Three Years of Free Software Activism: The Case of GNU-Darwin OS

The GNU-Darwin Distribution is a free operating system and a popular source of free software for Mac OS X and Darwin-x86 users, but it is also a platform for digital activism. Founded in November of 2000, the Distribution has the stated goal of bringing software freedom to computer users of every stripe, and vigilantly defending digital liberties.

Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of

Hexley, the Darwin Mascot GNU-Darwin is a Darwin-based operating system, but it also GNU-based, in that many thousands of free software titles are provided, all of which are compatible with the Darwin and Mac OS X. Software packaging tools were adapted from
FreeBSD for the purpose of distributing the GNU part of the system and other free software items, but Darwin itself also includes many crucial GNU software
titles, such as bash and GCC.

Recently, Apple’s public source license was revised so that Darwin could be distributed as an FSF recognized free operating
system, and we have modified Darwin in accordance with that goal, so that the
GNU-Darwin developers now feel free to compete directly against “Linux” and
other “open source” projects. In addition, GNU-Darwin continues to support the
PowerPC platform and to help Apple users, who may be free software novices.
Moreover, now that we have a free version of Darwin, our horizons are greatly
expanded. Here we present our third yearly report.

GNU-Darwin is an activist distribution

GNU-Darwin has been an ardent defender of digital liberties, and it is a
platform for digital activism. Given the current state of things in the US and
elsewhere, strident expressions of democratic power are necessary. The tools of
such action include, but are not limited to; boycotts, blockades, community
response, de-branding, labor solidarity, whistle-blowing, etc. Once your
credibility to engage is established, then the mere threat of such action is
often sufficient to produce results.

We have been prepared to take the Distro off-line a couple of times as a form of
political action. It is important to realize that the software freedom status
of GNU-Darwin was tenuous before the change to the
, so we were ready to cut our losses, and remove GNU-Darwin from the
internet, if necessary. Now things have improved very much.

In fact, we did blackout the home page as a war protest in March, and we
blackened the whole website, after Apple used the DMCA, but we have never
actually taken it off line. Fortunately, the situation has never warranted
taking the package collection off line, which would be an even more drastic
step, and our actual users have never been affected by these actions. In fact,
we received many orders and messages of support as a result of our activism.

In general the effects of such action are ambiguous by nature, because the
rulers certainly have an interest in denying the influence of democratic power.
In particular cases, we can only say that the results are consistent with
successful action; Darwin is free. Dmitry is free. The “telescreen” initiative
was scuttled at the Commerce Department. Technology companies have been
repelled from DMCA-based legal action.

Our users support such action, as illustrated most recently by the predictable
upsurge in downloads and orders that accompanied the Europatent protest and the
WIPO open source initiative, and we were joined by many new users as well. The
upshot for free software projects is this: If your users agree with your
sentiments, then they will welcome a small inconvenience in order to join a
prominent statement against injustice. This is probably true of the majority of
free software projects and many website communities as well. This is how we
will make the internet work for us, and do its intended job. We encourage free
software projects everywhere to adopt these methods of activism (but also to
support groups like EFF, which assist the legislative and legal agenda).

In the SCO dispute, GNU-Darwin has no stake at all, but the lessons of
GNU-Darwin-style activism may provide some illumination to those who do have a
stake in it. Expressions of strident democratic power are appropriate and to be
encouraged. Actions should target SCO and their supporters, including users.
If the government takes the side of SCO, then target the government as well. In
a capitalistic world, free software projects have a tremendous advantage: By
acting without greed, your actions are unfathomable to the corporate oligarchy,
which can be easily bested, if you cooperate with your natural allies.

SCO compatibility is the power that you wield. Your users will not mind a
little inconvenience in order to be associated with the good that you are doing,
and by engaging injustice, you create strong allies for yourself. Don’t worry
about creating enemies; The cockroaches scatter when you turn on the lights.

A SCO blockade would be an action of community response, which is analogous in
some ways to our Free Darwin action. Our third year commenced with the
initiation of the The
Free Darwin campaign
which was followed by the antiwar blackout in March.
Free Darwin was an engagement of Apple by GNU-Darwin, wherein we stated that we
would continue to develop for the ppc architecture only under certain
conditions. The action was amplified by our usership, the strong democratic
power that underlies and validates the actions of GNU-Darwin. I’m certainly not
trying to take the credit for GNU-Darwin for something that was clearly the work
of Apple and FSF. The question is whether or not Free Darwin had a hand in it.

We don’t know for sure yet how much GNU-Darwin influenced the events in
question, and we may never know. That is the nature of actions like Free
Darwin, Free Dmitry, and Stakeholders-7/17, where the rulers will certainly deny
that democratic power influenced the event. People will tell you to this day
that Adobe “was not hurt” by the boycott. Our aim in Free Darwin was not to
hurt Apple, but to assist their excellent progress. Many of us had portentious
discussions with people inside Apple during the execution of that action, and we
may soon learn the truth about Free Darwin, but maybe never.

Here is what we do know. There was no indication whatsoever that Apple was
pursuing free software listing before the Free Darwin action, even though we had
been asking for it for almost three years. In fact, Apple’s own Darwin FAQ
derided the necessity of it. Apple attained that listing 7 months (corporate
lightspeed) after commencement of Free Darwin. Fortunately, the action
provoked huge coverage and a human groundswell on the web, and apparently
impacted Apple’s stock price. It provided a focal point for the discontent of
the community, so that Apple employees had an opportunity to point to the action
and say, “We need to do something positive about this.”

We would hope that SCO users and employees would have a similar response to the
actions of the free software community, which are for their benefit in the long

In isolation, the Free Darwin case is quite weak because of the ambiguity of
results. On the other hand, taken together with many other such actions, the
case is now overwhelmingly strong. Strident expressions of democratic power
appear to be consistently effective (although we have not yet impacted
the war against Iraq). We would like people to look at these accomplishments and
be inspired to engage themselves for good. It is important not to disparage
anyone’s efforts, which is the same as discouraging your allies. If everyone
does everything that they can, no matter how small, then together we can make an
impact. Together we can stop the Englobulators!

GNU-Darwin is able to bring GNU and other free software to all users

This year the Distribution announced the 1.0
. We continue to provide about 270 one_stop style installations per
month from the mirror alone (ppc:200,x86:70). This number has
been fairly stable (on average) for almost a year. Thus, we are providing many
thousands of packages to one_stop users each month and probably around 60,000
(+/-15k) overall per month, as estimated from changes in package deployments
since October 2001. Our cd images have regularly appeared in the top 100 files
for the whole internet, and our website was also in the top 100 at the
commencement of the Free Darwin action last December. This year we enabled
shell access for all of our web service

A couple of people have noticed that our SourceForge statistics appear to be
low. There are a number of factors that affect this. At the center of our work
is the package collection, which typically does not show up on the SourceForge
activity monitors at all. In another example, I have been doing most of my CVS
maintenance using imports instead of commits, but only commits show up on the
SourceForge tables. Until recently, our package collection was frozen for
stability, development, and strategic purposes, and we were only doing
maintenance updates, such as security releases and fixes to key packages. During
the freeze, we were focused on publicity and GNU-Darwin Internet Services
development among other things. Since that time, we have begun to make our 1.1
package revisions available. The GNU-Darwin statistics at SourceForge are
severely skewed, and we are one of the largest, most active, and popular
projects there.

Given these remarkable facts and numbers, our support load is incredibly low and
manageable, probably due to growing expertise among our users and also the
excellent FreeBSD and SourceForge based infrastructure, which supports the
GNU-Darwin project. It is difficult to relate these numbers to our total
usership, but it appears to be well into the thousands at least, which is
verifiable with several independent metrics. Moreover, we are able to scale our
numbers to the total OS X usership and whole internet, and everything
cross-validates very neatly. It is also safe to assume from all of this that our
usership has been growing at a slow steady rate for a long time. This growth was
assisted by the Free Darwin and anti-war actions and unhindered by the rudeness
of some of our critics.

Our project is aptly named. Look at Darwin itself, and you will see that tons
of free software has been added to it since 2000. Nearly all of it was first
introduced to the platform by GNU-Darwin, and whatever else they decide to add,
it is likely that we have already done it. Pre-2000, the whole system was built
with GNU tools, and the process of adding GNU software had already begun. The
kernel is even named XNU, which is certainly a knockoff (RMS probably rejected
that name). GNU-Darwin is a standalone free OS and software distribution
system, so we might never be in the position of RMS, begging for justice in the
naming of these things. If you look at our hard media offerings, you will see
that we provide about 12 gigabytes in addition to the Darwin installer CD. That
is over 20:1, and no one else comes close to matching this, even Apple itself.
All of it is either GNU, GPL, or free; so that we are a unique distributor.

From the very beginning, we were about bringing GNU to Darwin. We have come back
to the beginning, and that work is finished and bona fide. Take all this
together, and it is clear that we have ample room to redefine ourselves in
better accordance with the goals of the FSF without breaking our linkage to
Darwin. This adds immeasurably to the unique flavor of our Distro, and closes
the circle as it were. Moreover, we are now entirely free to compete in the
whole technology sector; Apple, Microsoft, RedHat, whatever, and to make our
impact on Debian and the rest of the free software community. It is happening
already, and we should not be conservative in our aims at this time.

We are the unique OS distributor at the juncture between FSF and Apple, and we
already have the software update technology in place to make that count. We can
fill the gap entirely, but in order to be credible, there are a couple of things
that we should keep in mind. We must minimize our mention of non-free software.
When we speak of proprietary software at all, it should be that we intend to
replace it with our own offerings. We want to replace M$ and Adobe products
with our offerings. We want to replace Windows with GNU-Darwin. We want to
replace Mac OS X with GNU-Darwin. We even want to replace RedHat, Suse, and
FreeBSD. This consistent approach works fine with new Apple users and advanced
*nix users as well. All Mac OS related statements on our website have been moved
to the “about page”. Moreover, we must now reiterate that our Distribution has
always been about bringing GNU to Darwin, so GNU will now have equal billing
with Darwin as it were. If we do these things, we will never play second fiddle
to anyone in industry or in the free software sector, and GNU-Darwin will spread
because of what it is, not because of its relation to other things.

Unlike Debian, GNU-Darwin will have no non-free directories, but rather we will
delete non-free items from our servers. There will be a little give and take on
what exactly constitutes “free”, because we are coming from an entirely
different origin than Debian. It is important to note that GNU-Darwin is not a
democracy. I have been making most of the crucial decisions without consulting
anyone, but each of our users feel their freedom, are at ease making
suggestions, etc. Especially for GNU-Darwin, there is difference between
freedom and democracy. Overall, there may be differences between GNU-Darwin and
Debian, but we can cooperate with them on our shared goals. Metaphorically,
GNU-Darwin and Debian can be seen as two barrels of one shotgun.

Thanks to the FSF bounty
, publicity actions by our users, and Apple’s recent update, we have
had the most visits to our website this month since the time of the Free Darwin
action in December and January. Our ad revenue this month was extraordinary,
and I’m happy to report that the project has become financially self-sustaining.
Last week, we ran Google ads targeting “Linux” users. The exercise was very
instructive, and resulted in the new “OpenOffice for ppc” link on the homepage,
among other things. (Now, if we could only provide salaries for our developers).

We have stepped up our outreach to free software developers, and improved our
cooperation with the community. This effort resulted directly in the soon to be
released GNUTLS port, a crucial alternative to OpenSSL and proprietary TLS
systems. Our relationship with the Dillo project continues, and we have a
little surprise planned (more about that later). If you have a favorite free
software project that is not yet available for GNU-Darwin users, be sure and
tell the developers that GNU-Darwin wants to help them. Have them email us.

GNU-Darwin appears to be a collegial meritocracy, which also appears to be an
excellent way to run a project in the fast paced world of changing technology.
Each of our developers was selected (not elected) because of their level of
engagement, talents, and contributions. We obviously could not have made the
impact that we have, if we were encumbered by the democratic process/bureaucracy
of some other distros. Our agility is based on the fact that the people with
the greatest experience, know-how, and hands-on ability are making their own
decisions and contributions on the fly, seeking each others advice only as
required in order to do the job. We are only just getting started. We are not
a country. We are building an institution of vast potential and longevity. We
will continue our activism in the realms of software freedom and digital
liberties, and GNU-Darwin will spread far and wide.

About the author:
Dr. Michael L. Love is currently a postdoctoral associate with the Cornell
University high energy synchrotron source at MacCHESS and in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics. Dr. Love founded GNU-Darwin in order to advance his work at the facility, although the project is also known for free software advocacy.


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