Coders Should Be Activists
Open-source developers could push for climate action or humanitarian causes, but instead, their code has remained a reliable bet for even the most egregious of corporations to use freely
Last year, a former employee of the cloud platform Chef took the entire service offline with the click of a few buttons. In protest of the company’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he revoked access to crucial open-source code the company relies on, temporarily crippling the company’s entire platform.
The missing code halted the work of both Chef and its customers, forcing Chef’s CEO to reverse the company’s stance on working with ICE in a matter of hours.
Workers at Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and other companies across the tech industry have begun to protest their employers’ decisions about everything from sexual harassment to climate action by walking out, striking, and writing open letters. But what happened at Chef is the only example I’ve found of developers using open-source code as a protest tool. And that is a huge missed opportunity.
Open-source code has transformed the way almost everything is developed, from banking apps to hardware like your iPhone: It is the way companies avoid reinventing the wheel or paying for expensive enterprise software. Developers who believe in the power of free software work on the projects as volunteers, and companies simply drop in their battle-tested code for free.
Many of the top projects on NPM’s package manager, which web developers use to install open-source code in projects, receive tens of millions of installations per week. Curl, a popular software tool that simplifies communication between connected devices, is included with almost every modern device on the planet.
Our modern world’s dependence on open-source code gives its creators outsized (and so far largely unused) power to force change. An open-source developer who wants to make an impact could simply change their license — which dictates how and when their software can be used for free — to specifically bar a single company, government, or even military from using their code.
Though there have been few examples of using code as a protest tool, in 2017, the developer of a library called “left-pad” demonstrated how effective it may be when he pulled his code from NPM entirely during a copyright dispute. The sudden unavailability of his code resulted in an outage that affected a huge chunk of the internet.
“I think I have the right of deleting all my stuff,” the developer wrote at the time, and that’s entirely true: Developers of these pieces of code are entirely in control of their creations.
Open-source software is used by the richest companies in the world, from Apple to ExxonMobil, in a myriad of ways crucial to their businesses. Individual developers revoking access to their code could cost the world’s largest companies millions of dollars and ultimately push for change at a speed previously unseen. It would be a remarkably simple gesture that could force the hand of even the largest corporations.
This sort of targeted ban isn’t unheard of in other industries. For instance, the popular podcast “99% Invisible” recently told the story of the world’s darkest black paint, called Vantablack, and how its maker made it exclusively available to a single artist, Anish Kapoor. In protest, some in the art industry made their own exclusive colors available to anyone — except Kapoor.
Open-source purists will be quick to argue that such demonstrations aren’t in the spirit of the movement, which started as a way to make software available to everyone without barriers. But in a world dominated by anti-competitive monopolies and climate emergencies, I’d argue that not using that platform for change is a missed opportunity to make an impact.
Developers of open-source software could push for climate action or humanitarian causes, but instead, their code has remained available for even the most egregious of corporations to use freely.
The only question is which open-source projects and their individual developers will step up to the plate and start using their unprecedented reach as a means to make a meaningful change first.