Consent & Debian's illegitimate constitution

When an association is founded, whether it is incorporated or not, each member must give positive consent to be a member and to be bound by the organization's constitution. Being a member and being governed by the constitution are inseparable. The constitution is effectively a type of contract between the members. If a contract is not signed, it is not valid and if a member has not assented to create the association, they are not a member at all.

Between 1993 and 1998, the original authors of Debian worked together without a constitution. They achieved a lot.

When a constitution was proposed in 1998, 357 co-authors of Debian were asked to vote on the constitution. This is not really voting though: people who gave a positive vote were agreeing to be members. People who gave a negative vote or did not vote at all have not consented to the constitution and therefore there is no way we can think of them as members of anything.

The names of people who voted were published. Those people, just 86 developers, became members of an association by giving their positive assent to be governed by a constitution in their dealings with each other.

That means there are 357 - 86 = 271 people, or 76 percent, who were satisfied to work on Debian as joint authors without any notion of an association.

A few weeks after 86 people formed their association, Jonathan McDowell copied 489 keys into the Debian keyring repository. Some people have more than one key so it is not exactly 489 people. By combining the 86 confirmed members with all the people who did not choose to be a member, McDowell and others have made it hard for the rest of the world to distinguish who is a member and who is simply an author of Debian.

One interesting fact is that Debian's founder, Ian Murdock, is not in the list of voters and therefore he did not choose to be a member of this association. Nonetheless, his PGP keys were copied into the repository along with all the people who did and did not consent to the constitution. Look for 0xB21F8AD1961545A1 and 0xBFDB61BDE340CA99. The Debian people tracker shows Murdock was removed very quickly on 28 December 2015, the very day he committed suicide.

Ian Murdock, Debian, constitution

Reading the original constitution, we see that it was presented as a model for decision making but it also includes authorisations for another organization, Software in the Public Interest, Inc, (SPI) to hold some Debian assets. We can think of this asset transfer like a corporate takeover. The shareholders in the company that is being sold have to almost unanimously give positive consent to the deal. Likewise, all 357 co-authors of Debian had shares in the copyright and good will towards the Debian name. These are valuable assets and less than 25 percent gave positive consent for those assets to be kept at arm's length in SPI.

Why did so many people not consent to having a constitution? Maybe they had the foresight to see how future volunteers would become slaves to a political monstrosity.

A blog like this can't be complete without some contemporaneous evidence from debian-private to show how Debian's authors really felt about these matters:

Subject: Re: Debian Project Adopts a Constitution
Date: Tue, 15 Dec 1998 09:25:48 +0000
From: Austin Donnelly <>

On Mon, 14 Dec 1998, Nils Lohner wrote:

> The constitution was proposed in September 1998, and after a
> discussion period the vote took place in December 1998.  It was
> virtually unanimously in favor with 86 valid votes.

I find it worrying that this was passed with a mere 24% (86 out of
357) of the developers voting.  What happened?  Why such apathy?


and here is more background about the discussions taking place during the voting period

Subject: OSI vs. the facts?
Date: Mon, 23 Nov 1998 12:36:16 -0600
From: John Goerzen <>


I am DEEPLY disturbed by what I find at  I first want to say that I am
not going to infer personal things about the people behind it in this
message as others in the Free Software community have; indeed, I am very
appreciative of Mr. Raymond's efforts in fetchmail, emacs, Jargon File,
term{cap,info}, etc.

However, as somebody that has been working on free software for years, and
with Debian for some time as well, I cannot simply let these statements go
without comment.

First, there is no "new era" for the hacker culture.  It's the same as it
always was.  The term "Open Source" has not effected the hacker culture.  Of
all people, ESR should be able to see this.

Secondly, it is wholly unethical and incorrect of you to claim sole credit
for conversions on the part of Netscape, Corel, and IBM.  Your own writings,
Eric, indicate that Netscape chose that development strategy because of its
inherent advantages, not because it had a catchy name.  Further, you ignore
the efforts of pioneers and those that have fought the battle while it still
looked like a losing one.  When you start taking credit when Stallman's
ideas start catching on, this is a serious travesty.

Next, you claim to resolve the GNOME/KDE flamewar.  First, this was not due
solely to you.  If anything, it was due to the pressure put on Troll Tech.
by a post-Perens Debian.  Furthermore, nothing has been resolved.  Stallman
still confirms everyone's fears that QPL is incompatible with GPL, and so
there are still issues about using people's GPL code with QPL code without
getting permission to do so.

Read the SPI bylaws.  SPI is not just about Debian or Linux.  Even if it
were, Debian is not just about Linux (Debian GNU/Hurd exists, you know.)
That is a piece of *blatantly* false material.  Had you cared to check, you
would have seen that Linux is not mentioned at all in the bylaws, and that
Debian is mentioned only in relation to the technical makeup of SPI, not its
goals and reasons for existance.

This brings us to Bruce's involvement.  He previously sent this list a
rather rude message to the Debian developers, "eat s*** and die" (although
he spelled it out.)  Bruce further indicated (lied, apparently) that he
would never again be involved in open source / free software.  I am gravely
concerned about the stability of the company with somebody like that on it. I'm sorry, but the people on debian-private have done far more for the
advancement of free software than Bruce ever did, and if he would say that
to us, how do we know that he's going to present a good image of the
community on a whole?

Finally, and perhaps this is just because I am writing an analysis of the
free software methods from a utilitarian perspective for a Philosophy class,
and this may be a bit off-topic, but it really bothers me that
OpenSource.Org can still advocate the use of non-free software in some
situations.  Even if it makes money in the short run, it is just plain
*WRONG* as RMS has said eloquently on numerous occasions.  Does nobody care
about ethics anymore?  About doint the right thing?

Now, having said all this, I'm not against using "Open Source" itself if it
helps spread the word of the community.  I do object to changing traditional
aspects of the community to fit that mold, lying about accomplishments and
belittling the contributions and accomplishments of others.

Finally, I don't know if you people are actively TRYING to get SPI sued, or
Debian hurt or something, but the thing at is EXACTLY the
Microsoft-like tactics that you complain about, but worse, subjects us to
the possibility of lawsuit.  While I don't see anything terribly incorrect
or wrong with the picture myself, it does NOT deserve to be at  Neither does Free software is not about killing a company; it's about writing better
software; the competition is irrelevant.  Never lose sight of that.

John Goerzen   Linux, Unix consulting & programming |
Developer, Debian GNU/Linux (Free powerful OS upgrade) |
Visit the Air Capital Linux Users Group on the web at