Ubuntu has a clear policy on using open and free standards. It does not have a policy on unethical software (outside the realm of free software). Some software or services have poor ethical reputations. The purpose of this spec is to allow the user to make an informed decision about what they install, and to offer free, open and ethical alternatives. This is particularly important for users in countries where use of certain applications could endanger their personal safety or privacy.

This spec does not prevent the user from installing certain software.


Using some 'free' software or services supports companies which engage in practices widely considered unethical. For example:

  • Yahoo and others have given information to the Chinese government leading to imprisonment of pro-democracy campaigners.
  • Google censors the internet in China.
  • Skype locks in users when there are at least two major open VoIP protocols (see also SkypeEthics).

Ubuntu should not have a strong policy on unethical software of its own, as it would never satisfy the range of ethics in its wide user base. (Optional) Balanced provision of information is therefore the best way of addressing the issue.

Ubuntu should inform users of problems with licenses and ethics. There are specs designed to make installing alien applications easier. This is good providing the user is armed with information; alien packages are not in Ubuntu for a reason. It should not be made harder to install them, though, and we can retain an "I don't give a damn, install it anyway" option. (If there is any extra dialog at all.)

There are free alternatives or work-arounds for all commonly-used applications. The purpose of this spec is to allow the user to make an informed decision, not prevent them from installing or using 'bad' software. The links to information can be provided in a (relatively) non-judgemental, factual way. It could be provided in info bubbles, additional dialogs, or as a bare minimum, in /usr/share/doc and on this wiki.

To preserve neutrality and common sense, the information would probably be simply links to respected web sources, such as wikipedia, BBC, Amnesty International, Rapporteurs sans Frontières? (All localised, of course.)

Use cases

These reflect possible implementations. See the ideas below for detail.

  • Jenny is a director of a charity who chose Ubuntu because she saw it had an honest and ethical basis. She was therefore surprised and discouraged by the fact that Ubuntu itself encouraged and enabled installing 'bad' software.
  • Gordy installs Ubuntu and faces the usual problem with mp3s and DVDs. He is directed to read information about why this is a problem (see other specs), but also reads in the same place that some of his IM networks do not keep his conversations secret. He is informed that Ubuntu offers alternatives, and which networks are private and confidential. He chooses those.
  • Dave downloads the Skype deb package from their web page. gdebi offers to install it but first provides warnings about lock-in, proprietary protocols, and links to representative ethical information. He chooses not to install Skype.
  • Bob is new to linux and installs Dapper. After installation, he reads information on mp3 and DVD compatibility. He then chooses to run a 'wizard' to bulk convert his mp3 collection to Ogg Vorbis.
  • Kamal's brother was arrested after his Ubuntu computer was traced by government agencies. he is now being held incommunicado. Kamal wants to tell the world what has happened but has to trust the computer and external protocols he is using.


To begin with, popular 'difficult' application can be covered, particularly Word documents, Skype, Yahoo/MSN instant messaging.


Main Components:

  • 1) Easily accessible documentation on these issues
    • Info on this wiki about each common application outside of Ubuntu.
    • Provide links to this wiki and other places
    2) Presentation of hyperlinks to relevant information on installing certain alien software
    • Use warning dialogs or balloons.
    3) Provision of easy routes to installation of acceptable alternatives


Using Skype as the example.

The existence of the page Skype is OK, but that page must also cite the problems about Skype, and suggest alternative, for instance by citing the page SkypeEthics.


Skype installs quietly, but files are added to /usr/share/doc/skype with directions to read the SkypeEthics wiki page.


Skype installs without a murmur. However, gdebi/apt/dpkg is aware of this, and places a URL on the desktop of the user who installed the application. The URL would be to the relevant Skype wiki page, not a campaigner's page.

Moderate - derived distros

Distribute Ubuntu with flags turned on to provide on-screen warnings with the links to the Ubuntu wiki (as described above). Make it easy for the flags to be switched off by users, or by derivative distros (e.g. Mepis). If the warning functionality was packaged, it would be simpler to administer in this way. /etc/default/ethicalinfo would have a flag.

Moderate - other

"You have just installed Skype. This is not included in Ubuntu because it does not conform to the Ubuntu charter (see LINK), and some users have ethical objections to using it. See for more information."

Moderate with alternatives

"You are about to install Skype. This is not included in Ubuntu because it does not conform to the Ubuntu charter (see LINK), and some users have ethical objections to using it. See for more information.

Ubuntu offers the following alternatives, that are open source, based on open standards and to the best of our knowledge do not present ethical issues:

  • Ekiga [more info]
  • Wengophone [more info]



"You are about to install Skype. This is not included in Ubuntu because:

  • 1) The protocol is secret and no inter-operativity is provided with other solutions 2) Skype has tried to engage in anti-competitive practices, by limiting users on conference calls for non-Intel users. 3) Skype censors IM conversations for the Chinese (and other?) government

See for more information.

Ubuntu offers the following alternatives: Ekiga, Wengophone [with links, etc.]


Very Strong

"You are about to install Skype. Ubuntu encourages you to reconsider your choice and try some alternative products because:

  • 1) Skype protocol is secret and no inter-operativity is provided with other solutions 2) Skype has tried to engage in anti-competitive practices, by limiting users on conference calls for non-Intel users. 3) Skype censors IM conversations for the Chinese (and other?) government 4) The packaged is provided in binary form only and since source-code is not available, we cannot guarantee about its contents 5) The software is not officially supported by Ubuntu

See for more information.

Ubuntu offers the following alternatives, that are open source, fully supported, based on open standards and to the best of our knowledge do not present ethical issues:

  • Ekiga [more info]
  • Wengophone [more info]


List of Relevant Software



Recommended Alternative


Ebay, Skype, TOM

Ekiga, Wengophone



Evince, Kpdf


Real Inc.

Totem, Mplayer

Microsoft Office

Microsoft Corp.

Openoffice, Koffice, Star Office



Rhythmbox, Amarok



fSpot, KPhotoAlbum

Google Earth


NASA World Wind?, Celestia?

List of Networks/Protocols

  • AOL, Yahoo, MSN connection from GAIM and Kopete should raise warnings & recommend Jabber.

  • Some Real audio and video streams
  • Anything that Microsoft haven't published fully.
    • Exchange

List of Companies

Packages/Things Affected

  • Ubuntu mission statement and policy?
  • gdebi
  • dpkg
  • wine
  • Sun Java under current licensing?
  • (new Edgy welcome to ubuntu application/web pages/docs)
  • Tor, Privoxy, similar?


Outstanding issues

What constitutes ethical will vary from person to person. However, we are not banning software, just pointing out that some/many/most people have ethical objections to it or the company which profits from it. The question of whether something is objectionable is then decided by the user, not by Ubuntu, SABDFL, or the package maintainer.

We do not need to present every minority opinion on a subject, just put the idea in the user's mind and give them the opportunity to find out more. A few links for each application should be enough.

BoF agenda and discussion

John Meuser says: I don't know about everyone else, but I think this is a very bad idea. I don't want the software on my computer to repeatedly express it's moral superiority over the choices of software I make. Ethics is something that is extremely relative, so this is something that can't possibly be evaluated objectively. And how far are you prepared to take this? Should my computer chastise me for purchasing an iPod? Should my computer bring up an alert if I go to the website of one of these offending companies? Should my computer get upset with me for buying an expensive new video card because I could have donated that money to charity? Should my computer lock occasionally because I really should go outside and get some sunshine? And who decides what companies should be put on the Ubuntu sh*t-list? Should BSD licensed stuff be warned against because it isn't GPL compatible? Let me decide my own morals, and let me stay informed about the issues myself. FLOSS is about freedom... even the freedom for me to install software on my computer that YOU don't want me to without requiring me to answer for my sin.

JackWasey Thanks for your comments. I tried to make it as clear as possible in the spec that this would not set an ethical standard which would be enforced. I agree that it is about choice and freedom. This is where the conflict lies, since Skype users don't have freedom to interoperate with other VoIP providers. The human rights aspect is important to very many people, e.g. 1.3 billion Chinese people, so I don't feel it can be ignored. I think it should be very clear to a Chinese user (and any other) that installing certain software could jeopardise their privacy and safety. This can be done in an unobtrusive manner. It can be provided as an optional extra, a simple package in main, turned off or not installed by default. A derived distro could then easily enable or disable it according to their country of origin, policy, etc.. Does this answer your criticisms?

Conor Anderson Personally, I am a big fan of this idea. I think it really makes a clear mark between 'free - no cost' software and 'free - freedom' software. I think that it could be discreet though, for instance, a small flag in Synaptic where the Ubuntu logo is shown on each package, there could be a small symbol in the same place for non-free packages.

Warbo I like this idea and I would probably go with some form of warning in the Add/Remove Applications window and Gdebi. If there is any message at all then it needs to be before the software is installed. Whilst I am all for the ethical arguments, there is also another reason, which is a technical one. I help out a lot in IRC and a big problem for many new users is stuff like "Ubuntu can't even get YouTube to work properly" or "Skype has audio problems, I'm going back to Windows", this is often due to lack of knowledge about patented codecs and such, but giving information about the choice Ubuntu has made to not use certain software, as well as legal reasons why we can't is a good idea. Many of these users switch to Ubuntu to get away from Microsoft's vendor lock-in, so it would be useful to warn them about other companies which do the same.

JackWasey My personal preference is for a combination of derived distros and some alerting. I hope, having based itself on Debian, that Ubuntu is not too proud to offer a core distro and leave some things to third parties. Why shouldn't the primary source of Ubuntu be through Mepis, or another organisation? Why should Ubuntu labour to support or pave the way for every naughty codec or nasty software package out there? Why not take a strong stance, and if people don't like it, Ubuntu/Canonical/Mark Shuttleworth have given the community the tools to roll out derived distros very easily. This is a great chance to show some courage and humility. Many Ubuntu supporters seem to be itching to take a swipe at Windows, but I see various other big software and media companies in a similar light to Microsoft. Yes, I want to get rid of Microsoft desktop dominance, but I think there are other targets, too.

Ago I think the message should be preemptive, i.e. it should be displayed before installation and it should mention alternative products. I find that showing a message after installation is even more irritating, because it would (more or less subtly) suggest people to uninstall something they have just installed. It is not appropriate though to state directly the ethical issues at hand (like in the Strong and Very strong versions) or it would make us look pretentious. But it should be mentioned that some people have ethical objections (with a link). This is an objective statement. There is a difference from saying "there is this ethical problem" and "some people think there is an ethical problem". It is also appropriate to mention whether the project violates the Ubuntu charter (because not OSS, because fostering closed standards ...), which is also an objective information. You might not agree with the charter but you cannot argue that a software that fosters closed standards does not violate it. It is important to make the message look differently from a standard EULA, people click "yes" off muscle memory. It should also be possible to disable the ethical-info warnings alltogether, but it should be ON by default. If the user does not want to be bothered, so be it, but at the very least he has to press a button that says "I do not care about ethical issues/violations of the Ubuntu charter" and feel a little bit guilty about that.

Motin I really second this idea, and believe that the default level should be set to weak while supporting the extensive information exampled in the strongest case above in the following aspect: Synaptic etc should like Conor Anderson suggests above use the Ubuntu-logo column to flag packages that are from restricted/multiverse universe, and clicking the icon should display relevent information about the level of freedom that package conforms to. Discrete and non-obtrusive while eye-catching and informing.

Daniel I really don't the idea of my computer making me feel guilty. I do think that ethical issues should feature in documentation, but the more screens one has to click through to install software, the more annoying it is. I think that maybe a warning could pop up on enabling commercial repositories and or multiverse, but not with each installation, and certainly not annoying pop-ups.

ChrisLees The "strong" and above warnings could be very dangerous legally. Accusing Skype of anti-competitive practices when it has not been judged in a court of law (has it? I don't know.) could be construed as defamation or propaganda. The moderate-with-alternatives warning would require a legal disclaimer that the suggested programs are not supported in Ubuntu. The weak warnings are the best of the lot.

For the last use case, Kemal would benefit from some way to check his computer for unethical packages. If Ubuntu is about choice, it should also allow previous choices to be easily reviewed.

Benji2 The word 'alternative' is really biased and childish (webforum-like) IMHO. I'd really like to suggest to use the far more professional word "Competitor" instead in Ubuntu. Other than that, I really like the idea of unobtrusively telling the user full infos about the software he happened to want.

Warbo: OK, I think I have a solution which would not cause any objections. In the description of any non-Free/"unethical"/etc. software included in Ubuntu there should be a short message like "This is non-Free software which may restrict your Freedom, by installing it you are accepting this", and in Gdebi for any software not in Ubuntu simply saying "This software is not in Ubuntu, and there is usually a reason for this. The software may be unstable, unreliable, unethical, malicious, dangerous or restricted legally". This is also a good idea since new users who trawl through Google for Ubuntu packages might start finding malicious ones (who trawls through Google for Windows software in this way? Exactly, it's dangerous), and since it is not targetting anyone in particular (every non-Free and not-in-Ubuntu package gets it) there isn't any cause for concern that Ubuntu/Canonical is dictating the use of Ubuntu systems.

Let me mercifully put this to rest.

  • Ubuntu is software distribution. Not an ethics system.
  • Ubuntu software choices are based on technical merit and _long-term_ viability
  • If you are looking for Ubuntu the humanist ideology, you can find more information at

  • Ubuntu can provide neither ethical nor legal advice. For legal advice, individuals need to see a lawyer in their jurisdiction. For ethical advice, see enclosed operating instructions.

Some portions of the following document may be useful in other contexts, but quite simply this concept is unworkable and ill-conceived. Apologies to the hard work represented here, but I think we need to face facts - Ubuntu is software with an ideology resulting from practical experience, not a system for evaluating right or wrong.

-- RobCaskey

i disagree RobCasey. See philosophy. Freedom is an ideology resulting from practical experience. Maybe some part of that spec are not usable, but warning when non-free software will be installed where consistent with ubuntu philosophy.

-- Effraie

RobCaskey, thanks for your comments. I disagree. The fundamental policy on non-free software is an ethical choice Ubuntu is committed to, although you wouldn't know it with the obsession with binary drivers. An aspect of this proposal was to help people avoid losing their privacy or security. If you don't care, then go ahead, but many millions of users want, need, to know what software is exposing them to. Just because it doesn't matter to you doesn't make this irrelevant. Go ahead and make a porno-buntu, or whatever derived distro you want, but let us have higher standards for the core distro. Please add comments at the bottom, and don't edit the spec. Thanks. JackWasey

PeterWhittaker: I confess I'm torn: I'm deeply sympathetic to the idea, but absolutely opposed to being told what to do. I am only slightly less receptive to having my motives and intents questioned by a machine.

While no one adopts a distro for just one reason, one just reason I adopted Ubuntu was the underlying philosophy, which I find ethical and enlightening. That said, I am my own moral agent, capable of making my own moral and ethical decisions. Hit with me nag screens, or worse, about the choices I am making, and I will eventually tire of having my motives questions, tire of the extra clicks, tire of the poor UI, and I will go elsewhere.

RMS writes and speaks frequently about "The Four Freedoms": One of those freedoms is the freedom to use my computer as I see fit (I'm paraphrasing, but I believe without corruption; "freedom 0" reads "freedom to run the program, for any purpose"). This is the right stance: We provide the best set of tools we can, and we leave it to the user to use them as they see fit, for whatever purpose. In our context, freedom and ethicality are among the criteria used to define "best".

Nor should we force users to experience an "ethical tutorial" when they install Ubuntu, start Ubuntu, or otherwise use Ubuntu.

I do believe that a significant portion of our community come to Ubuntu because of ubuntu. These people have already made two important ethical decisions ("four freedoms" software, humanity to others). They can be expected, nay, trusted, to make more.

Others, who come to Ubuntu for reasons of technology, aesthetics, or popularity, will be exposed to ubuntu through their interactions with the community, and some or many will change their ethical stance as a result. Some will not. And some will not no matter what we might do.

We have a fine line to walk between informing and proselytizing. Stray too far across the line, and those who are inconvenienced, annoyed, or offended by our actions will join our most vocal critics and we will spend far too much time in defense, time better spent coding, documenting, and educating.

Yet I appreciate the objection that if we stay too far from that line, do not approach it near enough, we will not be being true to our own ethics. "We must do something!" Are we not doing enough? What more is really needed? Often, the best actions are the quiet ones, the ones that inspire reflection and introspection. Moral and ethical change comes from within, not without, though it be inspired or catalyzed by external events.

I would be comfortable with a menu item under "Applications", say, that reads "Learn more about the Ubuntu philosophy and software freedom...". A similar bookmark in the default set, and possibly on the desktop, would also be acceptable, and sufficient. They would have to be easy for the user to remove, without excessive prompting or nagging.

Another possibility, if done as unobtrusively as possible, would be a software installation assistant that detects installation being done outside Synpatic, or outside Ubuntu repositories: "You appear to be installing software. Would you be interested in viewing a list of comparable packages, some free, some proprietary, that perform the same function? (yes|no|never ask again)". A wizard could query the user as to what it is they are trying to do and present alternatives. And while technically feasible (run select() on /usr/bin, etc.), is this really something we need or want to add to the CD, no matter how small?

Education is best done with a cooperative and engaged audience. Lessons delivered with a stick are lessons lost.

  • -- Peter Whittaker

My concern is that Ubuntu users are demanding things like Skype, and complain about Ubuntu when they find that they are (rightly) not available in standard repos. Ubuntu should not be a Windows replacement in all respects: we don't replicate poor Windows GUI, so why should we slavishly follow lock-in proprietary software when we have better alternatives? The Ubuntu community will, through this spec, contribute to what is considered 'bad' software. As every commentator seems to have pointed out, very obviously, everyone has different ideas about what is right. How is this boring fact relevant? I hope the consensus in the Ubuntu community is for free/libre software, including freedom from proprietary protocols, however widely used they are in the Windows world. If this is not the case, I'll start looking at other distros. This is core Ubuntu philosophy, forgetting about the problems of particular companies' unethical (by common opinion) behaviour. JW

CategorySpec CategoryEthics

EthicalInfo (last edited 2008-08-06 16:32:01 by localhost)