Modern Slavery & Debian Open Source

When people refer to Modern Slavery or People Trafficking, these terms often elicit thoughts of female victims, physical means of constraint and physical transport from one place to another.

In fact, none of these things are necessary for Modern Slavery and People Trafficking. Even more significantly, they are the exception rather than the rule.

A 2022 report from the ILO makes the following observations:

The report goes on to note:

The report found that the main form of coercion used by employers was the deliberate withholding of wages and the threat of dismissal

This is analogous to what we see in Debian and other large free software organizations, where the threat of public humiliations, in place of dismissal, has become a common way to exercise some form of coercive control over individual volunteers.

In 2006, they used physical violence to suppress Ted Walther. In 2021, they created a defamatory referendum about Dr Richard Stallman.

The graffiti on Jacob Appelbaum's house in Berlin is an example of how the open source mafia humiliates somebody. This graffiti is a threat to every other volunteer. Who will be next?

Jacob Appelbaum, graffiti, rapist

Definitions of Modern Slavery

The ILO publishes a definition of modern slavery:

Forced labour can be understood as work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty. It refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.

yet they go on to give a broader definition:

also called “modern-slavery” to shed light on working and living conditions contrary to human dignity

Questions of human dignity are far more open to interpretation. For example, if somebody agrees to work for a salary and the employer knows they do not have funds to pay the salary then this is really analogous to forced labour. Although the employee has consented to work, a deliberate deception was used to obtain their consent.

I wrote a previous blog about the open source modern slavery in Albania and I included a definition from the US State Department:

Human trafficking can include, but does not require, movement. People may be considered trafficking victims regardless of whether they were born into a state of servitude, were exploited in their home town, were transported to the exploitative situation, previously consented to work for a trafficker, or participated in a crime as a direct result of being trafficked. At the heart of this phenomenon is the traffickers’ aim to exploit and enslave their victims and the myriad coercive and deceptive practices they use to do so.

The bait

Another ILO report goes into some specific examples of deception.

It begins with a deception or bait of some kind:

A neighbour told her about a man who was offering to pay her 1,000 Euros a month to work as a housemaid in Germany.

In Debian, FSFE and other open source organizations, the deception is different but the effect is the same:

Debian promises a philosophy to lure idealists. For white-collar workers in wealthy countries, they already have enough money to meet their survival needs so the promise of a philosophy resonates more than money.

Debian promises recognition, I take the following quote from the latest Debian law suit where they admit using the promise of recognition to lure people into working for free:

64. ... un des avantages importants de travailler pour la communauté Debian est la valeur de sa réputation dans le domaine, à la fois professionellement et dans la communauté. ...

The promise of recognition is repeated again here in the Debian wiki.

The motivations of the authors also are varied, but the coin that they get paid in is often recognition, acclaim in the peer group, or experience that can be traded in in the work place

The same thing appears in the page about Debian Membership:

Debian has several types of association and membership for those who do wish to be recognised, or have rights within the project.

For people promoting Debian, there is a template for giving a talk. It includes the comments:

you are recognized for your contributions ... Did you ever have a boss who takes credit for your work? Not in Debian.

In short, there is a big emphasis on working for recognition instead of a salary.

In the FSFE, they offered us the opportunity of a Fellowship. Here was the original promise in Linux Magazine.

From November 2009, the Free Software Foundation Europe will be offering three free Fellowships each month to open source activists.

Many people were lured by the perception of prestige associated with the title of Fellowship. People would mention their status as a Fellow of the FSFE in their biography at conferences, in their CV and in their email signatures.

Bait and switch

At some later point, the thing that was promised is simply taken away or even worse, there is a threat to take it away. The former is deception, the latter is coercion.

In the case of those prestigious FSFE Fellowships, the FSFE staff had a little meeting in their Berlin office and decided to remove Fellowships from the FSFE constitution. The Fellowships vanished overnight, much like the Silicon Valley Bank. Fellows felt pissed off.

Debian promised us a philosophy and an organization that is independent of any one company or employer. It is interesting to browse through the email records between 2005 and 2010 and look at the vast quantity of work completed by Frans Pop, the Debian Day suicide victim. Why did he do so much unpaid work from home? His emails suggest he believed in the philosophy, here is one of his last emails:

Subject: Re: Forthcoming acceptance of a Cuban DD
Date: Sat, 5 Jun 2010 01:14:20 +0200
From: Frans Pop <>
To: Christoph Berg <>, debian-private <>

On Friday 04 June 2010, Christoph Berg wrote:
> In short, the DAMs intend to approve Adrian as a DD and will ask for his
> account to be created over the next week.

Go for it. Let's really stick to our principles here.

Yet the philosophy has been a sham. It is like walking on quicksand. We can see that in many of the arguments about the Debian Social Contract:

Subject: We are hiding problems
Date: Thu, 17 Mar 2005 08:16:09 +0100 (CET)
From: Andreas Tille <>
To: Debian Private List <>


or we should provide more relevant information.  I will not argue that we
really have to open all problems.  I want to present a neutral point of view
here.  But the current wording of the social contract does not reflect the
current situation - at least to my knowledge of English language.

Some facts we hide:


The Debian Social Contract promises that we won't hide problems. Yet there are approximately 80,000 debian-private messages hidden from public view, minus approximately 14,000 that have already been liberated.

Then there is the promise of recognition for our work. Some people see that as optional. In 2018, the former Debian Project Leader Chris Lamb began spreading emails to directly undermine recognition for my work. This is like bouncing a cheque. Members of his gang then began publishing insults like this in public places, being the very opposite of the recognition that was promised to us:

debian, modern slavery, deception, defamation, fraud

Obedience obtained through coercion

The amateur-hour Codes of Conduct have become a go-to tool of coercion.

These Codes do not contain any specific rules. They are entirely open to interpretation. There is no evidence, no procedure and no appeal. This creates a huge imbalance of power.

I previously wrote about Laura Arjona sending threats to my last Outreachy intern.

Sadly, time is short, so we kindly request you to reply to this message as soon as possible, so the bursaries processing can be unblocked.

An even more chilling example is in the email shared by Dr Norbert Preining, one of the victims of the Debian Christmas lynchings:

We are sending this email privately, leaving its disclosure as your decision (although traces in public databases are unavoidable).

This line is a veiled threat: they promise to keep the punishment secret but there is a hint that they will tell other people and thereby humiliate Dr Preining. A threat like that is analogous to the threat of summary dismissal in exploitative workplaces.

Anybody receiving that email would immediately remember Enrico Zini writing emails to journalists to denounce Jacob Appelbaum:

Subject: On coverage of Abbelbaum being "banned" from Debian
Date: Wed, 22 Jun 2016 09:34:50 +0200
From: Enrico Zini <>

Dear Editor in Chief of iTWire,

you may want to do something about this article by Sam Varghese on
Debian revoking membership of Jacop Appelbaum:

While the first part is factually correct in its DPL quote, the article
ends with baseless hints of Debian and Tor having fallen victims to
manipulations by GCHQ psyops.

I consider that to be psycological violence[1] against the various well
known people who came out to report abuse, and I wish that news coverage
about this situation could rather contribute to creating a community
that encourages victims of abuse to speak up.

Quoting the DPL again, "In reaching their decision, the Debian Account
Managers took into account the public disclosures from members of the
Tor project and others, and first-hand accounts from members of the
Debian community."

We are not talking about vague rumors spread by a couple of
infiltrators, we are talking about first-person accounts provided by
well known and respected members of both communities, with a track
record of contributions of many years.

These people who had the guts to speak up deserve credit and respect,
and the article published on your site gives them none.




GPG key: 4096R/634F4BD1E7AD5568 2009-05-08 Enrico Zini 

Consent obtained by deception

If we consent to work in exchange for recognition and if that recognition is deliberately and maliciously stolen from us then it is a worse outcome than if we were simply forced to work while being tied up in chains.

There are analogous examples for this situation too. There are a lot of men who will tell little white lies in order to get a romantic date. In one of the more extraordinary cases, an Arab man pretended to be Jewish in order to get a date with a Jewish woman and he was convicted of rape by deception.

What we see in Debian today are employees of Google and Ubuntu who use their email addresses to hide who they work for and pretend to be volunteers. In fact, this is also illegal in much of the EU where companies are obliged to identify themselves in email signatures.

Subject: Are the RMs being paid?
Date: Wed, 11 Oct 2006 16:05:25 +0200
From: Christoph Berg <>
To: debian-private <>


before I vote on the let's-or-not-recall-the-DPL GRs, could someone
give me an update on whether dunc-tanc or anyone else remotely
Debian-related is actually paying the RMs? (both/neither/whom?)

It probably won't influence my votes, but I'd like to know if I'm
voting on some what-if scenario or not.


PS: Sorry if that information was already posted somewhere else,
there's just too much traffic on lists.
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