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Community Contract Inspiration from Debian


One component of the upcoming Futures Initiative course, Mapping the Futures of Higher Education, will be for the class to develop a social contract within the course community, a way to democratize the classroom, and to instill trust from the onset.

As we look for models for inspiration, there is one very topical one from the developer community that has been around since the 1990s. Debian, a free computer operating system (OS) is developed by the Debian Project, an association of individuals who work together to create the OS as a common cause. Anyone can begin to contribute to the Debian Project without formally joining, but official Debian Developers enjoy benefits associated with being a full member.

Every Debian Developer (DD) is

  • a member of the Debian Project
  • allowed to vote about issues regarding the whole project
  • can log in on most systems that keep Debian running
  • has upload permissions for all packages
  • has access to the Debian-private mailing list

These attributes and permissions show that the larger Debian Project puts real trust in and offers a true commitment to each individual DD (and in turn the DD must have trust in and be committed to continuing the Debian OS project). In order to be a DD, one must first contribute to the Debian Project as a nonmember, apply and have a current DD sponsor them. Applying DDs must agree with Debian’s philosophy in addition to reading the developer documentation, and verifying their identity and time commitment.

Below is the Debian Social Contract, as last ratified in 2004. As our course moves forward, we may want to think about how the course will give back to the larger higher education community, and how we can support transparency in higher education by not hiding problems but trying to work within and through them.

Although the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG) may be less relevant to our course’s goals, we may want to think about the nature of derived works and how our course can be re-fashioned within different contexts in order to not only advocate for, but to also foster real change in higher education.

Social Contract with the Free Software Community

  1. Debian will remain 100% freeWe provide the guidelines that we use to determine if a work is free in the document entitled The Debian Free Software Guidelines. We promise that the Debian system and all its components will be free according to these guidelines. We will support people who create or use both free and non-free works on Debian. We will never make the system require the use of a non-free component.
  2. We will give back to the free software communityWhen we write new components of the Debian system, we will license them in a manner consistent with the Debian Free Software Guidelines. We will make the best system we can, so that free works will be widely distributed and used. We will communicate things such as bug fixes, improvements and user requests to the upstream authors of works included in our system.
  3. We will not hide problemsWe will keep our entire bug report database open for public view at all times. Reports that people file online will promptly become visible to others.
  4. Our priorities are our users and free softwareWe 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. We will not object to non-free works that are intended to be used on Debian systems, or attempt to charge a fee to people who create or use such works. We will allow others to create distributions containing both the Debian system and other works, without any fee from us. 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.
  5. Works that do not meet our free software standardsWe acknowledge that some of our users require the use of works that do not conform to the Debian Free Software Guidelines. We have created contriband non-free areas in our archive for these works. The packages in these areas are not part of the Debian system, although they have been configured for use with Debian. We encourage CD manufacturers to read the licenses of the packages in these areas and determine if they can distribute the packages on their CDs. Thus, although non-free works are not a part of Debian, we support their use and provide infrastructure for non-free packages (such as our bug tracking system and mailing lists).


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