Ethical Source (2)

Continued from “Ethical Source.

Keeping Ethics in Open Source

For the sake of argument, we’re currently going to assume that open source (defined as “software under an OSI approved license”) does not adequately address social issues.

Ethical Source proponents suggest adopting licenses with “ethics clauses,” also frequently known as “do no harm clauses.” These include such points as:

  • must confirm to local labor laws;
  • may not be used by governments;
  • environmental destruction; and
  • may not be used to profit from “the destruction of people’s physical and mental health”

as well as the above examples from the Vaccine License and the Hippocratic License.

I would argue that these types of clauses are inherently flawed either due to ambiguity or unintended consequences.

To address the former, I want us to look at “environmental destruction.” There is a solid argument that all software causes environmental destruction – due to the drain on non-renewable energy resources. Software that makes cars safer also powers these cars, which fits into a narrative of car driven environmental damage.

When considering “the destruction of people’s physical and mental health,” we have to acknowledge how much software is damaging to both the physical and the mental. I am definitely having back problems due to poor posture as I sit typing away all day at my laptop. Social media has enabled bullying that has literally killed people.

These sorts of clauses are just too ambiguous to use.

Then there are more firm qualifiers, like must confirm to local labor laws. This seems rather straight forward, but there are plenty of places where women are still fighting for the right to work, for equal pay, and against all forms of discrimination. In some countries husbands can prevent their wives from working. Following local labor laws means creating a community where whole groups of people are not allowed to participating in the building of open source software.

I also want to point out that “government use” is a very broad category. Governments provide health care, social security, scientific funding, arts funding, and necessary infrastructure. By restricting government use, we are restricting our access to things like education and weather data.

Licenses are not the tool to push for social issues. Licenses are a tool to build equity, and they are even a tool to fight against inequality, but they alone are not enough.

Seth Vargo pulled source code from the Chef code base when it came to light that Chef was working with ICE. Google employees staged walkouts and protests against Project Dragonfly. Tech workers and contributors can institute codes of conduct, ban companies doing evil from their communities, refuse to accept pull requests or contracts, unionize, collectively organize, and simply refuse to work when the technology they’re creating is being used for evil or by evil.

The other problem with Do No Harm licenses is that they require the adoption of those licenses. There are already many open source licenses to choose from. Much of the critical infrastructure we’re discussing is being built by companies, which I think are unlikely to adopt Do No Harm licenses.

Acknowledgments to Elana Hashman for ideas here.

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