By now the news has spread quite quickly; the Ubuntu Community Council (or “CC” for short) had attempted to boot Jonathan Riddell as a community leader, asking him to “take an extended break” from the Kubuntu Council (“KC” for short) citing personality conflicts and breaches of the Ubuntu code of conduct.
So, what just happened? On the various news sites and through some broken telephones there’s several misconceptions about what happened. Being an outsider the whole issue is rather complicated, I know nothing of the structure around Canonical, Ubuntu, and these councils and how all this relates to Kubuntu.
This isn’t going to be a post about the he-said-she-said arguments, but is more of an outsiders explanation into how all this fits together and what it really means.
I’d like to mention I’ve received corrections in the comments, and would like to give a thank-you to the commenters for their feedback.
What is the Community Council? How does it work?
The Community Council is the highest governing body representing the Ubuntu umbrella of projects, including its derivatives. The CC is a democratic organisation with 7 seats available for elected representatives and a 8th tie-breaking seat being reserved by Mark Shuttleworth. The group uses a well defined electoral process which receives votes and nominations from the Ubuntu membership and community at large.
The group manages non-technical communication and governance of the Ubuntu project and derivatives. An important part of this event is the mandate that the council operates transparently to the wider community, the idea being that they would also serve as a bridge between the commercial arm of Canonical and the open-source community at large.
What is the Kubuntu Council?
Just like a larger governing body, the Community Council has delegated sub-councils to represent larger projects within the community. The Kubuntu Council is one such branch managing the KDE-oriented Kubuntu project. Like the CC, the Kubuntu Council is composed of members elected by the community.
When the system works the idea is that the Kubuntu Council will take care of project-level matters independently, and the Kubuntu Council lead will attend meetings to trade information and matters upstream with the Community Council.
So… Does Canonical Own Kubuntu?
I will note here that Canonical is not one of the active parties in this dispute – this section is only meant to clarify misconceptions I’ve seen online, and to help explain the next sections.
Canonical owns the trademark for Kubuntu – so as a ‘brand’ they own Kubuntu. Beyond that Canonical does not directly fund Kubuntu, instead they offer infrastructure in the form of repositories and servers, where Kubuntu is allowed to piggyback off the Canonical/Ubuntu project network and work more closely with upstream resources.
But Canonical does not employ the Kubuntu staff; previously they did employ staff but Blue Systems stepped in when Canonical cut funding. Blue Systems has since become a much larger part of what drives Kubuntu than Canonical. Both of these together have made Kubuntu (as a project) much more than a solely Canonical venture.
In over-simplified terms Canonical owns the franchise and Blue Systems runs the hottest ‘non-headquarters’ location.
Who is Jonathan Riddell?
Jonathan is an ex-Canonical employee who was scooped up by Blue Systems after Canonical cut funding.
Part of Canonical cutting Kubuntu funding was terminating Jonathan as an employee of Canonical. He essentially retained his position in all community aspects of Ubuntu, just without the paycheque: he is a Kubuntu Council member, has access to the Canonical infrastructure, and helps manage the Kubuntu project.
Blue systems picked him up and he is able to work full-time in an almost identical capacity that he did as a Canonical employee.
What was the Ruckus?
Mainly, there’s some conflicts between Riddell and members of the core Community Council. Riddell had repeatedly pushed several issues which the council was unable to fulfil, leading to frustration on both sides. In the end both sides showed the stress they were under, at which point the Community Council privately decided they would oust Jonathan from the Kubuntu Council.
The KC replied arguing that the decision was not made transparently, questioned how much power the Community Council should have over the community-elected Kubuntu Council roster, and was incensed by the CC not retracting the decision before a transparent conversation. The Kubuntu Council didn’t want to negotiate “with a gun to [their] heads”.
Who Ultimately Gives the Orders?
The Kubuntu Council is bound by their constitution to obey “legitimate orders” from the Community Council; if the CC makes a decision in line with the Code of Conduct and its own constitution the Kubuntu Council must obey that request. But no provisions have been made for when the two groups disagree over a decision. The Community Council may be forced to cut off Jonathan or supporters from Ubuntu support infrastructure, such as Canonical repositories and funding, and the group has already stated that he is keeping his upload rights and ability to request funding. However given the hostilities, revoking those privileges might be a hardball solution, and one that the Kubuntu Council may not have control over.
The reason Kubuntu believes it can reject an authoritative attempt is threefold; it had never happened before so there was no ‘precedent’, there was no warning for Jonathan to correct the ‘behavioural issues’, and the largest reason is because the Kubuntu Council does not feel the decision was legitimate.
The entire issue hinges on the legitimacy of the order; Kubuntu Council only has to obey legitimate orders, and questions whether a decision made behind closed-doors when the mandate is transparency be considered legitimate.
In short: yes the Community Council can remove people from its sub-councils, but it might have terrible fallout if done improperly. They can’t really tell the Kubuntu crew what to do if Kubuntu doesn’t find the orders legitimate. But if push comes to shove it is possible for the Community Council and Canonical to revoke infrastructure access if a resolution cannot be found.
What Happens Now?
Right now the Community Council is exerting control over projects using their infrastructure much like a company would manage employees; if someone isn’t in line they can be moved, removed, or suspended without public debate.
The problem with this strategy is the fact that communities don’t like being dictated to, and in attempting to do so rubbed the community the wrong way. The Community Council literally gave an order and the Kubuntu Council said “no”. So what happens now?
By removing Jonathan from his position in the Kubuntu community, it also affects his value for Blue Systems. If he were removed, it brings into question what Blue Systems and the community would do in response; Riddell is a Blue Systems employee and carries significant community favour from KDE users.
The first thing that can happen is… Nothing. Birds will sing, grass will grow, and the KC will make the CC grit their teeth a bit. Maybe Jonathan will be removed after a more transparent meeting, maybe not. If the KC doesn’t remove Jonathan, then it may force Canonical into an awkward situation where it must back the council and start cutting off infrastructure.
Second, if this is resolved, Mark and the Community Council may revise its community strategy and put in safeguards for these situations and possibly enforce a more formal structure over the ad-hoc sub-community model. This would need to apply to all communities as singling out specific projects would simply inflame the situation, in the future preventing other projects from entering a similar situation.
Third, instead of a split the Kubuntu crew might attempt to separate their internal governance a bit; possibly designating a separate group to work with the Community Council while the main leadership remains as-is. Ubuntu can work with their partners effectively without disturbing the leadership, but this solution complicates communication and doesn’t fix several underlying issues.
The next thing that may happen could be the start of a more gradual separation; Kubuntu as a project may slowly take on more infrastructure, growing apart and leaving the nest – maybe with Canonicals blessing and the transfer of the Kubuntu trademark. Who knows.
Lastly both sides could calmly file into a room before sizing up chairs to throw at each other; terrible words being said about peoples mothers before forking Kubuntu into ‘Librebuntu’. This would hurt as the Kubuntu and KDE developers already have poor relations with Canonical, meaning a fork would likely lead to a mass exodus from Kubuntu to the new project (much like the LibreOffice fork). While the freedom of not having Canonical or the Community Council dictate policy would be refreshing, the loss of infrastructure would be a certain setback.
In the End… ?
In the end, I think we all simply hope that projects, companies, communities, and benevolent dictators can all work together in relative harmony. The situation isn’t ideal, but a major part of building strong communities is occasionally finding out something doesn’t work – and fixing it; hopefully to the benefit of everyone involved.
Right now both sides are holding strong in a ‘grey zone’ with their actions – the CC seems to be meting out harsh decisions without clear policy, and the KC is refusing to listen until the CC backpedals on its position.
That’s my breakdown of the politics; I hope it helped and provided insight into this whole messy affair. I hope to gets all sorted out in the long run. If I have anything wrong, please do let me know in the comments and I’ll make the relevant corrections.