KDE ‘Should Maybe Be’ a promoter of the Free & Open-Source ecosystem

(because that is its actual mission)


Niccolò Venerandi, aka niccolove, is a KDE Developer working on Plasma and Promo.
[Check out his fantastic videos if you have not already done so!

In a blog post diplomatically titled “KDE Should Maybe Be Political?” Niccolò emphatically makes the case that KDE should support social movements. His argument, despite being well intentioned, is deficient and makes mental leaps to justify the conclusion. It in fact, I believe, is actually antithetical to the the very idea of KDE as a community and even threatens the idea of KDE as an group based around Free Software (if such a position were to become official policy).

Niccolò gives us an overview on what can be categorised as “Political”, starting with ‘Governments and Parties’ and ‘Government Policies’ – or what I would call big “P” Politics. Indeed, this would ‘feel a bit weird’ for KDE to be ‘meddling’ in this, especially as KDE is a champion of Free Software and not government enforced Proprietary backed software. Free Software is a reaction to Proprietary Software – software that uses Political aggression for artificial market benefit -a bigger topic to discuss elsewhere.

What can be said though, is that there are many in the KDE and FLOSS communities who are extremely left wing, there are also a sizeable amount who identify with the right as well, many who are apolitical and many who reject Politics all together. Yes, we can agree that KDE should not ‘support the Democrats’ or any other party.

Niccolò then goes on to describe other categories; what I would call small “p” politics, but which he refers to as ‘support for social movements’. In this respect it is probably best to phrase the question as ‘Should KDE be an activist?’

The answer here should be pretty clear! Yes! Yes, it should be strongly activist – for Free Software!
Free Software is a main point of the KDE Manifesto and also of the KDE Vision

promote the Free and Open-Source ecosystem’.

For the most part there is not too much to object to in Niccolò’s break down on politics and Niccolò also appears to recognise that KDE is an activist – a ‘supporter of a social movement’, as he writes, “KDE is already doing so with Free Software.” Yes, that is its actual mission!
Furthermore, he adds that it is “very much appropriate for KDE to support an organization, when this organization aligns with the values of KDE.” Here he notes support for another Free Software community -Gnome.

There can be no objection here. As noted above the KDE Vision states, ‘promote the Free and Open-Source ecosystem’. Gnome is certainly part of the Free and Open-Source ecosystem. Also the KDE Mission statement specifically states:

collaborates with other organizations which share our values for mutual benefit’

Associating to Gnome is an ‘Apple for Apple’ comparison and as Niccolò states, “GNOME values do align with ours: they also value free software…

“KDE Should not be political”. I’ve heard this sentence many times, especially when KDE supports LGBT. But it’s wrong.

Niccolò Venerandi

However from this point forward in his blog post confusion begins.
He writes, “Free Software is directly aligned with KDE values and directly impacts it.
‘Directly aligned’? This may seem trivial but I point this out because it is important to be clear here. Free Software is not ‘aligned’ as if were an external thing that is in sync with KDE values – it IS a KDE value! A core value!

Where does one look to for KDE values? KDE has a Manifesto as well as a Vision statement and Mission statement. If KDE were a nation state (God forbid!) then these would be the equivalent of a Constitution – the highest law of the land. It is in these writings where one will find ‘KDE values’.

Niccolò references the Code of Conduct (which post-dates the above documents) in his argument as if it were the manifesto -and even as if it were a set of commandments. What is a Code of Conduct (CoC)? The definition of a code of conduct is a collection of rules and regulations that include what is and is not acceptable or expected behaviour.
A CoC is about behaviour – not values per se. In practice a code of conduct can be an important part in establishing an inclusive culture, but it is not a comprehensive solution on its own. Although a CoC can be prescriptive (as the KDE CoC does present itself) it is generally about ‘what not to do’ in order to have a healthy work environment.

It is important to note also that the more prescriptive a document becomes, the more it becomes restrictive of free speech, communication and creative possibilities for those under its jurisdiction.

Niccolò mentions support for of non-cis non-hetero folks, even though the ‘evidence’ he provides is under the heading of ‘Be Respectful’ in the CoC -and not actually under the ‘Support’ section. There is indeed the line: We do not tolerate personal attacks, racism, sexism or any other form of discrimination.

This is about BEHAVIOUR that is not acceptable. There is absolutely nothing here that translates into ‘KDE must be a PROMOTER of {insert your anti-discrimination group/cause}. It takes a giant leap in logic to come to such a conclusion! The ‘KDE Community’ does not have jurisdiction to do so! Again, the ONLY endorsement it has, as per the KDE Manifesto is: promote the Free and Open-Source ecosystem.

Also written under ‘Be Respectful’ is:

“Remember that KDE is an international project and that you may be unaware of important aspects of other cultures.”

It is one thing to expect decent behaviour within the KDE Community – it is another thing completely to expect others to share your personal beliefs in order for them to be included.

Niccolò mentioned support, yet under the heading of ‘Support’ in the CoC there is no reference to discrimination or any particular group. What we do see in this section is the following language:

  • situations where this has to be defended
  • If you witness others being attacked
  • you should support anyone who appears to be in danger
  • When problems do arise

What we see in this language here is support in the same way an ambulance is supportive. It is defensive support that comes to the aid of individuals when they need it. Nowhere here does support refer to go forth and champion ‘x’ cause -active support. It is not a call to a crusade.

If, for example, an active KDE member in Brazil went to book a public hall for a meeting of KDE developers, but a homophobic official refused to make the booking because the man was gay, then KDE should in an official capacity do what it can support the man, protest the decision and bring about justice.

Niccolò’s argument gets even more confusing. “do LGBT values directly impact KDE?” What values are those? Is he referring to the PRIDE acronym? Unfortunately he does not elaborate or elucidate.
He replies with, “The answer is clearly yes: there are many non-cis or non-hetero people in KDE”
I am not sure how this is an argument for KDE to be ‘a supporter of a social movement’. Previously he was referring to alignment of values, but is he now arguing that KDE should adopt (undisclosed) LGBT values as official KDE values?? If by ‘direct impact’ he means that the ‘many non-cis or non-hetero people ‘in KDE are already and unofficially setting an agenda for installing values that are not stated KDE values (through communication channels?) -then I suppose they may very well be having an ‘direct impact’ (despite having no mandate to do so!)
The meaning is unclear however. Perhaps there is an Italian to English loss of clarity in the translation?

However, I can only assume he means something like this, as he also adds, “(remember, KDE is the community, not the software) -as if the (agenda setting) community is the most important aspect. ?
I must take umbrage with this also! The KDE manifesto states:

“We are a community of technologists, designers, writers and advocates who work to ensure freedom for all people through our software.”

Yes, KDE is the community, but very importantly – THROUGH our software! The software –Free Software– is the core part of the community!

(Again I maybe misinterpreting the meaning here, as Niccolò also previously states: what’s KDE? it’s a community of people working on open source software together.)

What however makes a community? It is people spontaneously and voluntarily coming together for a COMMON shared project, cause or ideal.
In this case those commonly shared things are; 1. the KDE/QT code/technology and 2. the ideas of FLOSS. Outside of these two factors the individuals of the community are otherwise very diverse. They hold a variety of beliefs, opinions, ideals and expertise. In fact it may even be reasonable to assume perhaps that the opinions of those in FLOSS communities may be more diverse than the opinions of those within other more mainstream communities. Why? Interest in FLOSS is really a fringe interest and would attract those who are more avant garde, extreme, eccentric, progressive, alternate, twisted, etc. This ‘community’ is harder to put definitive ‘broad brush’ labels on.

In many ways KDE is a fringe group of individuals that cannot possibly be be said to share all the values that another within a more mainstream community may have -due to greater diversity and variety of thought.

“The same logic applies to Black Lives Matter” continues Niccolò. What logic? There is absolutely no logic here at all that I can deduce -especially when Niccolò then adds:

“KDE values* do contain “do not discriminate based on sex” and that directly impacts on the community as we are not all white in here.”

*Values should be substituted with ‘rules of behaviour’ or Coc – my correction

Huh? How does discrimination based on ‘sex’ mean ‘skin colour’???
The only logic that I can see is that for Niccolò likes to magically substitute apples for oranges.

One of the values of the KDE Community is ‘Open Governance‘. Niccolo cites that there was no backlash when Net Neutrality was promoted, yet I have to wonder about what mechanisms are in place to endorse the promotion. I for one do object to Net Neutrality! (aka gov controlled internet).

How ‘open’ is the governance? Is it open to the KDE e.v committee, The Gardening Group, the leading developers, those in charge of communication channels or users? Some combination of the above? Is it conditional?
When the values are in direct alignment, as per the Gnome example, then there would be no need to seek approval of the greater community. You do not want or need unnecessary governance slowing down all movement within an organisation. When there are other issues (especially, when those issues are outside of the purview of stated KDE jurisdiction) then at the very least you would expect there to be a poll or vote of the wider community. To purposely bring in extraneous issues however is an extremely bad idea.

Why so? When you present an issue under the banner of ‘KDE Community’ you are representing that community – the whole community. All those who develop and create for KDE projects, all those who assist and write bug reports, all those who promote and donate are part of the KDE community. Every extraneous issue that an official post endorses fractures that community that is there primarily for Free Software. It is hard enough at times for people to agree on matters directly related to FLOSS let alone external issues.

It does not matter how noble, obvious, ethical or sound you think the cause is! Not all will agree and you are speaking in their name! Certainly those that donate to KDE for the cause of Free Software would not be happy to find out that their donation was used to champion a cause that they do not support or even disagree with – if such a thing were to happen.

Niccolò may say he is unaware of objections to apparently indisputable causes but they are most certainly there! (I suspect too that many also do not speak up). Take for example scientist Anthony Farrell when an official KDE channel virtue signalled for a climate action:

“After 50 years studying atmospheric physics and working in places as diverse as Antarctica and the low lying islands of the South Pacific, using KDE for over 20 of those years, I can not express enough how disgusted I am that KDE has descended to such a low level of intellect.”

Every extraneous issue to that of Free Software that is touted in official KDE posts brings disagreement and shatters community members feeling of solidarity with that community. These actions as such violate the KDE value of ‘Inclusivity’. By taking ‘political’ actions that are not KDE policy/Free Software issues, you alienate members and make them feel excluded.
Especially so, when those on official forums people start instructing other people to leave when they do not agree with their extraneous causes.

KDE community members should feel free to express their alignment to any cause they endorse – but they should do so in THEIR name – NOT IN THE NAME OF THE KDE COMMUNITY! There is clearly NO mandate for this! You cannot put words into another persons mouth and speak for them on matters they did not ‘sign up’ for!

Lastly, there is one more major issue to consider. As KDE is based around Free Software it is important to establish this about ‘User rights’. This is clearly reflected in the KDE documents also:

• our work is available to all people for all time
• to ensure our work is useful to all people

“All people”! Free Software does not discriminate on who can use the software. Firstly, if it is not for all people then it is exclusive – and that would violate the KDE value of inclusivity. When you start adding extra-curricula values then you come into direct conflict with the idea of Free Software. You risk changing the mission to that of Ethical Software. This, despite the conflict it would cause for those working and contributing within KDE on Free Software, would also create an absolute nightmare for existing licensed software – something that is most likely to not be possible to even change.

In conclusion I implore all those within the KDE community to, as far as values go, focus on the mandate of ‘promote the Free and Open-Source ecosystem’. This is crucial in order to maintain solidarity within the community and to have a sense of common purpose. The KDE community is a social movement but is clearly only a social movement for Free Software. This does not dispossess individuals of agency in their own personal activism. Extraneous ‘Political’ activism under the collective banner of the KDE Community however can only threaten to fracture and derail the true mission of KDE.

Barking Bandicoot