The Ethical Source Working Group Blog

The Culture War in Open Source is On

Nathan Schneider
April 15, 2020

Perhaps you remember Eric S. Raymond from his memorable essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” or his advice to programmers on “not reacting like a loser,” or his enthusiasm for guns. Regardless, the legendary open-source coder and commentator recently made a brief comeback to the Open Source Initiative, an organization he co-founded in 1998. On February 24, he announced on an OSI email list that “a wild co-founder appears” after being absent for many years. By February 28, after denouncing the “political ratfucking” and “vulgar Marxism” he perceived to be infecting the organization, he was removed from the list for violating the code of conduct—the existence of which he had also railed against. The previous month, also, Raymond’s OSI co-founder Bruce Perens withdrew his membership over an apparently unrelated dispute about a software license.

These happenings are not unrelated, really. They are part of what has been variously called “the culture war at the heart of open source” and “the great open source shake-up.” The disputes concern the decades-old legal technology at the heart of the movement known variously as “free software” or “open source”: software licenses, particularly ones that turn proprietary code into a common good. The conflicts at hand raise questions about ethics and economics that the open source establishment believes have long been answered and can be put away for good. Oh, and as programmer Steve Klabnik notes in passing, without further explanation, “I personally think that gender plays a huge role.”

Richard Stallman, originator of the first free-and-open license, resigned from the Free Software Foundation last year over comments sympathetic to the late billionaire and molester Jeffrey Epstein. The reputation of Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig also took a hit for defending one of Epstein’s enablers. Maybe all this set a mood, heightened the intensity. It is probably not an accident that, in a world where ~95% percent of GitHub contributors identify as male, several of the major partisans in this culture war do not.

The bug that has been lurking in the open source codebase all along, for the partisans, might be best summarized as neutrality. The OSI’s Open Source Definition prohibits value judgments about such things as “fields of endeavor,” business models, and technology stacks. The Free Software Foundation puts the idea this way: “The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.” As long as the code remains free and open, users—whether individual or corporate—should not be constrained by a license in what they do or how they make money. Any such constraint, the argument goes, is a slippery slope. During his brief return to OSI’s email lists, Raymond quoted Thomas Paine: “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” Restrict others, and it will come back to haunt you.

The challenges to this noble neutrality come in two forms: ethics and economics.

On the first front, there is the Ethical Source Movement, the doing of Ruby developer and Model View Culture contributor Coraline Ada Ehmke, against whom Raymond’s worst recent vitriol has been directed. Ethical Source builds on the waves of tech workers rebelling against their bosses for taking contracts with the likes of the Pentagon and ICE. Ethical Source offers its own counter-definition to OSI’s, outlining a type of license that allows developers to restrict certain uses of their software. The handful of compliant licenses prohibit violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for instance, or International Labour Organization standards. The promise is some peace of mind for programmers and perhaps a more ethical world; the danger is a mess of unenforceable licenses whose prohibitions become impossible to keep track of.

The second challenge is economic. This has long been a sore spot in open source, which has largely outsourced its economics to companies that might contribute employee time or grants to what projects are building. Those companies also get a lot of the financial rewards, leaving many contributors to offer their unpaid free time—an unequally available resource. New lawyerly efforts, such as Heather Meeker’s PolyForm Project and Kyle E. Mitchell’s License Zero, offer menus of licenses designed to enable certain popular business models. The code is still “source available”—anyone can read it, and use it under certain terms—but there are restrictions to prevent some company from taking it and profiting from others’ work. One PolyForm license permits only small businesses to use the software for free; big corporations have to pay. Again, though, critics fear a free-for-all of licenses that end up piling on restrictions and constraining the commons.

Let me get back to that question of gender. From the perspective of the “meritocracy” ideal familiar in tech culture—and much maligned in these pages—the neutrality principle makes sense. The spree of new license-making is confounding. Forget money, forget ideology, we’ll judge you by your code! But through the lens of feminist thought, the challenges should come as no surprise.

For instance, feminists have been really good at noticing the undervalued, under-noticed labor propping up everything else—because often it is women doing that stuff. Why not make sure that people creating open code are also the ones receiving financial benefits? Especially since women tend to have far less free time on their hands, getting paid matters. Meanwhile, feminists have stressed that there is really no value-neutral, objective, meritocratic vantage point. All knowledge is situated. There is no excuse for dispensing with ethical discussion and ethical standards. Why not find reasonable ways for groups to articulate and enforce the standards they hold?

The more you look at open source through a feminist lens—as I’ve done at greater length elsewhere—the more those two-decade-old certainties start to crack. We need to see those cracks to build better tools.

People often talk about open source as a commons, but if you go back and read Elinor Ostrom’s studies on pre-digital practices of commoning around the world, you’ll find that there are some important things missing. (She didn’t identify her work with feminism, but she is still the first woman to have won the Nobel in economics.) Ostrom recognized boundary-making as an essential practice for commoners—defining who is a member and what purpose the commons serves, whether economic, social, or otherwise. She also found that a healthy commons depends on participants having a voice in changing its rules and norms, which is a far cry from the dictatorships-for-life that tend to rule open source. If open source listened better to the legacy of commoning before it, projects wouldn’t just choose a license, they would start by adopting a governance structure and finding a place to manage funds. They would plan for economic and ethical self-determination—autonomy was another principle Ostrom emphasized—rather than outsourcing those matters to corporate whims.

Anyway, it is only natural that open source contributors should want to hack the process, not just the software they write. For all that open source has achieved, there is so much more that it hasn’t. “The year of the Linux desktop” has turned from an expectation to a joke, unless you count Google’s Android and Chromebooks. The open Web has closed shut. Surveillance-powered corporate platforms have accumulated power because of, not despite, open source. And the staggering homogeneity that still persists among open source developers testifies to the talent and life experience that their projects are missing.

If the early architects of open source feel threatened by a new generation demanding more, that is probably a sign of progress.

Originally published at Model View Culture.