Chris Jensen

@chris_jensen

Why we need an Open Source Licence that considers the misuse of our code

April 16th 2018

Open source software revolutionised how software developers build products. Tech companies around the world are now built upon their use and contribution to open source.

Github lists more than 25 million public projects — the project with the most public contributions? VS Code, a project owned by Microsoft, who’s CEO once described open source as a “cancer”.

Many of the individual developers that contribute to this free and open code base that tech giants build their success upon, do so in the hope of making a better world.

Just ask the Apache Foundation. Started by a group of open source developers maintaining the most popular web server of the last 20 years, the charity foundation was created to assure that their resources would be used for public benefit. But in those terms, the success of the open source movement is much less clear.

Indicators of anxiety, inequality, people fleeing for their lives, and the very ability of the planet to support life are all trending in the wrong direction.

Even as Cape Town prepared for the possibility of becoming the first major city to run out of water, oil & gas companies used Apache Hadoop to improve their profitability; NationBuilder, the cloud platform that powered the Trump and Brexit campaign websites, is built on open source software; and here’s a Kickstarter for an open source powered, DIY, weaponised drone (just what we needed, right?).

Then there’s the tech giants themselves: Leaked documents revealed that Facebook was exploiting anxious and emotionally vulnerable teens for advertisers, early Facebook and Google employees are sounding the alarm on the way their products are deliberately designed to hack our brains and addict us, and if things go really badly, the president of the United States might just tweet his way into nuclear war.

We’re well past those heady days when we developers believed we could just build cool tech and trust that it would lead to democracy and happiness.

Open source software is built on the idea of freedom, yet many of the most well known open source projects are being used to strike at the very heart of our freedoms — even the freedom to consciously choose our own behaviour.

The open source movement is an incredibly generous and inspiring one: Github has recorded over a billion public contributions to open software. The time has now come for us to start setting limits on the exploitation of that generosity to attack our freedoms and our future.

At Agency, we place purpose at the centre of what we decide to work on and who we work with. We focus on charities and organisations with a social mission because we too want our work to contribute to a better world. As we’ve grown to create our products, Raisely and Kepla, that same focus on purpose has guided who we built those products for.

We also benefit from the open source movement and want to give back. We’re publishing libraries we think would be useful, but we have something more purposeful to offer.

Last month the world was introduced to Christopher Wylie: the gay, liberal, vegan who wrote software that has emboldened prejudice, misogyny, and violence by harvesting 50 million facebook profiles. How could such a thing have happened?

In the same week Stack Overflow hinted at the answer with the release of their 2018 developer survey. The survey reveals that while many developers feel they have an ethical obligation, many are uncertain about where to draw the line or what to do if they feel it’s been crossed.

We’re releasing the Just World License (EDIT: now known as the Do No Harm License)— a license for open source developers to help answer these questions. The license restricts the use of the code to promote or profit from violence, environmental destruction, abuse of human rights, and the destruction of people’s physical and mental health.

Of course, this is not a silver bullet. It’s not even a bullet. The challenges of how we use the tech we build ultimately isn’t something that has a technical or legal fix. It requires us as developers, and as a society, to decide to set hard boundaries on the use of tech in ways that harm people, our planet and our future.

Just as the divestment movements have helped to revoke the social licenses for apartheid and fossil fuels, it’s my hope that the Just World License will contribute to a rethink of the boundaries that we set for acceptable use of software and technology in our society.

It’s also my hope that this will contribute to a change in culture around software development.

Just as the open source movement revolutionised the way we think about how developers build, collaborate on and share software, the revelations of how that software is being used highlight a need for us to rethink why we write software, what it should be used for, and what limits we as developers place on how our work is to be used.

These are not easy questions to answer, but the first step to answering them is having a framework to think about what we want our software to be used for.

Do you build open source software? Why do you build it? What do (or don’t) you want it used for? Give the Just World License a look and let us know if you think it better defines your vision for the world that open source should contribute to.

More by Chris Jensen

More Related Stories