about what can be included in the main system. It's based on Fedora's, which means that it also allows certain kinds of nonfree firmware to be included. On top of that, it permits software released under the original Artistic License to be included, even though that's a nonfree license.
Mandriva also provides nonfree software through dedicated repositories.
Mint does not have a policy against including nonfree software, it includes nonfree binary blobs in drivers packaged with the kernel, and it includes nonfree programs in its repositories. It even includes proprietary codecs.
openSUSE offers a repository of nonfree software. This is an instance of how “open” is weaker than “free”.
Red Hat GNU/Linux
Red Hat's enterprise distribution primarily follows the same licensing policies as Fedora, with one exception. Thus, we don't endorse it for the same reasons. In addition to those, Red Hat has no policy against making nonfree software available for the system through supplementary distribution channels.
Slackware has the two usual problems: there's no clear policy about what software can be included, and nonfree blobs are included in Linux, the kernel. It also ships with the nonfree image-viewing program xv. Of course, with no firm policy against them, more nonfree programs could get in at any time. There is an unofficial list of nonfree software in Slackware.
SteamOS, a version of GNU/Linux to be distributed by Valve, is not actually released for download yet. At present, we can say that it is very unlikely to be an operating system which respects user freedom, because it is meant to work closely with the Steam service. Steam uses Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) to impose restrictions on the software it distributes. SteamOS will have to contain the proprietary software necessary to enforce these restrictions. It will also be designed to promote and integrate with the Steam store, which promotes a large amount of proprietary software.
SUSE GNU/Linux Enterprise
In addition to the usual two problems, several nonfree software programs are available for download from SUSE's official FTP site.
Tails uses the vanilla version of Linux, which contains nonfree firmware blobs.
Ubuntu provides specific repositories of nonfree software, and Canonical expressly promotes and recommends nonfree software under the Ubuntu name in some of their distribution channels. Ubuntu offers the option to install only free packages, which means it also offers the option to install nonfree packages too. In addition, the version of Linux, the kernel, included in Ubuntu contains firmware blobs.
The “Ubuntu Software Center” lists proprietary programs and free programs jumbled together. It is hard to tell which ones are free since proprietary programs for download at no charge are labelled “free”.
Since October 2012, Ubuntu sends personal data about users' searches to a server belonging to Canonical, which sends back ads to buy things from Amazon. This does not, strictly speaking, affect whether Ubuntu is free software, but it is a violation of users' privacy. It also encourages buying from Amazon, a company associated with DRM as well as mistreatment of workers, authors and publishers.
This adware is one of the rare occasions in which a free software developer persists in keeping a malicious feature in its version of a free program.
Ubuntu appears to permit commercial redistribution of exact copies with the trademarks; removal of the trademarks is required only for modified versions. That is an acceptable policy for trademarks. The same page, further down, makes a vague and ominous statement about “Ubuntu patents,” without giving enough details to show whether that constitutes aggression or not.
That page spreads confusion by using the misleading term “intellectual property rights”, which falsely presumes that trademark law and patent law and several other laws belong in one single conceptual framework. Use of that term is harmful, without exception, so after making a reference to someone else's use of the term, we should always reject it. However, that is not a substantive issue about Ubuntu as a GNU/Linux distribution.
Some Other Distros
Here we discuss some well-known or significant non-GNU/Linux system distros that do not qualify as free.
FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD all include instructions for obtaining nonfree programs in their ports system. In addition, their kernels include nonfree firmware blobs.
Nonfree firmware programs used with Linux, the kernel, are called “blobs”, and that's how we use the term. In BSD parlance, the term “blob” means something else: a nonfree driver. OpenBSD and perhaps other BSD distributions (called “projects” by BSD developers) have the policy of not including those. That is the right policy, as regards drivers; but when the developers say these distributions “contain no blobs”, it causes a misunderstanding. They are not talking about firmware blobs.
No BSD distribution has policies against proprietary binary-only firmware that might be loaded even by free drivers.
Haiku includes some software that you're not allowed to modify. It also includes nonfree firmware blobs.
Android as released by Google contains many nonfree parts as well as many free parts. Most of the free parts are covered by a pushover license (not copyleft), so manufacturers that distribute Android in a product sometimes make those parts nonfree as well.
This modified version of Android contains nonfree libraries. It also explains how to install the nonfree applications that Google distributes with Android.
ReactOS is meant as a free binary compatible replacement for Windows. Allowing people to continue using the proprietary software and drivers meant for Windows is one of the stated goals of the project.