Ethical Source at WeTransfer
Bastiaan Terhorst, 3/11 '19
At WeTransfer, we have strong opinions about the value system in which we operate. In our products, these values translate to us keeping our products simple and straight-forward. In restraining ourselves in reaching out to our user base in search of engagement. And in declining to work with advertisers whose products or practices we deem questionable. We have also actively used these values to campaign issues like gun violence and medical debt.
With our company roots in sending large files, sharing is deeply ingrained in our culture. As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we publish a number of internal tools and libraries as open source. We used to publish this software under the MIT License; a short and readable license that permits anyone to use our technology freely, in whatever way they see fit. As of last week, we have begun switching projects over to the Hippocratic License. The Hippocratic license is based on the MIT license, but extends it to restrict the freedom to use to only those applications that do not harm others.
This is the relevant bit:
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.
The Open Source Initiative – which has the monopoly on deciding which licenses officially count as Open Source – takes the view that free software should give complete and ultimate freedom to anyone to use the software under license for anything, explicitly including “evil” things. It takes the perspective that technology is neutral. In today’s world of fake news, rigged political campaigns and surveillance technology, this 20 year old definition of Open Source feels terribly outdated.
In society, we define our freedoms in two ways: freedoms to, and freedoms from. Consider freedom of speech: the freedom to speak your mind and not be prosecuted for it, even if others do not agree. Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of modern democratic society, but it is important to note that it is not absolute. In our modern society we couple this freedom to with – for example – the freedom from racism. Our desire to protect people from racism trumps our desire to allow people to speak their minds.
How we think about technology should be no different. As a human being, I want to grant people the freedom to use our technology for good, but also ensure freedom from harm caused by misuse of our technology. Because technology is not neutral.
Consider facial recognition. It helps me unlock my phone in a split-second, and automatically categorises my family photos. But it is also used to publicly shame jaywalkers in China (and worse).
I encourage everyone to take a step back and consider the ultimate freedom your current Open Source licenses grant. Perhaps it is time for a new movement to take over: from Open Source to Ethical Source. Technology can be a wonderful and incredibly powerful force. Let us all take responsibility for the technology we bring into the world, and do what we can to ensure it is used for good.