There's more than one way to exploit the commons
There's a piece of software called XScreenSaver. It attempts to fill two somewhat disparate roles:
- Provide a functioning screen lock on systems using the X11 windowing system, a job made incredibly difficult due to a variety of design misfeatures in said windowing system
- Provide cute graphical output while the screen is locked
XScreenSaver does an excellent job of the second of these and is pretty good at the first, which is to say that it only suffers from a disasterous security flaw once very few years and as such is certainly not appreciably worse than any other piece of software.Debian
ships an operating system that prides itself on stability. The Debian definition of stability is a very specific one - rather than referring to how often the software crashes or misbehaves, it refers to how often the software changes behaviour. Debian is very reluctant to upgrade software that is part of a stable release, to the extent that developers will attempt to backport individual security fixes to the version they shipped rather than upgrading to a release that contains all those security fixes but also adds a new feature. The argument here is that the new release may also introduce new bugs, and Debian's users desire stability (in the "things don't change" sense) more than new features. Backporting security fixes keeps them safe without compromising the reason they're running Debian in the first place.
This all makes plenty of sense at a theoretical level, but reality is sometimes less convenient. The first problem is that security bugs are typically also, well, bugs. They may make your software crash or misbehave in annoying but apparently harmless ways. And when you fix that bug you've also fixed a security bug, but the ability to determine whether a bug is a security bug or not is one that involves deep magic and a fanatical devotion to the cause so given the choice between maybe asking for a CVE and dealing with embargoes and all that crap when perhaps you've actually only fixed a bug that makes the letter "E" appear in places it shouldn't and not one that allows the complete destruction of your intergalactic invasion fleet means people will tend to err on the side of "Eh fuckit" and go drinking instead. So new versions of software will often fix security vulnerabilities without there being any indication that they do so, and running old versions probably means you have a bunch of security issues that nobody will ever do anything about.
But that's broadly a technical problem and one we can apply various metrics to, and if somebody wanted to spend enough time performing careful analysis of software we could have actual numbers to figure out whether the better security approach is to upgrade or to backport fixes. Conversations become boring once we introduce too many numbers, so let's ignore that problem and go onto the second, which is far more handwavy and social and so significantly more interesting.
The second problem is that upstream developers remain associated with the software shipped by Debian. Even though Debian includes a tool for reporting bugs against packages included in Debian, some users will ignore that and go straight to the upstream developers. Those upstream developers then have to spend at least 15 or so seconds telling the user that the bug they're seeing has been fixed for some time, and then figure out how to explain that no sorry they can't make Debian include a fixed version because that's not how things work. Worst case, the stable release of Debian ends up including a bug that makes software just basically not work at all and everybody who uses it assumes that the upstream author is brutally incompetent, and they end up quitting the software industry and I don't know running a nightclub or something.
From the Debian side of things, the straightforward solution is to make it more obvious that users should file bugs with Debian and not bother the upstream authors. This doesn't solve the problem of damaged reputation, and nor does it entirely solve the problem of users contacting upstream developers. If a bug is filed with Debian and doesn't get fixed in a timely manner, it's hardly surprising that users will end up going upstream. The Debian bugs list for XScreenSaver does not make terribly attractive reading
So, coming back to the title for this entry. The most obvious failure of the commons is where a basically malicious actor consumes while giving nothing back, but if an actor with good intentions ends up consuming more than they contribute that may still be a problem. An upstream author releases a piece of software under a free license. Debian distributes this to users. Debian's policies result in the upstream author having to do more work. What does the upstream author get out of this exchange? In an ideal world, plenty. The author's software is made available to more people. A larger set of developers is willing to work on making improvements to the software. In a less ideal world, rather less. The author has to deal with bug mail about already fixed bugs. The author's reputation may be harmed by user exposure to said fixed bugs. The author may get less
in the way of useful bug fixes or features because people are running old versions rather than fixing new ones. If the balance tips towards the latter, the author's decision to release their software under a free license has made their life more difficult.
Most discussions about Debian's policies entirely ignore the latter scenario, focusing more on the fact that the author chose to release their software under a free license to begin with. If the author is unwilling to handle the consequences of that, goes the argument, why did they do it in the first place? The unfortunate logical conclusion to that argument is that the author realises that they made a huge mistake and never does so again, and woo uh oops.
The irony here is that one of Debian's foundational documents, the Debian Free Software Guidelines
, makes allowances for this. Section 4 allows for distribution of software in Debian even if the author insists that modified versions are renamed. This allows for an author to make a choice - allow themselves to be associated with the Debian version of their work and increase (a) their userbase and (b) their support load, or try to distinguish what Debian ship from their identity. But that document was ratified in 1997 and people haven't really spent much time since then thinking about why
it says what it does, and so this tradeoff is rarely considered.
Free software doesn't benefit from distributions antagonising their upstreams, even if said upstream is a cranky nightclub owner. Debian's users are Debian's highest priority, but those users are going to suffer if developers decide that not using free licenses improves their quality of life. Kneejerk reactions around specific instances aren't helpful, but now is probably a good time to start thinking about what value Debian bring to its upstream authors and how that can be increased. Failing to do so doesn't serve users, Debian itself or the free software community as a whole.
 The X server has no fundamental concept of a screen lock. This is implemented by an application asking that the X server send all keyboard and mouse input to it rather than to any other application, and then that application creating a window that fills the screen. Due to some hilarious design decisions, opening a pop-up menu in an application prevents any other application from being able to grab input and so it is impossible for the screensaver to activate if you open a menu and then walk away from your computer. This is merely the most obvious problem - there are others that are more subtle and more infuriating. The only fix in this case is to nuke the site from orbit
 There's screenshots here
. My favourites are the one that emulate the electrical characteristics of an old CRT in order to present a more realistic depiction of the output of an Apple 2 and the one that includes a complete 6502 emulator.
 And obviously new versions of software will often also introduce new security vulnerabilities without there being any indication that they do so, because who would ever put that
in their changelog. But the less ethically challenged members of the security community are more likely to be looking at new versions of software than ones released three years ago, so you're probably still tending towards winning overall
 There's a perfectly reasonable argument that all packages distributed by Debian are modified in some way
Syndicated 2016-04-05 07:18:20 from Matthew Garrett