Bringing back ethics to open source (Tobie Langel) [FOSDEM 2020]


Concerns about ethics are rising because of the impact of technology on our daily lives. There have been some attempts to bring ethical concerns into licensing, but there has been pushback by gatekeepers (e.g. OSI, Open Source Initiative).

This is just the start of a conversation, Tobie doesn’t have all the answers.

The OSD (Open Source Definition) is a set of 10 criteria to decide if a license is open source or not. The 4 freedoms is a document that is the base of Free Software.

The 4 freedoms document has seen updates, it is now at version 3. It is normal for a standard to get updates.

We should take into account the context of the authors of the original documents. If those people would have had a different background, it is possible that more ethical aspects would have been built in.

Two projects that have attempted to include ethics in their license.

The Good And Not Evil license is the MIT license which adds a clause that the software must be used for good, not evil. That moves the responsibility to courts. The author regularly gets calls from companies that want him to relicense it or make exceptions for them.

The Hippocratic License solves the problem of Evil by using Human Rights. It also tries to keep the open source definition, because it doesn’t discriminate based on background, only based on actions. A first problem it leaves the definition of violations of human rights to courts. Specifically to the Geneva court, which houses countries that have a terrible track record of human rights violations. The second problem is adoption. You need to get contributors on board, but also OSI and corporations that will use it. Third problem for adoption is how to evolve existing projects into this license. Finally, the community needs a shift in mindset to include human rights in the norms of open source instead of just allowing it as a fringe.

Many companies would gladly stop providing software to “evil” parts of government, but if they do that, they risk loosing a lot more government contracts. So if there was a way to make sure that they are simply not allowed to provide that software, it would help them do the right thing.

One critique is that there are other, better ways to protect human rights - but that doesn’t mean we can’t bet on two horses. Second critique is to avoid license proliferation. But we should just converge on one of them to avoid that. Third: it’s a compliance nightmare, fourth it’s unenforceable. (I didn’t hear the counterargument to that.) Fifth critique is that it violates the OSD. Tobie, however, thinks it is not. It is indeed a violation of the first of the four freedoms, but we can actually change that.