Hot Babe and Debian: A test case for community standards in free software


Author: Bruce Byfield

Thibaut Varene didn’t mean to start a
discussion about free software projects and community standards. But
that’s what he did when he posted an Intent to Package notice
to the Debian-devel list for a novelty program called Hot Babe. The
notice resulted in half a dozen threads and hundreds of emails, and an ongoing debate about whether a free software
project like Debian should accept packages that are sexist,
pornographic, or otherwise potentially offensive — and who and who would be held to account in any resulting legal action.

The Web page for Hot Babe
describes it as:

A small graphical utility which
displays the system activity in a very special way. When the CPU is
idle, it displays a dressed girl, and when the activity goes up, as
the temperature increases, the girl begins to undress, to finish
totally naked when the system activity reaches 100%.

Variations on the theme

Hot Babe is not the first questionable
material to be included in Debian. Like many Linux distributions,
Debian has long shipped the popular Purity Test,
a series of questions about a user’s experience with sex, alcohol,
and drugs. It also packages fortune off,
a collection of offensive fortune cookie mottos. During the
discussion about Hot Babe, at least one poster also objected to the
Anarchist FAQ being
included in Debian.

However, it seems a sign of the times
that such a discussion should occur now. While the internal
discussion in Debian seems unaware of the fact, the Hot Babe issues
comes at a time when commercial software is undergoing similar
scrutiny. Recent games such as Vivendi’s Leisure Suit Larry Cum
,a modern version of Sierra
Entertainment’s risque game from the early 1990s, and Top Heavy
Studio’s The Guy Game
are being widely seen as the first signs of greater sexual
explicitness in software games.

Like Hot Babe, such titles have not
been condemned for moral reasons so much as for sexism. Many too
dismiss the games as too lightweight to merit serious concern. The
main difference is that, although some stores are reluctant to stock
such titles, unlike Debian, the manufacturers of such games do not
seem troubled by any of the potential legal issues raised by making
such games available.

The case for the defence

The programmers associated with Hot
Babe are incredulous about the controversy.
David Odin, the original programmer, considers it a minor effort
knocked off in a couple of hours. Similarly, Varene explains that “to
me, it was just a funny piece of software, that someone else might
enjoy as I did.”

So far as the program had a serious
intent, Odin says, it was to promote the work of Bruno Bellamy, who
created the images used in Hot Babe. Bellamy
is a cartoonist who has
contributed to numerous gaming and Linux magazines, as well as
T-shirts and CD labels for various Linux and FreeBSD projects.
Bellamy describes much of his work as “pinups,” or
“bellaminettes.” The images used in Hot Babe resemble the
title character in “Sylfeline“,
a series of graphic
novels drawn by Bellamy. They are similar to ones used on a phone
card sent to French soldiers in Kosovo. Odin describes Bellamy as “a
great artist” and “certainly one of the best colorists
that I know of.”

Asked if the program could be
considered sexist, Odin concedes that it could be, but adds that
nudity is common in art. Nor, according to Odin, are the images
pornographic. In France, Odin claims, “we have a very precise
definition of pornography: it should involve an erected penis and
oral, anal, or straight sex.” Since Hot Babe’s images are of a
lone nude woman, in Odin’s view, the program cannot be pornographic
by definition. Even if it was, he notes that the Web site includes a
disclaimer warning of the content.

In fact, the issue is more complex.
Like most countries, France has no precise definition
of pornography. Even content that is acceptable under some
circumstances may be considered unacceptable under French law if
accessible to children or offensive to human dignity.

Still, Odin’s comment emphasize
a cultural difference underlying the issues. Varene notes that, in
France, “we see stuff more likely to turn on someone than this
silly little cartoon on a daily basis on TV, on the street ads, and
roughly everywhere.” Nudity, Odin suggests, simply isn’t an
issue for most people in France. If anything, nudity is seen as “a
good joke” — a view perhaps roughly equivalent to British
outlook on transvestism. Such views are notably different from North
America, which, while often obsessive about sexual content, is apt to
randomly condemn even trivial examples of it in outbursts of moral

Opinions may differ, Odin and Varene
say, but, in the end, no one has any right to impose his values on
them. They, after all, are not forcing anyone to install Hot Babe.
The program even includes an option that can limit the degree of
nudity shown.

Sexism or political correctness?

Both Odin and Varene are aware of
feminist critiques of erotic images, but apparently regard them as a
minority viewpoint. So far as they deal with them at all, they seem
to regard them as conventional moral objections. “Prudery”
is the word Varene uses to describe accusations of sexism or
pornography. Yet, on the whole, the Debian community is simply not
reacting to Hot Babe in moral terms.

Admittedly, accusations of sexism or
pornography may sometimes mask conventional moral outrage. Yet only a
handful of posters to the discussions on the Debian lists seem to be
reacting on a moral level. Perhaps those with moral objections are
keeping quiet because they feel their views are not acceptable. Yet
even possible hints of this position are rare, so it does not appear
a major concern.

At one level, accusations of sexism are
being played out in a conventional way. Many posters on the
Debian-Women list agree with Fernanda Giroleti Weiden
“putting a program on Debian in which you have pictures of nude
women is very aggressive
to the most women,” and Matthew Palmer
has responded with accusations of political correctness.

On another level, however, the
discussion is less conventional. Although those who label Hot Babe
sexist seem to consider the judgment nonnegotiable,
they are reacting to the issue pragmatically. For example, rather
than arguing the issue in idealistic terms, Jutta Wragge
worries that such material might discourage more women from using
Debian or becoming involved in the community.

Similarly, instead of calling for an
outright ban of such programs, as their opponents might expect, some
have suggested softening the effects of the package by including
naked male images as well. Challenged to make these changes happen,
Weiden is currently working on a patch to Hot Babe that would allow
additional images. True, she is not altogether comfortable with this
solution. “Why,” she asks, “should only women have
the responsibility for turning Debian into a project committed to
equality? ” Moreover,

Putting male pictures will not
make the package less degrading. I believe that will not solve the
problem of sexism, it will only reduce it. Treating unequal people
with equality can be itself a source of inequality. Men have not had
their bodies used like objects, and exploring male bodies is not so
offensive. However it is different with women’s bodies. Showing
naked male bodies is like a joke for men. It is not so for women.

Still, Weiden is willing to make the
change in a spirit of compromise. Other posters have suggested that
her patch would also allow other themes to indicate CPU activity,
such as a tree with falling leaves. Yet even this willingness to
compromise has been dismissed
by an opponent as hypocrisy that masks a feeling of being “slighted
that your particular kink isn’t satisfied.”

Packages and policies

If the Debian community is divided on
issues of sexism, the concern for the possible consequences of
including a package like Hot Babe unites it. Joe Wreschnig
speaks for many members of the Debian community when he writes:

I have no moral/ethical problem with
this [including Hot Babe], and would normally encourage controversial
material (such as religious and political texts) to enter
Debian provided they’re free.

However, pornography causes significant legal problems in the US, and
probably more so in many other countries. If I give a Debian CD
containing this software to a minor, am I distributing pornography?

The potential problem is complicated by
the fact that community standards and definitions vary from country
to country — and possibly, in the United States, from state to
state. Not only that, but the problem may extend to religious and
political material as well.

Some posters suggest that the main
section of Debian, which contains the core system and only free
software, should have all potentially offensive material removed to
avoid such problems. Others suggest that the non-US archives, now
less important than in the days when American restrictions
on importing cryptography software were stricter, be revived as a
repository for such material. The only trouble is, these sections are
defined by how the contents is licenced — not by how the
contents is regarded. Still others suggest that no change is needed,
since the managers of mirror sites can always veto packages if they

The closest the discussion has come to
a consensus is the suggestion that Debian produce social guidelines
for accepting packages. A short thread
on the Debian-devel list attempted to define those guidelines, but
several posters suggested that criteria such as a lack of sexism
could be too subjective to define with sufficient precision.

Instead of reaching any conclusions,
the thread returned the question of who would be responsible if a
legal complaint was filed about a package. Bruce Perens
pointed out that Debian could not be considered a common carrier, as
an ISP or telephone company is, because common carriers by definition
do not make any changes to the information they carry. By contrast,
packages in Debian are routinely edited to make them compatible with
the operating system.

In another thread, Perens explains that who would be responsible if a complaint was
filed is uncertain. If Debian was considered an unincorporated
association, he suggests, then its office holders and the person who
maintained the package in question would be held mainly responsible.
However, other contributors could become involved as well.

If Debian was considered a division of
Software in the Public Interest, the
organization that funds many Debian activities, then the directors of
SPI would likely held responsible. As a director himself, Perens is
less than enchanted by the possibility.

No doubt thinking of the software
patent issues that have concerned him recently, Perens also suggested
a contingency fund
against possible legal actions. So far, however, the suggestion has
not been widely discussed. To the extent that is has been, it seems
generallly perceived as unnecessary.

Moving ahead

To some, these issues represent an
overreaction. Helen Faulkner, for
instance, writes that “It is a typical and time wasting
discussion within Debian, of a kind that seems to come up (different
topics though) every couple of weeks or so. It is also the type of
discussion that deterred me from becoming involved in Debian for some
time.” For those involved in the Debian community, such a
response could be an issue in itself.

However, as Kalle Kivimaa points out,
larger issues are stake:

The problem is that Debian is about
freedom of speech. If we start dropping packages just because they
are offensive to somebody, we are compromising that ideal. Should we
drop the Bible packages because they are offensive to quite a few
Islamists? Should we refuse to add a Koran package as it is offensive
to some Christians? Remove the fortunes-off because it offends
probably quite a large group of people?

The same is true for most free software
or open source projects. The ethos of both communities centers around
inclusiveness. Yet if a contribution can be perceived as undermining
that inclusiveness, should it be excluded? Or would doing so
undermine a core value?

Or to put the matter another way, the
model for free software and open source development assumes that
people contribute material that will benefit the project as a whole.
What happens when some members of the project feel that a particular
contribution is a detriment rather than a benefit, and the
issue is not the quality of the code? Obviously, there are no simple

As for Hot Babe, perhaps the problem is
that, because of its cartoon style of drawing and obvious efforts at
whimsy, there is no unanimity about it. As Thibaut Varene notes:

Now that I’ve seen what happened, it is
clear that we have a very interesting case for the open source model
limits. And if you wonder why some bomb like that hasn’t exploded
earlier, I’d say that it’s because Hot Babe was the perfect bomb:
it’s so borderline that it stresses how hard it is to draw a line.
If someone went to package something utterly bad, there wouldn’t have
so much discussion.

For now, those discussions have tapered
off. Yet the lull seems only temporary. On the one hand, Verene
insists that the only consideration is whether Hot Babe’s artistic
license meets the Debian Free Software Guidelines, which it
does. On the other hand, the issues raised by Hot Babe are not going
to disappear so easily. As Verene himself observes, they have become
larger than the inclusion of a single package.


  • Free Software