We're often asked why we don't endorse a particular system—usually a popular GNU/Linux distribution. The short answer to that question is that they don't follow the free system distribution guidelines. But since it isn't always easy to see how a particular system fails to follow the guidelines, we still get these questions. We've published this list to help address those.
To learn more about free alternatives to these systems, check out our list of free GNU/Linux distributions.
All of the distributions listed on this page fail to follow the guidelines in at least two important ways:
They do not have a policy of only including free software, and removing nonfree software if it is discovered. Most of them have no clear policy on what software they'll accept or reject at all. The distributions that do have a policy unfortunately aren't strict enough, as explained below.
The version of the kernel Linux that they distribute includes blobs: pieces of object code, distributed without source, usually to help operate some device.
Below are additional notes about some popular GNU/Linux distributions, listed in alphabetical order. This may not be a list of every issue; while we've done our best to be comprehensive, there may be other issues that we simply don't know about. On the flip side, circumstances might have changed since we last updated this page; if you think one of the issues here has been addressed, please let us know. We review all systems carefully before endorsing them.
We're not aware of problems in CentOS aside from the two listed above: there's no clear policy about what software can be included, and nonfree blobs are shipped with Linux. Of course, with no firm policy in place, there might be other nonfree software included that we missed.
Debian's Social Contract does say that all software in the main distribution will be free software. Unfortunately, that's not always true in practice. Debian has repeatedly made tacit or explicit exceptions for specific pieces of nonfree software, such as the blobs included in or accompanying Linux. We're still hopeful that there won't be such exceptions in the future, but we can't turn a blind eye to the situation as it stands today.
Debian also provides a repository of nonfree software. According to the project, this software is “not part of the Debian system.” We understand that's important for organizational reasons, but users would be hard-pressed to make a distinction. The nonfree repositories are often featured as prominently as the main ones throughout Debian's web site, documentation, and other materials.
Fedora does have a clear policy about what can be included in the distribution, and it seems to be followed carefully. The policy requires that most software and all fonts be available under a free license, but makes an exception for certain kinds of nonfree firmware. Unfortunately, the decision to allow that firmware in the policy keeps Fedora from meeting the free system distribution guidelines.
Gentoo makes it easy to install a number of nonfree programs through their primary package system.
Mandriva does have a stated policy about what can be included in the main system. It's based on Fedora's, which means that it also allows certain kinds of nonfree firmware to be included. On top of that, it permits software released under the original Artistic License to be included, even though that's a nonfree license.
Mandriva also provides nonfree software through dedicated repositories.
openSUSE offers its users access to a repository of nonfree software.
Red Hat's enterprise distribution doesn't seem to have a clear policy about what software can be included. Our understanding is that it makes it easy to obtain nonfree software, even beyond the proprietary firmware included with Fedora.
We're not aware of problems in Slackware aside from the two listed above: there's no clear policy about what software can be included, and nonfree blobs are shipped with Linux. Of course, with no firm policy in place, there might be other nonfree software included that we missed.
Several nonfree software programs are available for download from SUSE's official FTP site.
Ubuntu provides specific repositories of nonfree software. Even if you don't use them, the default application installer will advertise nonfree software to you.
What about BSD distributions?
FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD all include instructions for obtaining nonfree programs in their ports system. Also, BSD kernels include drivers with nonfree firmware. Nonfree firmwares in Linux are called “blobs,” but in BSD parlance “blob” has a different meaning. Thus, when BSD developers say their distributions contains no blobs, it is a miscommunication; they are talking about something else.