Coping with non-free software in Debian

A personal reflection on how I moved from my Debian home to find two new homes with Trisquel and Guix for my own ethical computing, and while doing so settled my dilemma about further Debian contributions.

Debian‘s contributions to the free software community has been tremendous. Debian was one of the early distributions in the 1990’s that combined the GNU tools (compiler, linker, shell, editor, and a set of Unix tools) with the Linux kernel and published a free software operating system. Back then there were little guidance on how to publish free software binaries, let alone entire operating systems. There was a lack of established community processes and conflict resolution mechanisms, and lack of guiding principles to motivate the work. The community building efforts that came about in parallel with the technical work has resulted in a steady flow of releases over the years.

From the work of Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) during the 1980’s and early 1990’s, there was at the time already an established definition of free software. Inspired by free software definition, and a belief that a social contract helps to build a community and resolve conflicts, Debian’s social contract (DSC) with the free software community was published in 1997. The DSC included the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG), which directly led to the Open Source Definition.

Slackware 3.5" disks
One of my earlier Slackware install disk sets, kept for nostalgic reasons.

I was introduced to GNU/Linux through Slackware in the early 1990’s (oh boy those nights calculating XFree86 modeline’s and debugging and primarily used RedHat Linux during ca 1995-2003. I switched to Debian during the Woody release cycles, when the original RedHat Linux was abandoned and Fedora launched. It was Debian’s explicit community processes and infrastructure that attracted me. The slow nature of community processes also kept me using RedHat for so long: centralized and dogmatic decision processes often produce quick and effective outcomes, and in my opinion RedHat Linux was technically better than Debian ca 1995-2003. However the RedHat model was not sustainable, and resulted in the RedHat vs Fedora split. Debian catched up, and reached technical stability once its community processes had been grounded. I started participating in the Debian community around late 2006.

My interpretation of Debian’s social contract is that Debian should be a distribution of works licensed 100% under a free license. The Debian community has always been inclusive towards non-free software, creating the contrib/non-free section and permitting use of the bug tracker to help resolve issues with non-free works. This is all explained in the social contract. There has always been a clear boundary between free and non-free work, and there has been a commitment that the Debian system itself would be 100% free.

The concern that RedHat Linux was not 100% free software was not critical to me at the time: I primarily (and happily) ran GNU tools on Solaris, IRIX, AIX, OS/2, Windows etc. Running GNU tools on RedHat Linux was an improvement, and I hadn’t realized it was possible to get rid of all non-free software on my own primary machine. Debian realized that goal for me. I’ve been a believer in that model ever since. I can use Solaris, macOS, Android etc knowing that I have the option of using a 100% free Debian.

While the inclusive approach towards non-free software invite and deserve criticism (some argue that being inclusive to non-inclusive behavior is a bad idea), I believe that Debian’s approach was a successful survival technique: by being inclusive to – and a compromise between – free and non-free communities, Debian has been able to stay relevant and contribute to both environments. If Debian had not served and contributed to the free community, I believe free software people would have stopped contributing. If Debian had rejected non-free works completely, I don’t think the successful Ubuntu distribution would have been based on Debian.

I wrote the majority of the text above back in September 2022, intending to post it as a way to argue for my proposal to maintain the status quo within Debian. I didn’t post it because I felt I was saying the obvious, and that the obvious do not need to be repeated, and the rest of the post was just me going down memory lane.

The Debian project has been a sustainable producer of a 100% free OS up until Debian 11 bullseye. In the resolution on non-free firmware the community decided to leave the model that had resulted in a 100% free Debian for so long. The goal of Debian is no longer to publish a 100% free operating system, instead this was added: “The Debian official media may include firmware”. Indeed the Debian 12 bookworm release has confirmed that this would not only be an optional possibility. The Debian community could have published a 100% free Debian, in parallel with the non-free Debian, and still be consistent with their newly adopted policy, but chose not to. The result is that Debian’s policies are not consistent with their actions. It doesn’t make sense to claim that Debian is 100% free when the Debian installer contains non-free software. Actions speaks louder than words, so I’m left reading the policies as well-intended prose that is no longer used for guidance, but for the peace of mind for people living in ivory towers. And to attract funding, I suppose.

So how to deal with this, on a personal level? I did not have an answer to that back in October 2022 after the vote. It wasn’t clear to me that I would ever want to contribute to Debian under the new social contract that promoted non-free software. I went on vacation from any Debian work. Meanwhile Debian 12 bookworm was released, confirming my fears. I kept coming back to this text, and my only take-away was that it would be unethical for me to use Debian on my machines. Letting actions speak for themselves, I switched to PureOS on my main laptop during October, barely noticing any difference since it is based on Debian 11 bullseye. Back in December, I bought a new laptop and tried Trisquel and Guix on it, as they promise a migration path towards ppc64el that PureOS do not.

While I pondered how to approach my modest Debian contributions, I set out to learn Trisquel and gained trust in it. I migrated one Debian machine after another to Trisquel, and started to use Guix on others. Migration was easy because Trisquel is based on Ubuntu which is based on Debian. Using Guix has its challenges, but I enjoy its coherant documented environment. All of my essential self-hosted servers (VM hosts, DNS, e-mail, WWW, Nextcloud, CI/CD builders, backup etc) uses Trisquel or Guix now. I’ve migrated many GitLab CI/CD rules to use Trisquel instead of Debian, to have a more ethical computing base for software development and deployment. I wish there were official Guix docker images around.

Time has passed, and when I now think about any Debian contributions, I’m a little less muddled by my disappointment of the exclusion of a 100% free Debian. I realize that today I can use Debian in the same way that I use macOS, Android, RHEL or Ubuntu. And what prevents me from contributing to free software on those platforms? So I will make the occasional Debian contribution again, knowing that it will also indirectly improve Trisquel. To avoid having to install Debian, I need a development environment in Trisquel that allows me to build Debian packages. I have found a recipe for doing this:

# System commands:
sudo apt-get install debhelper git-buildpackage debian-archive-keyring
sudo wget -O /usr/share/debootstrap/scripts/debian-common
sudo wget -O /usr/share/debootstrap/scripts/sid
# Run once to create build image:
DIST=sid git-pbuilder create --mirror --debootstrapopts "--exclude=usr-is-merged" --basepath /var/cache/pbuilder/base-sid.cow
# Run in a directory with debian/ to build a package:
gbp buildpackage --git-pbuilder --git-dist=sid

How to sustainably deliver a 100% free software binary distributions seems like an open question, and the challenges are not all that different compared to the 1990’s or early 2000’s. I’m hoping Debian will come back to provide a 100% free platform, but my fear is that Debian will compromise even further on the free software ideals rather than the opposite. With similar arguments that were used to add the non-free firmware, Debian could compromise the free software spirit of the Linux boot process (e.g., non-free boot images signed by Debian) and media handling (e.g., web browsers and DRM), as Debian have already done with appstore-like functionality for non-free software (Python pip). To learn about other freedom issues in Debian packaging, browsing Trisquel’s helper scripts may enlight you.

Debian’s setback and the recent setback for RHEL-derived distributions are sad, and it will be a challenge for these communities to find internally consistent coherency going forward. I wish them the best of luck, as Debian and RHEL are important for the wider free software eco-system. Let’s see how the community around Trisquel, Guix and the other FSDG-distributions evolve in the future.

The situation for free software today appears better than it was years ago regardless of Debian and RHEL’s setbacks though, which is important to remember! I don’t recall being able install a 100% free OS on a modern laptop and modern server as easily as I am able to do today.

Happy Hacking!

Addendum 22 July 2023: The original title of this post was Coping with non-free Debian, and there was a thread about it that included feedback on the title. I do agree that my initial title was confrontational, and I’ve changed it to the more specific Coping with non-free software in Debian. I do appreciate all the fine free software that goes into Debian, and hope that this will continue and improve, although I have doubts given the opinions expressed by the majority of developers. For the philosophically inclined, it is interesting to think about what it means to say that a compilation of software is freely licensed. At what point does a compilation of software deserve the labels free vs non-free? Windows probably contains some software that is published as free software, let’s say Windows is 1% free. Apple authors a lot of free software (as a tangent, Apple probably produce more free software than what Debian as an organization produces), and let’s say macOS contains 20% free software. Solaris (or some still maintained derivative like OpenIndiana) is mostly freely licensed these days, isn’t it? Let’s say it is 80% free. Ubuntu and RHEL pushes that closer to let’s say 95% free software. Debian used to be 100% but is now slightly less at maybe 99%. Trisquel and Guix are at 100%. At what point is it reasonable to call a compilation free? Does Debian deserve to be called freely licensed? Does macOS? Is it even possible to use these labels for compilations in any meaningful way? All numbers just taken from thin air. It isn’t even clear how this can be measured (binary bytes? lines of code? CPU cycles? etc). The caveat about license review mistakes applies. I ignore Debian’s own claims that Debian is 100% free software, which I believe is inconsistent and no longer true under any reasonable objective analysis. It was not true before the firmware vote since Debian ships with non-free blobs in the Linux kernel for example.

11 Replies to “Coping with non-free software in Debian”

  1. Hi There,

    I am sorry to see that you feel that including firmware-none-free as a separate repository to main is a step to far for you. I am curious, to understand whay having contrib and none-free reposatories in previous versions was acceptable, but inclusion of a firmware-none-free repository isn’t.

    I advocated for this new repository, and genuinely am struggling to understand why you feel this was a retrograde step. I would love to have a chat.

    best wishes


    • Hi Andy

      Thanks for reading and your feedback!

      The non-free-firmware section is not my main concern. My concern is that the default Debian installer images now contains non-free software. That makes it unethical for me to use them, and as a consequence to use Debian.

      Others have explained the problems better than me, and the section on ‘Non-free firmware’ here is one:

      Another page explaining some elements is here:

      A general background on why non-free software is unethical is here:

      I read your post about non-free firmware — — and I believe the key to understand how we come to different conclusions is that we disagree that it should be Debian’s purpose to cater to manufacturer that chose to require non-free firmware. When Debian takes on that role, it accepts that non-free software is acceptable to have on your machines. I firmly believe that is unethical and leads to privacy, security and other concerns, and that Debian should not encourage it. Debian used to have a clear separation between free and non-free, but this position is now reversed and you MUST download non-free software in order to install Debian in the official way these days.

      Non-free firmware that is not modifiable sitting in EPROM in the hardware is different to me. I can see that if you equal having the same piece of software sitting statically inside hardware with loading that software from Debian, you will reach your conclusions. I do not equal these two situations, but rather see significant harm in distributing non-free firmware outside of the hardware, so I come to another conclusion.

      I’m not trying to convince you, and you are not likely to convince me either, however I do regard both positions as reasonable positions to take and I wish that Debian would support both ways of thinking.


    • Andy, it’s about user freedom. An operating system is only in line with user freedom, if it doesn’t facilitate non-free stuff in any way. That excludes offering anything non-free, like for example non-free drivers, on any spot of its infrastructure, like for example separated repositories or parts of it.
      The more interesting point is: Even Trisquel doesn’t go far enough. The best choice for user freedom is HyperbolaBSD – .

      • Thanks for feedback. Could you give an example of a piece of software that is part of Trisquel but would be unacceptable to have in HyperbolaBSD? There is definitely room to improve Trisquel on many technical levels (it inherits most of Ubuntu’s same challenges in that area), but I’m not aware of any significant issue when it comes to free software licensing. Understanding how DFSG-free distributions come to different freedom-related decisions would be interesting!


        • Sure. I think the developers initial statement, the announcement to the public of the birth of a new operating system, including the reasoning behind it, strikes your question best:

          So, you see: It’s about the fundamentals in light of libre computing & security. It’s about… consequent, conclusive development – free of contradictions to libre computing & security, 100%ly aimed ad libre computing & security.

          • Thanks for pointers! The concerns seems broad and not strictly related to software license issues – I understand people dislike systemd for a range of reasons, but I haven’t seen the argument that it is licensed in a non-free.


          • Indeed, Simon. But just like that the HyperbolaBSD developers got a point when they say, that the requirements for libre computing, having full control of our digital tools, surely have appropriate licensing as the main part, but are broader, not restricted to it, not only consist of free software licensing, but also include, just one example, simplicity:
            How much control, user freedom, do you have, when I give you free software, consisting of a gazillion lines of code, like monolithic linux kernel?
            So, for practical user freedom it takes more than just a free software license. That’s their point, as I understand it.

  2. I know this is a fairly old post, but would you by any chance be willing to direct me to a short explanation for the development environment you mentioned? I have only used debootstrap to install, not for a development environment. If I understand correctly, it is just creating everything typically in the root directory of an install, but under a subdirectory of the main install which may or may not be debian(-based) at all?

  3. The following is my experience, and the reasons why I believe Debian must re-word their promotional web pages, and update all their installers to respect user choice regarding installation of non-free-firmware OR NOT. After that are some tips on what Free Software supporters can do to continue using Debian in the meantime:

    I’m a 10+ year Debian user, and a longtime Free Software supporter. Two weeks ago I was shocked to discover 29 non-free components in the Debian desktop I’d been using for the last couple months. There hadn’t been any opt-in or even a notice about Debian’s major policy change during the installation process (I use the Debian installer via the Live images), so I was completely unaware.

    In my initial attempts to figure out what was going on, I also didn’t find any prominent announcement of the major policy change on’s homepage. Moreover, the “Our Philosophy” and “Why Debian” homepage links still give the impression that Debian is Free-Software-Friendly. That’s extremely misleading now (automatically installing 29 non-free components with neither permission nor warning is not Free Software friendly).

    If Debian is going to continue promoting itself with those “Our Philosophy” and “Why Debian” pages, there should at least be opt-ins during the installation process of every Debian download, as well as prominent warnings of the new policy on the download pages. Until that’s done, the “Our Philosophy” and “Why Debian” pages (and perhaps others) should be re-worded so as to not be so misleading.

    I was disappointed to eventually read of Debian’s “vote” on non-free-firmware. Though I do understand the desire to make Debian more friendly to new users, doing so by misleading and alienating many existing users doesn’t make a lot of sense IMO:

    After reading of this change, I then spent the next week trying to figure out how to re-install Debian without the non-free firmware. That’s when I discovered that Debian has suddenly become very Free-Software-UNfriendly. Even when I used the “firmware=never” method on the Debian installer (Live image dvd), the 29 non-free components were still installed! Without warning. That “firmware=never” method is what itself is recommending (on a rather deep link sadly), but it doesn’t even work!

    So I eventually abandoned that longtime favorite method of installing my preferred desktop, and switched to the NON-Live DVD installation… But then discovered that using “firmware=never” method there also blocks FREE-firmware that used to get installed. So now my Wifi adapter didn’t work, whereas it always worked with Debian 11/Bullseye and earlier installations.

    Ultimately it took me about a week, and about a dozen Debian Bookworm re-installations, and even hiring a developer, to get an installation via DVD that was similar to what was previously installed by default. I’ve provided some tips below to others who are struggling. However, Debian needs to change all it’s installers to provide “opt-in” for anything non-free. Even if that “opt-in” is checked by default, it should be easy to opt-out. Debian’s current leadership may have lost sight of their own “Why Debian” and “Our Philosophy” and “Who we are and what we do” claims, but Free Software philosophy is still important to many people. Actually, it’s still important, period. But whether the current leader/”voters” agree or understand or not, there should be choice for users.

    Until the installers are updated, the homepage and “Why Debian” and “Our Philosophy” and download pages should all be changed. Keeping them as they are is worse than misleading IMO (false advertising? bait-and-switch? negligent?). While an attorney could be consulted, why not just be responsible, and honest, and inclusive, by adding simple opt-in/out options on all Debian’s installers?

    Until the Debian installers are fixed, hopefully the tips below help some Free Software supporters who wish to continue using Debian. Note that I’m not a developer, so there may be mistakes in these instructions. If you find any mistakes, or have suggestions for improvement on these instructions, please post your suggestions in a reply:

    1) Above all, avoid Debian 12 Bookworm’s “Live image” installations. Those will install non-free firmware on your system no matter what you do. Even when I followed’s instructions for adding “firmware=never” before installing the OS, I still ended up with 29 non-free components on my system. That’s exactly the same number as without “firmware=never”, which means this method of blocking non-free-firmware doesn’t work with Debian’s live images. Therefore, avoid Debian Bookworm’s live images completely.

    2) If you’re a technical person and want to support Free Software, you could install from Debian 12’s “NON-Live” DVD. Adding “firmware=never” before installing with that DVD will block non-free-firmware (How to do that: on the DVD’s opening “Boot Menu”, scroll to “Start Installer” or “Graphical Install”, hit Tab, and enter “firmware=never” to that line. I’m not sure if position matters, but I added it just before the “—” and that worked). UNFORTUNATELY, this method also blocks some FREE-firmware that Debian 11/Bulleye’s Live image would have installed. Because of that, my WiFi adapter didn’t work after installing Debian 12/Bookworm using this method, whereas my Wifi always worked immediately after installing Debian 11 with purely free firmware.

    3) If you’re a non-technical (casual) Debian user who wishes to support Free Software, you could revert to Debian 11’s “Live DVD”. While Debian 11’s Live image DVD may also ignore “firmware=never”, Debian 11 doesn’t include non-free-firmware in the first place, so it doesn’t matter that “firmware=never” get ignored. On the other hand, what was great about Debian 11’s Live DVD installer is that it always recognized what free firmware my WiFi adapter needed, and installed it automatically. Therefore, my WiFi adapter (and everything else on my system) works immediately after installing Debian 11 with its 100% free firmware. That’s longer the case with Debian 12/Bookworm.

    4) Advanced: If you want a Debian DVD that installs the free-firmware, but not the non-free-firmware (ie. a Debian 12 DVD that installs the way Debian 11 did): You can use the program ISOMaster (FOSS in “main” Debian repository) to remove the folders /dists/bookwork/non-free-firmware/, /dists/bookwork/contrib/, /pool/non-free-firmware/, /pool/contrib/, as well as everything non-free in /firmware/. Unfortunately, that’s a rather time consuming and tedious process. It would be easy for Debian to provide such an image for everyone, but it’s challenging for casual Free Software supporters to perform individually. Also, this only works on Debian’s non-Live images. To remove non-free-components from the the Live images, I believe would require modifying the squashfs file, which was beyond my abilities. Perhaps someone could post how to do that?

    As a casual Debian user, it took me a week to figure this all out. The conclusion is that Debian 12/Bookworm is much, much less friendly for Free Software supporters than Debian 11/Bullseye was. The stuff about “Our Philosophy” and “Why Debian” and “Who We Are” on the homepage is now very misleading IMO. There’s not even a warning during Debian Bookworm’s live image installation to warn people about this major change to Debian! Even worse, the hard-to-find instructions being provided by for how to block non-free-firmware don’t even work for the Live image installs. In either case (whether a user is aware of Debian’s policy change and “firmware=never” instructions, or not), people who think they’re avoiding non-free-firmware are actually getting non-free-firmware.

    While I’m glad to have discovered workarounds to continue using Debian while also supporting Free Software, it was challenging, and I’m very disappointed to see how unimportant Free Software principles (on which Debian was built) are to Debian’s current leadership. Supporting Free Software shouldn’t require being a developer, nor hiring a developer, but Debian 12 took me a week to figure out. Debian 11 and previous releases were always super easy.

    Again, it really doesn’t make sense to try to make Debian accessible to more users by taking away what made it appealing to many of its existing users. That’s trying to make Debian more popular by taking away what makes it special. It wouldn’t be hard for Debian leadership to provide more Free-Software-Friendly installers. Individual users shouldn’t have to go through what I went through (a week!).

    I really hope something changes. In the meantime, I’m personally reverting to Debian 11 since it still has a few years of support. I am aware of PureOS, but the Debian community is still so great, and with 10+ years of Debian-devotion/love at this point, I’ll stick with the workarounds for as long as I can.

    By the way, for anyone who values Free Software principles, going forward it seems like a good idea to always check your Debian installations for non-free components immediately after installation. To do that:
    a) as root, update your /etc/apt/sources.list and remove any non-free or contrib entries.
    b) do: sudo apt-get update
    c) install the FOSS application “apt-show-versions” by doing: apt-get install apt-show-versions
    d) do this command: sudo apt-show-versions | grep “No available version in archive”
    If nothing is listed, you’re good. If something is listed, those are non-free, which means something wasn’t done correctly during your installation. Some people may suggest just uninstalling those non-free components, but because those components are closed-source (aka. non-free(dom)), there’s no way to know for sure what they’ve already done in your system now that you’ve booted up. Therefore, if anything is listed, my opinion is that it’s best to re-install Debian.

    Ironically, Debian 12 was the first time I ever experienced instability on Debian (my Wifi was breaking every couple hours). I have no way of knowing if it was the non-free-firmware causing a conflict, but my guess is yes because there was a conflicting non-free-firmware package. And now that I’m back to Debian 11, all is stable again.

    Links referenced:
    • Debian 12 Live install images to AVOID:
    • Better option for Debian 12, where “firmware=never” works, and where you’ll still be able to select your preferred desktop, but you may need to manually add free firmware after installation, which is annoying:
    • Best option as of April 2024 in my opinion is to revert to Debian 11’s Live install images:
    • Instructions being provided by (see section 2.2) that don’t work with Live images, which is very misleading IMO:

    • Thanks for sharing. Can you provide some detail about the 29 non-free components you mention?