Brussels / 1 & 2 February 2020


The Ethics of Open Source

A Critical Reflection

Open Source was supposed to level the playing field for creating and consuming software by reducing the monopolistic power of companies building proprietary software. But we didn't get the kind of democratized gift economy we were expecting. Instead, we are seeing open source creating opportunities and incentives for the already privileged to create new, and exacerbate existing, injustices. To the extent that we want to use software to create a just world, we should reject the Open Source ideology, and start thinking seriously about what comes next.

The Open Source Movement has always been focused on code. The result is a system that sadly neglects people, and now many maintainers are in a bad place, as they struggle to figure out how to make ends meet even as their labor creates immense value for others, and how to avoid making the lives of others worse through weaponized code. We find ourselves in this position because the key Open Source values exacerbate an existing injustice; by valuing the consumers of code over the producers of code, Open Source helps concentrate power in the hands of already powerful economic actors at the expense of maintainers. I feel that not only could we do better, we have a moral imperative to find better development models.

Building on Scanlon's contractualist theory of morality, we will apply it to the world of open source—and the results will shock you. Open Source as an ideology is focused first and foremost on code, rather than people. As I have argued in the past, and will continue to argue, morality is about people first and foremost. This by itself doesn’t damn the Open Source movement, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of digging into the heart of Open Source to see that it has created a context in which maintainers are dehumanized, atrocities are visited upon innocent third parties, and large wealthy corporations are lionized. If we think that people matter, then we must reject the Open Source ideology. I’ve not the foggiest idea what comes next, but it’s time to start having a serious conversation about what a collaborative development model that values people first and foremost looks like.


Photo of Don Goodman-Wilson Don Goodman-Wilson