Which GNU/Linux distributions are the freest?

Users of proprietary operating systems don’t really have control over their computers, and thus sometimes have to deal with inconvenient changes that they have no say in. macOS users had a new filesystem called APFS forced on them. A filesystem that is young and obviously still full of serious errors that can lead to data loss. When using SSDs, the OS can only be installed on APFS volumes now, effectively leaving users no choice in the matter. When using APFS as a backup drive (which the system allows without warning), backup data can be destroyed.

The situation isn’t better in the Microsoft camp, with forced updates making some computers unusable because they enter a reboot loop and headlines similar to “Microsoft Delivers Yet Another Broken Windows 10 Update” being more common over the last two years.

Because these companies operate according to their own strategic market interests and not in the best interest of their customers and users, this kind of thing always feels to me like they’re raping people’s computers. The user doesn’t want it, the computer certainly doesn’t need it, yet the actual owners just have to open wide and swallow because these companies have decided in their place. As a user, you signed away your right to intervene when you accepted the license terms.

Are things better in the GNU/Linux world, then? Yes and no. Some GNU/Linux distributions are controlled by companies that also serve their own interests first, such as Canonical, makers of the Ubuntu distribution. They have previously partnered with Amazon to supply sponsored search results inside the OS search function. This month they’ve announced that they will collect data on users’ machines. Granted, it’s a lot data less than what Microsoft collects about its users, but it’s an ugly move that doesn’t fit the GNU/Linux mentality.

Due to tactics like the above, I distrust companies, any and all of them. Whenever money is one of the primary drivers, people and their rights don’t look so important anymore. You might get some companies with a social contract that behave better than others, but I haven’t seen too many of these in the last 20 years, despite paying some attention.

I trust projects that are managed by groups of individuals or by non-profits with a solid charter, such as Debian with its social contract. Debian is also a great first example for my list: In over 20 years, they have never behaved in a way that harms your freedoms as a user. The biggest controversy happened when they  followed all other distributions in the adoption of systemd, but the only thing this schism did was produce Devuan, an additional GNU/Linux distro that is systemd-free. This already proves my point.

So here’s a list of GNU/Linux distributions maintained by communities instead of companies. Operating systems that are more likely to respect you as a human than macOS or Windows, but that also fare better than commercialized distributions such as Ubuntu:

  • Debian GNU/Linux and its derivatives. A good allround operating system for servers, desktops, gaming, whatever you want to throw at it.
  • Trisquel, basically Ubuntu without the nasty bits and without non-free software. Endorsed by the FSF, but you’ll be on your own if you want proprietary graphics card drivers, for example.
  • Arch Linux, if you want to piece together your perfect operating system from all the components you love, this is for you. In case you run into trouble, it has an excellent wiki with very deep and broad documentation, and a friendly community forum.
    • Antergos, an Arch-based distro with a graphical installer using GNOME as default desktop.
    • Manjaro, also based on Arch, aimed at simplicity and user-friendliness, with a graphical installer and XFCE, GNOME or KDE Plasma as supported desktops.
  • Gentoo. A distro where you can compile every single piece of the system yourself, with your own options and compile flags. If you really want to dig deep and learn everything about all the things, this is the one.

This leaves me slightly optimistic all in all. A few years ago we didn’t have that many GNU/Linux distributions in this category, now we have at least six, and that’s only the more popular ones. If one of them behaves badly, you have a broad choice of alternatives where all your software still works the same. Unlike leaving the Windows camp for macOS where you’d have to make some lifestyle changes.

This also shows, once again, the raw power of free and open source software. Let’s say you’re an Arch Linux contributor mortally afraid of gothic horror novels, but the Arch community suddenly decides that all Arch packages must ship with a complete copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s collected works. There’s nothing preventing you from creating a Cthulhu-free spin of Arch. None of the work you’ve put into Arch before is ever lost, and you won’t even have to change your habits since the base distribution will be the same. Who knows, maybe other Cthulhuphobes will join and help you out. Antergos and Manjaro started with just a few people as well, and look at where they are today.

I’m not sure who I’m addressing with this — if you care about such issues you have surely already migrated to some FOSS operating system. If you don’t care about such issues, I’m not going to convince you to care either.

But sometimes I talk to people and they are very surprised that Debian doesn’t collect any data about users. That there are operating systems where you still come first and where your freedoms matter. These people¬† assume that it’s equally bad everywhere, but that isn’t true. Maybe I can surprise them by revealing that it’s not bad at all where I am, and that everyone’s invited.

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