In 2005, the Debian project voted to declassify
messages on the debian-private mailing
list after a period of three years. That is easier said than done, apparently. The General Resolution (GR) calls for volunteers to do the work of declassification, and few Debian Developers seem eager to do the work required to make it happen.
The debian-private list is, as the name suggests, a non-public list that is used by Debian Developers to discuss issues without the prying eyes of users, press, or anyone else outside the Debian project. The list and archive is only available to Debian Developers, and anything sent to debian-private is not to be spread to other lists.
Former Debian Project Leader (DPL) Steve McIntyre says that the traffic on debian-private "varies quite a lot, from a couple of dozen messages in some months to hundreds in others," depending on whether there's a large and sensitive discussion. But most of the traffic is mundane, according to McIntyre:
Most of the traffic is quite boring these days: vacation messages as you've heard about, plus related discussions. We do have occasional sensitive discussions where, for a variety of reasons, people would rather not have them in public: discussions about relationships with upstream developers, people joining or leaving the project, etc. Normally nothing too juicy, I'm afraid, but it's often kept private to avoid offence as much as anything else.
Plus, as you'll see on a lot of geek mailing lists and newsgroups, there's quite a tendency to wander totally off-topic or into humour. And then a similar amount of stuff from people asking "why is this on -private?" Quite boring, really...
The GR to declassify was put forward by Anthony Towns prior to his stint as DPL, with an amendment proposed by Daniel Ruoso. Towns' GR called for a volunteer team to declassify messages on the debian-private mailing list three years after posting, with a set of exceptions. The volunteers are required to contact authors and give four to eight weeks to object to messages being made public. Posts with any financial information about outside organizations would not be published, and the posts are to be available to all Debian Developers two weeks prior to publication. The developer body can overrule publication by another General Resolution, even if the author consents.
that debian-private went against the Debian Social Contract. According to Towns, the list has hosted important discussions in the evolution of Debian. The discussions should be open for examination at some point for academics and other projects to see how Debian has dealt with those issues.
Ruoso's amendment, which was approved, applied the GR only to messages sent after the GR passed. Thus, no messages prior to the end of 2005 are eligible for declassification.
In theory, the process of declassifying messages from 2006 onwards
should be well underway. In practice, the GR seems to be an unfunded
mandate. Volunteers to do the work seem to be in short supply. McIntyre
asked for volunteers in January 2009, but little
interest was shown. In May, current DPL Stefano Zacchiroli posted a request for volunteers for the declassification team to debian-project.
Since volunteer bodies seemed in short supply, Martin Krafft offered a simpler method. Krafft suggested that "archive chunks" be made available at monthly periods, with two months for authors to delete posts they don't wish disclosed. This was rejected as it does not fit with the original GR, and because some participants on debian-private in 2006 may no longer be Debian Developers — thus lacking access to delete messages.
The amount of work required may scare off the few developers actually interested in taking on the task. Don Armstrong replied to Zacchiroli's call for volunteers by saying he'd considered taking on the task and gave up:
I had actually glanced at working on this earlier, but stopped after a small bit of time, because it wasn't particularly useful, and because the sheer amount of work that it would require to satisfy the terms of the GR. (And frankly, the majority of the conversations in the archive either aren't interesting enough to bother publishing, or are on topics that such a large number of people will want their messages redacted, that it's kind of useless.)
Giacomo A. Catenazzi suggests, in a recent posting, that much of the discussion on debian-private is private because "we don't want to show all world about our vacation dates and destinations, about health and children, about personal issues we have with other people (in and outside Debian), etc." Russ Allbery echoed Armstrong, saying that many developers seem unwilling to declassify anything of interest:
The GR was an interesting idea, but based on the number of debian-private participants who, for anything that would be of any interest whatsoever after three years, have said they don't want their messages ever disclosed, I think in practice participants have spoken and have basically vetoed any sort of effective disclosure.
As it stands, it looks like the declassification GR will result in few or no messages being made public. The only action thus far is a status page reiterating the call for Debian Developers to take up the task. Zacchiroli posted an update on June 25 saying that some volunteers had been located, but "no one with actually enough free time to start doing the declassification right now."
This may be no great loss. The final GR, with the amendment constraining declassification to messages sent after January 1, 2006, means that messages showing the early evolution of Debian would not be made public. The provision that developers can veto release of messages after that date ensures that little of a controversial nature would be released, leaving little worth reading. As Andreas Tille suggests, it may be a better use of developers' time to fix RC bugs than spend time slogging through old debian-private discussions to prove just how open Debian is as a project.
One might also wonder why the project does not simply abolish debian-private altogether, in the spirit of openness. However, that would likely move sensitive discussions off of a project list altogether. It may be that the best option is discussion on a list open to all Debian Developers, but closed to the larger public, rather than discussions held out of view of the majority of the project.
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