Home People People How Debian has grown: Stefano Zacchiroli speaks
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Last month, Stefano Zacchiroli was re-elected as leader of the Debian GNU/Linux project for a third term, the first leader to earn such a mandate. Only the founder, Ian Murdock, has headed the project for anything approaching three years.

Debian is the biggest volunteer project of all distributions, has the most ports and provides, arguably, the best distribution; its package management tools are the stuff of legend. It serves as the basis for some of the better known and more widely used distributions, like Ubuntu and Knoppix, and also functions as some kind of conscience of the FOSS movement.

The Debian leader has never been one to flaunt himself (only men have led the project so far). Zacchiroli has many different hats to wear as he shepherds an unruly group of more than 1000 developers. He is an accessible person and easy to deal with, his wisdom belying his youth.

An assistant professor at Paris Diderot University, he was kind enough to take time off his busy schedule of teaching and research to answer some queries from iTWire.

iTWire: An entity, be it a project, organisation or even a country, generally does not reward any leader with anything more than two terms in office. How confident were you of winning a third term as leader?

Stefano Zacchiroli: Country-like organisations rarely allow for more than two terms in a row indeed. But those kinds of terms have lengths in the five-year range, whereas DPL terms are one-year long. As the DPL is a volunteer position, like any other position in Debian, terms are that short to avoid asking candidates a time commitment that would sound scary to most. One-year terms also allow an easy way out if, say, an incumbent DPL burns out or get struck by real life circumstances.

I believe I've done a decent job in my two years as DPL and during this year's campaign I felt several Debian members were ready to acknowledge that. But at the same time it is natural to wish for a change and see how things could go with a different DPL "style". All in all I didn't indulge much in election forecasts myself, because both election outcomes would have had positive effects. Had I lost, I would've had a lot more free time to go back to hacking!

During your first two years as leader, Debian has become a member of the Open Source Initiative and also outlined a policy on patents. What are the ramifications of these two initiatives?

The two initiatives are quite different, but both fall in the realm of Free Software "politics". Debian is indeed not only a distro, but also a renewed "political" actor of the Free Software world. Many people care about our judgement on the free-ness of licences and more generally look at what Debian does on a whole lot of legal matters.

Regarding (software) patents, there is little disagreement that they pose a threat to Free Software. But there is also a lot of FUD surrounding them: for instance, we fear patents that are likely to be invalid just because their owners say so. It's like trusting the bartender saying their beer is the best in town. Patent FUD is bad because it increases the negative effects of patents on Free Software, pursuing the interests of patent-aggressive corporations and patent trolls.

With Debian, we are quite lucky in having access to legal resources such as the advice of Software Freedom Law Center and we try to use that access to benefit others who don't have it. In that spirit we approached SFLC and worked together to publish informative material meant to educate Free Software hackers, and in particular community distributions on actual patent risks. Good examples of our results are both the policy you mention and the Community Distribution Patent Policy FAQ.

Joining OSI has been a more general political matter. It descends from the realisation that while Debian has an important role in Free Software politics, our main vocation is to be a distro. We are not structured to do activities that are needed to fight political battles such as lobbying, petitioning, and the like. There are many organisations that do a good job at that, but not that many that allow other projects to affiliate. Considering that OSI is undergoing restructuring in that direction, and the past common history of Debian and OSI, it did make a lot of sense to step in and contribute to renewing the organisation. This way we can show Debian's support to relevant political battles for Free Software, including software patent abolition, and yet let the organisations which are suited to do so fight them.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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