(Debian Social Contract) Should all Debian users inclusively have open access to documentation?

There is a growing problem of documentation being locked into walled gardens. Most particularly, Cloudflare and to a lesser extent hosts like gitlab·com where several demographics of people are discriminated against. The discrimination manifests either as an outright blockade or as a CAPTCHA which often requires non-blind users to execute non-free JavaScript, while at the same time blind people are simply excluded.

Sometimes artifacts that are officially part of Debian (such as man pages) reference URLs to web-served documentation that exists in access-restricted walled gardens, or non-existent documentation because URLs are not permanent.

As web enshitification continues to trend out of control, there is a lack of digital rights standards and quality standards in place to steer the Debian project away from digital exclusion and technofeudalism. This is all I can find on debian.org—

From the Debian Social Contract¹:

¶1 “We will never make the system require the use of a non-free component.”

Ideally this would carry some weight when users are forced to execute non-free JavaScript as a barrier to documentation. But digital rights opponents would likely cling to the keyword “require”, as doc access is not technically a requirement.

¶4 “Our priorities are our users and free software

We will be guided by the needs of our users and the free software community. We will place their interests first in our priorities. We will support the needs of our users for operation in many different kinds of computing environments. … In furtherance of these goals, we will provide an integrated system of high-quality materials with no legal restrictions that would prevent such uses of the system.”

Love the last sentence in particular. I would like to interpret integrated /high-quality materials/ to mean that a quality system inherently integrates documentation into it (although I don’t suppose documentation was intended in that “integration” meaning). Consideration should perhaps be given to make a change along these lines:

<span style="color:#323232;">s/no legal restrictions/no legal OR TECHNICAL restrictions/

It’s also ½ tempting to suggest “s/materials/documented materials/”, though perhaps that would invoke an expectation that docs be created when they don’t exist (thus controversial). But would it be sensible and feasible to add some verbiage to include a goal that existing docs be universally accessible?

From The Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG)²:

“5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups

The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.”

This anti-discrimination policy only covers licensing. When a walled garden is used to discriminate against classes of people, the discriminatory act is not expressed in any license. So the guideline falls short of covering real world discrimination scenarios. Note that the “GNU Ethical Repository Criteria”³ expresses some sensible principles that the Debian Project should consider adopting, such as “Does not discriminate against classes of users, or against any country. (C2)” and “Permits access via Tor”, for example.

From The Debian Policy Manual⁴:

“12.4. Preferred documentation formats

The unification of Debian documentation is being carried out via HTML.”

This section strongly encourages HTML. Perhaps rightly so, but HTML encourages hyperlinks which unacceptably often either link into a walled garden or the link just dies. Without any further guidance beyond saying /we like HTML/, bad links and restrictive links will proliferate.

Section 12.3 does not stress in the slightest the importance or benefit to pulling additional docs into a $package-doc pkg. If most of the essential docs are jailed in readthedocs·io or bobs_restricted_access_doc_jail.com, it’s important that those docs be imported into a $package-doc pkg. Docs that are freely accessible to all people don’t call for a duty to act, but ideally all significant docs should be in a $package-doc pkg anyway particularly for offline users and those on capped networks.

There was a related past discussion here:


though that was primarily about people being subjected to non-free services (which is only a small facet to the walled garden problem).


Apart from above-mentioned areas of change, I propose:

  1. Debian Project establish a: Criteria for Egalitarian and Network-Neutral Access (CENNA)

    which could be inspired and guided minimally by:

    Rationale for mentioning “Network-Neutral”: Tim Wu coined the phrase network neutrality in the context of harmful practices by ISPs who want to impose traffic shaping. However the core abstract principle in his essay is access equality. Access inequality also arises in the context of walled gardens whereby access to resources discriminate on the basis of a user’s network.

  2. The Debian Policy Manual⁴ should strongly encourage Debian maintainers to identify documentation that fails the above-mentioned criteria (which is yet to be drafted) and import failing docs into a $package-doc pkg. Or failing that, and in light of the no obligatory work philosophy, an anti-feature tag like “non-free documentation” or “exclusive documentation” should be applied for transparency and to solicit improvement.

  3. The Debian Policy Manual⁴ should strongly encourage maintainers to replace URLs of the form readthedocs.io/foo/guide.html with a liberated mirror like web.archive.org/web/readthedocs.io/foo/guide.html.

  4. Establish the basic principle that if a user has access to a package, they should also have access to existing documentation intended for the package. Just like absence of a man page is regarded by Debian policy as a bug, it should also be regarded as a bug when essential/important/significant project-generated docs are not freely accessible to all those who have access to the Debian OS. The Debian policy says bug reports for missing man pages should not be closed until the man page is created. The bug need not be worked. This is a good balance between transparency and steering toward quality but without creating an obligation of work.




Discussion here.

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