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Ethical Source and Subjectivity
Written on by James Fenn.

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The influence of ethics and moral views in open source software has recently seen somewhat of an increase in relevance and discussion. Many people have tried to argue that technology as a neutral tool that can/should be used by anyone regardless of their political relevance. However, some members of the community argue that this idea holds up poorly in actual use. Different people have different ethical concerns, and while some ethics can be objective, they are often subjectively biased towards the majority. This causes technology to frequently ignore the cultural needs of its users in favor of its creators’ view of the world, which can fail to consider the real implications of the software on its users.

In response to this approach, Coraline Ada Ehmke - well known as the writer of the Contributor Covenant - created the Ethical Source Movement. Citing concerns that open source software is increasingly being taken advantage of by fascist states and global corporations that treat workers unfairly, the movement argues that the creators of a software should have the ability to dictate its use by certain individuals and entities based on their ethical values. Aside from this, the movement is similar to the open source definition, placing emphasis on freely available source code and public contributions.

Ethical Source makes a lot of sense in the context that it is presented in. The approach of traditional open source - to outright ban any form of discrimination - avoids addressing any specific problem and separates the action from the context in which it is used. It treats software as a neutral material - like water or food - that should be available to everyone, regardless of their beliefs. Simply making technology something that is written by and available for absolutely anyone is an absurd and idealistic view which assumes that every participant is objectively good. It assumes that everyone knows what they are doing, and fails to account for any misuse or ignorance of these standards.

While the Ethical Source Movement addresses some fundamental issues of open source, many critics have pointed out significant challenges of this approach. The Open Source Initiative has failed to approve of the “ethical licenses” that the movement involves, and many have attacked them as simplistic and contradictory. While it clearly represents an improvement in some aspects of open source, one might argue that it strays too far in the opposite direction and subjects itself to the same fundamental problem. By establishing an unclear viewpoint and relying on software creators to supply their ethical sense, it tries to generalize a specific issue and loses some important context in the process.

Criticisms

One concern is that there is no clear way to realistically enforce such a policy on any particular entity. It is unlikely that governments will disclose which software they use and depend upon, and many creators of open source software have no reasonable way to find out who it is being used by or how. Companies that wrongly profit from open source are often found out because they, by definition, redistribute the source material and violate the copyright law that open source licenses are built upon. With internal applications, however, this is impossible to detect without effectively removing the aspects of the software that make it “open” and transparent. Any party that might take advantage of freely available software to violate human rights will have no problem breaking a license or two on top of that, and this fails to actually prevent their operation in any way.

Moreso, such a broad term like “don’t use this for evil please” in a license agreement effectively passes the responsibility of judging whether something is ethically sound to the user of the software. Even if it is used for evil, and even if its existence and availability enabled that act, the creator didn’t agree to it, which… somehow makes them no longer complicit in their actions? It acts as shallow way to avoid any confrontation with an actual issue, and ignore what the effect of providing such technology might actually be. It allows creators to design their software without paying attention to the consequences of its use because they no longer hold any liability for its actions; if something happens, they can just point to the license terms and say “I told you so” despite their moral failing to consider its actual effects.

Another issue with the definition of this movement is the assumption that the values of a software’s creator are representative of the rest of society. Allowing creators the ability to dictate how and when their software should be used based on subjective ethical concerns assumes that they’re a trustworthy party to be given this power. Any creator that sees this as a justification to deny service to an oppressive regime might just as easily turn it around to be used as an excuse to deny service in a far more subjective context - “women shouldn’t use my software because my moral values dictate that they should do household chores instead”. It opens the door to using a different interpretation of ethics as an excuse to enforce certain values upon users, and disproportionately gives power to the writers and creators of technology.

Effects

Despite the concerns of many critics, I don’t think that the real value of this movement is seen as a complete replacement of open source, and I don’t know if that’s what it’s really meant to be. Rather, the beneficial effect of this is in its disruption to open source by bringing attention to these ethical issues and challenging its actual definition. Regardless of whether such ideas are accepted by the community, their impact spreads awareness that these issues exist, and creates discussion that I believe results in a net benefit as everyone leaves with a better understanding of the problems at hand.

Even with its potential flaws, Ethical Source is something I support because of this, and because it raises an important question that open source has often failed to address: intent.

Open Source doesn’t clearly define what an entity gains from their use of the movement. It doesn’t define what they bring to the community or what is taken from it. And that marks a fairly substantial difference between open source projects; while some developers approach it for moral reasons and a sense of transparency, others simply see it as a way to share costs of development and exploit free labor. Not that this is necessarily “bad” by itself, but it leaves a lot of ambiguity in other aspects of open source that can’t really be described by a license - ownership, governance, incentive… Some people want to build a community that can help them make decisions, others only want to provide their work as a resource to learn from. These increasingly diverging ideas of what open source actually is makes it difficult to universally define.

This is why I think that definitions of open source - especially the one provided by the Open Source Initiative - should be treated more like guidelines than an actual rulebook that everyone has to pedantically follow. When the OSI wrote that OSS licenses must not discriminate against any people or groups, that makes much more sense in one context than another - it makes sense to not discriminate against people or groups in the definition of an “unjust or prejudicial distinction”. However, using that to argue that no distinctions should be made at all is something that a good portion of the community would have likely disagreed with.

And that brings me to a particular point: does open source have an absolute meaning? More specifically, does it need to? This is the caveat of Ethical Source, and what makes me a little conflicted about the direction it is going in - it creates an entirely new term where I don’t believe one is necessary, or really representative of what the movement is trying to do. Is everyone going to start calling it “ethical software” when they use a certain license? That’s not what “ethical” means. Simply using an “ethical license” means nothing if it isn’t adhered to.

Furthermore, some critics have argued that in doing this, Ethical Source takes away from other efforts that could be more effective and beneficial for the community. Encouraging people to abandon open source and fracture the community seems like an unnecessary waste of the effort that others have already put into the movement. Not that these aren’t significant issues in open source, but I would argue whether they actually need a specific - and separate - terminology. Software movements aren’t a species, they’re groups of humans with constantly changing opinions that would require far more effort to define than what is necessary to derive them. Every single individual developer can’t have their own personal “open source movement” to define what it means to them. This is reinventing subjectivity as an objective construct.

The Open Source Initiative is normally very open to criticism of their practices from the community, and as a result of that are usually a fairly accurate representation of what it means. However, I think it’s going a little far to say that they are the sole arbiter of what can and cannot be a part of the movement. People can work around that. Just because the OSI refuses to give your license the official “open source badge of approval”, does that make it completely invalid? Of course not. It was made by a group of actual people with their own thoughts and opinions that matter to them, whether the rest of the world agrees or not.

Solutions

In any situation, it’s inevitably up to the community to decide what is right and wrong, and creating a clearer ethical definition within that will solidify a position on moral issues and possibly force the users of such tools to consider their actions more deeply. This leads to better and more effective ways to control them - through public debate and activism - than simply removing access to a single piece of software in a sea of alternate options.

Of course, it’s difficult for this to make any substantial change by itself. The community can complain all they want; it’s useless if no one is listening. And this is where I defer to what someone else has thought of: organized groups to leverage the power of individuals for a common purpose. Specifically, a software union. A space for creators to act on their beliefs without treading on copyright or making duplicate terminology.

The Ethical Source Movement is good, and I think it needs to exist - or, at least, its values need to be written down as a thing that people agree with. However, I think that representing it as a direct replacement for the open source movement is inaccurate. It is a set of values, not something that any software can arbitrarily conform to - and that could be better conveyed through other means.

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