Debian, a distribution of the popular free and generally open-source Linux OS, has announced it will be including software on its default installation images that’s not entirely free and open-source. The software, which will help the OS get over problems like Wi-Fi not working, will arrive in the upcoming Debian 12, codenamed ‘Bookworm’.
The OS, which is the basis for the Raspberry Pi OS (opens in new tab) as well as many other remixes and spins, was founded on a ‘social contract (opens in new tab)’ that ties it to free software and components. This contract will now be amended, following a vote (opens in new tab) by the Debian community. The change only affects the default, currently totally free, installation image, as other Debian images that include non-free software are already available.
The proprietary software to be included takes the form of Binary Large Objects, or BLOBs. In the language of free software, this means proprietary device drivers distributed without their source code, as pure binary.
Luckily, for those whose ethics prevent them from running anything other than open-source drivers and applications, Debian remixes such as PureOS (opens in new tab) will continue to exist. It will also be possible to avoid the proprietary drivers at installation time, as a statement from the Debian Project makes clear: “We will include non-free firmware packages from the ‘non-free-firmware’ section of the Debian archive on our official media (installer images and live images). The included firmware binaries will normally be enabled by default where the system determines that they are required, but where possible we will include ways for users to disable this at boot (boot menu option, kernel command line etc.)”
Debian isn’t the first Linux distro to abandon a completely free ethos and plunge into proprietary software, as Fedora and Mint (opens in new tab), among others, have been doing it for years. It’s a pragmatic way of getting modern hardware to work out of the box, as open-source drivers don’t exist for many of the different Wi-Fi solutions included in PCs. An Alpha version (opens in new tab) of Bookworm, including Gnome 43 (opens in new tab), is available for testing from the Debian website (opens in new tab).