Tag Archives: licenses

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.

Ethical Source

This is going to be post one of some unknown number. I think I cannot write everything I want to say in one post, but also that it would just make it undigestably long.

Read part 2!

Is Ethical Source Open?

Let’s first define our terms here: “open source,” for the sake of this particular post, means “under an OSI approved license.” An OSI approved license must meet the points laid out in the Open Source Definition (OSD) — a ten point list of qualifications. “Ethical source” is being defined as being “under a license that applies moral or ethical limitations to the use and modification of the software.”

Ethical source is not open source. Eevery ethical source license I’ve seen violates OSD 5 and/or OSD 6.

5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups

The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.

6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor

The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business, or from being used for genetic research.

The Vaccine License is a good example of the first:

The Vaccine License is a software license that requires that users vaccinate their children, and themselves, and that user businesses make a similar requirement of their employees, to the greatest extent legally possible. The required vaccinations are those recommended by the user’s national administration, for example the United States Center for Disease Control. There is an exception for those who, for medical reasons, should not receive a vaccine.

The Vaccine License is saying that you cannot use software under the vaccine license if you’re not vaccinated (medical exceptions exist).

The Hippocratic License violates the second point:

No Harm: The software may not be used by anyone for systems or activities that actively and knowingly endanger, harm, or otherwise threaten the physical, mental, economic, or general well-being of other individuals or groups, in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/).

Services: If the Software is used to provide a service to others, the licensee shall, as a condition of use, require those others not to use the service in any way that violates the No Harm clause above.

If you have been following the conversation around licenses and ethical source, this is not new. If you haven’t, then it might be!

In the former case, there is a straightforward connection: not vaccinated? Not eligible to use it! This is specifically about the individual user.

The latter example, the Hippocratic License, violates OSD 5 in that it may not be used by individuals (or groups of individuals) found in violation, but it also makes verboten fields of endeavor — horrible, illegal ones, but fields of endeavor none the less. You cannot use this software for torture.

Neither of these licenses are open source.

In general, ethical sources licenses place restrictions on individuals, groups, or fields of endeavor, this means that they cannot be open source.

Does it matter that they are not “open source”?

There is commercial and social value in a license being open source. For a company, it’s a friendly certification mark that appeals to customers, consumers, and potential employees. From a social perspective, by creating open source software you’re adding to the Software Commons — the resources available to everyone. This is just nice. Plenty of people want their software to be open source, and they especially want it to be open source on their terms.

In some contexts and for some people, ethical technology is nearly synonymous with free/open technology — or it is a prerequisite that a piece of technology be open source for it to be ethical.

There is also already a strong community around open source software. People consider themselves not just a member of a project’s community, but the open source community. By being part of the open source community, you are getting access to a lot of people and you are part of something. There’s a lot of value in that. It is understandable why proponents of Ethical Source licenses would want it to also be open source.

However, under the current circumstances, something simply cannot be open if there are restrictions to “ethical” cases.