Why Iceweasel Instead of Firefox on Debian?

The real question that is being asked here is how much can someone change Firefox and still be able to call it Firefox. But before anyone takes this article the wrong way, let me clear up a few things. I love Firefox. I respect the fact that they wish to have quality control over the product that bears the Firefox brand. I will continue to recommend Firefox to Microsoft Windows users without any reservations. However, I trust Debian far more than the Firefox crew to package and configure Firefox/Iceweasel in a way that meets the standards of my Debian system. And yes, there is much more at play here than trademarked icons!

First, please remember that if you prefer, you can install Firefox on Linux via Mozilla’s own installer. You are not forced to install Iceweasel in Debian. This discussion of Firefox vs Iceweasel only applies to what Debian packages and distributes through its repositories.

Since some parts of Firefox are seemingly non-free according to the Debian Free Software Guidelines, lets look at what they are. Wikipedia’s Iceweasel page says that the talkback crash reporting system is proprietary (as it is binary only redistributable), that Iceweasel removes all non-free artwork and icons, and that the plugin finder has been modified to only find free plugins. While I personally don’t use the crash reporter, could care less about what icon it uses, and think the plugin finder sucks anyway, I respect Mozilla for wanting to protect the Firefox brand to ensure a certain level of functionality and consistency.

Some of the icons and artwork used in Firefox are trademarked and copyrighted. According to my limited understanding, this violates DFSG#1 which states the component must be freely redistributable and DFSG #3 which states that the license must allow derivatives. If Debian was granted some sort of special permission to use these trademarked items, it would violate DFSG #8 which states that licenses must not be specific to Debian. I have also seen some discussion over whether Debian can or should use the “Firefox” name without using the official icons.

However, I think the biggest dispute between Mozilla and Debian is the ability to make changes to the source code without approval. Mike Hommey, one of the Debian Firefox maintainers, points out that they disable the built-in Firefox auto-update since Debian prefers apt-get update. He states that they made changes so that Firefox will work on other processor architectures that Debian supports. Many bugs were fixed in the Debian version before they were fixed in the official one and they improved overall compatibility with Debian like using system libraries instead of bundled versions. He even claims that Firefox was “obviously written for Windows without any thoughts for unix, and especially linux distributions.” Mike also points out that Mozilla is inconsistent in their dealings with Ubuntu.

Overall I feel that the discussions raised by this debate is healthy for the open source community. It has helped raise the question (yet again) of how free is free? It exemplifies that open source software is truly free and open and not restricted by any one group. It shows that developers can assert some control to assure quality and consistency. It shows that open source software can be de-branded and modified to meet the needs of a specific group. It also shows that Debian remains committed to their values, guidelines, and development process.

After reviewing the differences, both technical and idealogical, my Debian box will have a cool new way to browse the internet, Iceweasel. I like the idea that I will have more freedom, fewer bugs, and more compatibility with my operating system.