A public discussion about GNU

New GNU Governance

There is now a public discussion about GNU governance issues as described in this LWN article: Rethinking the governance of the GNU Project. We have had private discussion about GNU governance issues for the last couple of decades between GNU maintainers, but that never resulted in actual change. And recent events made things a bit more urgent. Since the Chief GNUisance is no longer the president of the FSF. The FSF is now asking for feedback on how their relationship with the GNU project should go forward with respect to fiscal sponsorship, technical infrastructure, promotion, copyright assignment, and volunteer management. So we need to answer a lot of questions.

Mentoring and apprenticeship

We started with a description of how various GNU projects handle mentoring and apprenticeship. Once a GNU maintainer is assigned as the FSF steward of a project/package there are lots of documents on coding standards and what it means for a project to be GNU and Free Software. But there is no core guideline and a GNU maintainer has almost complete freedom interpreting whether any guidelines are or aren’t applicable to their project. This results in GNU maintainers reinventing a lot of project maintenance, governance and delegation of tasks. It would be good to document the various (consensus based) development models that are the result.

GNU membership

The mentoring and apprenticeship discussion focused on the GNU maintainers as being the core of the GNU project. But as was pointed out there are also webmasters, translators, infrastructure maintainers (partially paid FSF staff and volunteers), education and conference organizers, etc. All these people are GNU stakeholders. And how we organize governance of the GNU project should also involve them. There are also already some committees to evaluate new GNU packages and give feedback on the GNU coding standards. But given these committees are advisory only and are sometimes ignored or overruled people have been demotivated to join them or don’t see them as legitimate. It isn’t clear who is actually a GNU member, or whether the FSF recognizes just the GNU maintainers or also other GNU volunteers as stakeholders.

FSF Philosophy or GNU Policy

Both the GNU membership and the new GNU governance discussions try to answer the question “What is GNU?“. The easy answer is “GNU is an operating system that is free software, put together by people working together for the freedom of all software users to control their computing“. That still leaves a lot to define. What is in an Operating System, who are these people that do all this work and how do we coordinate all that work?

But looking at gnu.org it is much more complex than that. As you expect there is a people section and a software section. But then there is a lot of sections that blur the lines between the FSF and GNU. Most of that is simply historical. GNU used to be the only program the FSF ran. And some of these pages now have their own on fsf.org. The FSF now has a long list of programs besides GNU it runs. But things like the Free Software License List, Free Software Definition and Free System Distribution Guidelines are still maintained on gnu.org. It would be good to agree on who defines what.

And looking at the Philosophy of the GNU project page one could ask whether GNU is fundamentally about producing coherent, empowering free software systems, or whether it is fundamentally about developing and propagating an inspiring, liberatory philosophy? Or maybe it is both? And which Philosophy articles actually define Policy for the project and which are just personal opinions or preferences of the authors? How we are going to maintain these pages in the future (or maybe we are just going to mark them as historic?) depends on answers to these questions.


The FSF manages a lot of resources for the GNU project. It holds the trademark, it is entrusted with some of the copyrights, does fundraising and uses the money for technical infrastructure that GNU volunteers can use. Crucially it maintains the infrastructure for www.gnu.org, lists.gnu.org, ftp.gnu.org, savannah.gnu.org and fencepost.gnu.org for GNU projects to publish their work and coordinate development. But this infrastructure doesn’t currently scale and several GNU projects have to maintain their own infrastructure. Some projects have their own (earmarked) funds through the FSF Working Together for Free Software program (or sometimes through other foundations like Software in the Public Interest). It would be nice if the FSF could provide a place to have a discussion about the use of FSF resources by all the GNU volunteers (meta.gnu.org maybe) to help with these discussions and to make it more clear who can speak for GNU and which volunteers can use which mailinglists for what purposes.

GNU Social Contract

All the above discussions will be easier if we could agree on some guidelines that everybody would follow when acting on behalf of GNU. A mission statement about what it means to be GNU and what the values are that the GNU community respects when working together. Condensed to something that is easy to comprehend and follow by anybody who wishes to associate with GNU. Ludo posted a first (annotated) draft based on the idea of the Debian Social Contract. And after some discussion, Andreas posted a preliminary version of the GNU Social Contract based on four core principles:

  • The GNU Project respects users’ freedoms
  • The GNU Project provides a consistent system
  • The GNU Project collaborates with the broader free software community
  • The GNU Project welcomes contributions from all and everyone

If you are working on and/or participation in a GNU project we would love to hear your feedback on the proposed GNU Social Contract, the relation of the GNU project and the FSF, governance, membership and any of the other topics that we have been discussing. Together we can make sure that the GNU project will keep empowering all users to control their computing.