The phenomenon of attempting to limit the use of software and tech services only to what is perceived as ethical is a relatively – emerging in the United States over the last couple of years.
In the past, during the Obama administration, the US military was using Linux for control systems in drones that it deployed to carry out extrajudicial targeted killings abroad. But this was not seen as controversial, certainly not to the degree that it would give rise to any kind of employee activism among, for example, people working for Google or Microsoft – considering that these two giants are among the Linux Foundation’s platinum sponsors.
However, with a new administration, opinions have changed, and recently there have been vociferous protests that quickly attract a great deal of media attention. The protesters seek to prevent the use of technology for purposes that employees oppose on political grounds. Thus at Google, protests covered anything from a search engine developed for the Chinese market to contributing to The Pentagon’s AI efforts, while Amazon’s employees protested against allowing the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to continue to use its cloud services.
Microsoft itself, and Microsoft-owned GitHub are also facing similar employee activism aimed at affecting the business direction that these companies are taking.
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That’s why it’s a breath of fresh air for GitHub’s competitor, GitLab, to apparently try and nip any similar attempts in the bud.
Both GitHub and GitLab offer services centered around hosting repositories that make use of Git, an open-source version control software. Both are popular and widely used, listing some of the world’s biggest companies among their customers. GitLab, however, is the smaller of the two, and more vulnerable to losing any of those customers for any reason; and now CEO Sid Sijbrandij has clarified the company’s strategy, declaring that nobody is “currently” excluded as a customer – “based on moral/value grounds.”
The Customer Acceptance section now reads: “We firmly comply with trade compliance laws and welcome everyone outside of those restrictions to be customers of GitLab.”
This refreshingly means, the document continues, that GitLab accepts customers “with values that are incompatible with our own values,” and then lists the reasons for this policy: being open to contributions, leaving politics out of the workplace, the inability to effectively vet every customer, and last but not least – the permissive open-source MIT license that GitLab uses.
Some have seen this position as potentially breaching legal boundaries in some circumstances – though this would apply only if GitHub prevented employees from discussing the terms and conditions of their employment – and in cases of harassment and discrimination – hardly what Sijbrandij’s additions to the company’s strategy amount to.
However, he reacted to criticism sounded on GitLab by saying that “the company can change its strategy at any time, though it would honor standing commitments to customers.”
Some people are fine with business deals divorced from moral consideration. And some people might call this basic capitalism – within whose confines, in any case, GitLab seems determined to do its business.
The meaning of “open”
Recently, workers at DevOps biz Chef raised similar objections to doing business with ICE. Three weeks ago, Chef, after refusing to cave, decided not to renew the contract with CBP and ICE.
But the case was quite a good deal more complicated than that. Namely, a former employee and political activist deleted several open-source components of the service that he had control of, in protest over ICE being one of Chef’s customers. This crippled the company’s business for a while – before the tools were forked and restored, as open-source licensed software.
The case demonstrates that open source licensing can protect companies from aggressive activism – but can it also protect their customers?
With closed source and proprietary companies, the only limit would be their own willingness, or lack thereof, to take somebody’s money, along with legal constraints; but things are not nearly as clear-cut with products and services relying on free and open source products.
GitLab, for example, operates under the MIT license – a permissive brand of open source licensing, that allows anyone to use the software requiring only attribution to the original author, and not holding the author legally liable.
As GitLab notes in its strategy, this type of licensing means that the company governed by it “doesn’t discriminate against fields of endeavor.”
In any case – a company can end a contract to provide services or support, but the software itself remains available and can be forked and developed from that point on by customers with almost no limitations – certainly not any regarding “ethical end use.”