A vision for ethics in open source software
Ruby Together board member Coraline Ada Ehmke has been working for almost a decade on infusing the ideas of justice and equity into the culture and practice of open source. However, like many, her journey in the open source space did not start there.
“I’ve been programming computers since I was a kid,” says Ehmke. “In the early days, you know, source code was in magazines. You’d get your Byte magazine and you’d turn to the back and there was a source code listing and you would type it in, and that’s how you got the program.”
To the creator of the widely-adopted contributor covenant, and founder of the Organization for Ethical Source, open source was simply a formalization of the long tradition of sharing software for free. It was a way to make programming accessible and safer for users. Over time, though, she began to realize “open, as an ethical principle, was not sufficient.”
In 2018 large tech companies, including Palantir and Amazon, came under fire for providing data and surveillance infrastructure to governmental organizations in the US, including local police departments and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That year the Latinx and Chicanx activist group Mijente launched the #NoTechForICE campaign, including protests and organizing against the use of technology to facilitate human rights violations, including the violent treatment of undocumented immigrant families, and systemic racial profiling.
The powerful leverage companies like this have in the open source landscape was brought into sharp focus for many developers when Seth Vargo, a well known open source contributor and former employee of the Chef app, tried to participate in the protest. When he found out the company had a contract with ICE he removed his code from the platform in an act of solidarity, only to find within hours it had been restored. Even though he was the creator of the code and did not condone its use, he was left with no recourse.
The incident inspired Ehmke to create the Hippocratic License, an Ethical Source license prohibiting the use of software that is in violation of human rights. These efforts grew into the Ethical Source movement and what is now the Organization for Ethical Source.
A common misconception about Ethical Source is that it is solely about licensing, due to its origins in the Hippocratic License. Ehmke notes that this is not true. Instead, the Ethical Source movement seeks to create a culture around seven organizing principles, including “our work is done in the open,” “our community strives to be welcoming and just” and “our work deserves support.”
Many of these values are shared with the founding principles at Ruby Together, where Ehmke became an early member of the board. “The Ruby community led the way in normalizing codes of conduct for open source projects and open source communities,” she says, “So I would love to see the Ruby community continue to demonstrate that leadership.” The Contributor Covenant, which Ehmke wrote in 2014 as a standard for Ruby Together supported projects, became one of the most popular codes of conduct in the open source community. It has been adopted by over a hundred thousand open source communities and projects including Google, Microsoft, Linux and Salesforce.
Endorsement by tech industry giants did not prevent the code of conduct from loud criticism from those who do not align with its ideals. Both the Contributor Covenant and the Ethical Source movement received similar backlash, albeit from different facets of the open source community. When it came to the code of conduct, the major pushback was from individual developers. The Ethical Source movement has received backlash at the institutional level as well, with organizations like the Open Source Initiative declaring that the movement does not align with the practice of open source. Even supporters of the effort appear hesitant to adopt the principles, for fear of legal repercussions and enforcement.
Ehmke acknowledges that widespread adoption of Ethical Source will not happen as easily or in the same way as the adoption of open source itself, due to the fact that they were created with different goals in mind. According to Ehmke, open source served to make source available software palatable to corporations. On the other hand, Ethical Source tries to level the playing field between the creator community and the companies that adopt their work. “It has to be a symbiotic relationship in order to be fair,” says Ehmke. As such, she believes these practices will become more widely disseminated as individual developers and communities adopt them, incentivizing corporations to do so as well.
The Organization for Ethical Source has been developing tools and resources that will be immediately applicable in open source communities, so that Ethical Source principals can be put into practice, tested and more easily understood. “We are drawing on the collective wisdom and expertise of people from different parts of the world with different specializations,” Ehmke asserts. These include a former Mozilla fellow whose project focused on how indigenous wisdom can inform open source communities, an anthropologist who has conducted ethnographic studies on software development communities, and a member of the Center for Democracy and Technology who works on governance in digital communities.
Ultimately, Ehmke says the Ethical Source movement is about “incorporating broadly shared values into the work we do, with the aim of producing better outcomes for the world at large.” Whether or not they succeed, she hopes to set an example for other organizations to follow. “And I hope someone else does,” she says, “because we just cannot go on pretending that tech is neutral.”