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Debian is a very successful operating system, which is pervasive in our digital lives more than people often imagine or are aware of. A few data points will suffice to make this clear. At the time of writing Debian is the most popular GNU/Linux variant among web servers: according to W3Techs, more than 10% of the web is Debian-powered. Think about it: how many web sites would have you missed today without Debian? Onto more fascinating deployments, Debian is the operating system of choice on the International Space Station. Have you been following the work of ISS astronauts, maybe via the social network presence of NASA or other international organizations? Both the work in itself and the posts about it have been made possible by Debian. Countless companies, universities, and public administrations rely on Debian daily for their operations, delivering services to millions of users around the world... and its orbit!
But Debian is much more than an operating system, no matter how complex, featureful, and reliable such a system could be. Debian is a vision of the freedoms that people should enjoy in a world where more and more of our daily activities depend on software. Debian is born from the cardinal Free Software idea that people should be in control of their computers, and not the other way around. People with enough software knowledge should be able to dismantle, modify, reassemble and share with others all the software that matters to them. It doesn't matter if the software is used for frivolous activities like posting pictures of kittens on the Web, or for potentially life-threatening tasks such as driving our cars and powering the medical devices which cure us — and Debian is used in all of the above scenarios; you should control it. People without in-depth software knowledge should enjoy those freedoms too: they should be able to delegate to people of their choice, people they trust, the audit or modification of software-based devices on their behalf.
In the quest for the control of people over machines, Free operating systems play a fundamental role: you cannot be in full control of a computer device if you do not control its operating system. This is where Debian's main ambition comes from: producing the best, entirely Free operating system. For more than 20 years now, Debian has both developed a Free operating system and promoted a vision of Free Software around it. In so doing, Debian has set a very high bar for software freedom advocates around the world. Debian's decisions on matters of software licensing, for example, are routinely looked to by international standard organizations, governments, and other Free Software projects, when deciding if something should be considered “free enough” or not.
But this political vision is not yet enough to explain Debian's uniqueness. Debian is also a very peculiar social experiment, strongly attached to its independence. Think for a moment of other mainstream Free Software distributions, or even of popular proprietary operating systems. Chances are that you can associate each of them with a large company that is either the main development force behind the project, or at the very least the steward of all its non-development activities. Debian is different. Within the Debian Project volunteers pack on themselves the responsibilities of all the activities that are needed to keep Debian alive and kicking. The variety of those activities is stunning: from translations to system administration, from marketing to management, from conference organization to artwork design, from bookkeeping to legal issues... not to mention software packaging and development! Debian contributors take care of all of these.
As a first consequence of this radical form of independence, Debian needs and relies on a very diverse community of volunteers. Any skill in any of the above areas, or others you can imagine, can be invested into Debian and will be used to improve the project. A second consequence of Debian independence is that Debian's choices can be trusted not to be driven by the commercial interests of specific companies — interests that we have no guarantee will always be aligned with the goal of promoting people's control over machines, as too many recent examples in the tech news testify.
One last aspect contributes to Debian's uniqueness: the way in which the social experiment is run. Despite the folklore of being bureaucratic, decision making in Debian is in fact highly distributed. There exist clearly defined areas of responsibility within the project. People in charge of those areas are free to drive their own boat. As long as they keep up with the quality requirements agreed upon by the community, no one can tell them what to do or how to do their job. If you want to have a say on how something is done in Debian, you need to put yourself on the line and be ready to take the job on your shoulders. This peculiar form of meritocracy — which we sometimes call do-ocracy — is very empowering for contributors. Anyone with enough skills, time, and motivation can have a real impact on the direction the project is taking. This is testified by a population of about 1 000 official members of the Debian Project, and several thousands of contributors world-wide. It is no wonder that Debian is often credited as the largest community-driven Free Software project in existence.
So Debian is quite unique. Are we the only ones noticing this? Definitely not. According to DistroWatch there are about 300 active Free Software distributions around. Half of that (about 140) are Debian derivatives. That means that they start from Debian, adapt it to fit the needs of their users — usually by adding, modifying, and rebuilding packages — and release the resulting product. In essence, derivatives apply the Free Software granted freedoms of modifying and redistributing copies not only to individual pieces of software, but to a distribution as a whole. The potential of reaching out to new Free Software users and contributors by the means of derivative distributions is huge. We believe that it is mainly thanks to that thriving ecosystem that Free Software is nowadays finally rivaling with proprietary software in fields which were historically considered hard to conquer, such as large desktop deployments. Debian sits at the root of the largest ecosystem of Free Software distributions in existence: even if you are not using Debian directly, and even if your distributor has not told you, chances are that you are benefiting right now from the work of the Debian community.
But Debian's uniqueness sometimes comes with unexpected consequences. A consequence of Debian's vision on digital freedoms has been the need of redefining what we mean by software. The Debian Project has since long realized that, as part of an operating system, you need to distribute a lot of non-software material: music, images, documentation, raw data, firmware, etc. But how do you apply software freedoms to that material? Should we have different requirements or should all material be held up to the same high standard of freedom? The Debian Project has decided for the latter: all material shipped as part of Debian should offer the same freedoms to its users. Such a radical philosophical position has far reaching effects. It means we cannot distribute non-free firmware, or artwork not meant to be used in commercial settings, or books that cannot be modified in order to avoid tarnishing (as book publishers folklore goes) the author's/publisher's reputation.
The book you have in your hands is different. It's a free as in freedom book, a book which is up to Debian freedom standards for every aspect of your digital life. For a very long time, the scarce availability of books like this one has been a significant shortcoming of Debian. It meant that there was little reading material that helped to spread Debian and its values, while at the same time embodying those values and showing off their advantages. But it also meant, ironically, that we had little such material that we could distribute as part of Debian itself. This is the first reputable book to address this shortcoming. You can apt install this book, you can redistribute it, you can fork this book or, better, submit bug reports and patches for it, so that others in the future can benefit from your contributions. The “maintainers” of this book — who are also its authors — are longstanding members of the Debian Project, who grok the freedom ethos that permeates every aspect of Debian and know first-hand what it means to take on the responsibility for important parts of Debian. By releasing this Free book they are doing, once more, such a wonderful service to the Debian community.
We hope you will enjoy this cornerstone of Debian reading Freedom as much as we did.
October 2015
Stefano Zacchiroli (Debian Project Leader 2010-2013), Lucas Nussbaum (Debian Project Leader 2013-2015) and Neil McGovern (Debian Project Leader 2015-incumbent)