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Friday, February 23, 2024

Open Source Doesn't Mean More Software Is Better Software

Last month, Eugen Rochko learned that the software project he started building during his university days, called Mastodon, is running Donald Trump’s new Truth Social network. This was an uncomfortable discovery, since, as Rochko told Vice, “If you want my personal opinion on Trump, I cannot stand the guy.”

Rochko’s first instinct might have been to order Trump to leave immediately—but Rochko doesn’t control Mastodon in that sort of way. It was created as free, open source software with a “copy-left” license, which means anyone can download it, run it, and change it, on the condition that they continue to work under the same license and freely share the altered version they are operating. Not only is Trump permitted to use the software for his own peculiar purposes, but the free software saves a startup like Truth Social millions of dollars in programming expenses. All Mastodon asks in return is that Truth Social then pay it forward.


But it turns out Trump isn’t a pay-it-forward kind of guy. On the Truth Social site there is currently no acknowledgement of Mastodon, and no way for someone to download the altered source code. Discovering this noncompliance gave Rochko his opening, and last week he announced that Mastodon had “sent a formal letter to Truth Social’s chief legal officer, requesting the source code to be made publicly available in compliance with the license,” which is known as AGPLv3. If Truth Social doesn’t comply within 30 days, the letter reads, the license may be permanently revoked, presumably by getting a court to make such an order.

While this show of force may have given Rochko and the hundreds of contributors to the project some catharsis, any sense of getting back at Trump is likely to be short-lived. Lawyers that I spoke with say they are unaware of a case that has gone from a site not complying with a free software license to being shut down by a court. In part, that’s because complying isn’t very hard. If a court ever got close to taking action, the offender would simply shift gears and do what is asked. If you are curious what a site full of Trumpian misinformation and hate running on Mastodon would look like, it already exists: It’s the right-wing site Gab, which has complied with AGPLv3 to the letter.

Regardless of how things play out, the Mastodon-Trump kerfuffle is a cautionary tale for those who believe the internet or software code will make the world a better place. Free software began as a radically idealistic vision for programming, a breakthrough in fostering excellent software by insisting that corporations or brilliant individuals pool their discoveries rather than working in isolation. Over the years, even as the rest of the internet has seemingly woken up to the harsh realities of what can and will happen online, the free community has remained fiercely loyal to these ideals. In doing so, it has also avoided taking responsibility for who uses its code and to what end.

Instead, the focus has been singularly on the code itself, and from that perspective, free and open source software has been a spectacular success. The big tech companies founded around the turn of the millennium would not exist without it. In particular, the free software operating system Linux helped Facebook and Google scale quickly and inexpensively to upend the giant of the day, Microsoft, whose dominant position hadn’t extended to the internet. And few would disagree with the idea that if there were universal adoption of free software, some of the most annoying parts of the internet would vanish. There would be no way for Amazon to take back a book you had bought or for Microsoft to require updates you may not want or for John Deere tractors to prevent you from repairing your own computerized devices. Great software would always be under the control of its users.

A generation earlier, Microsoft founder Bill Gates offered his own theory about how to create good, useful software, writing a scathing letter to the “hobbyists” who were sharing his company’s BASIC software: “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put three man-years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product, and distribute it for free? The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software.”


Today there is some sort of hybrid system, where tech giants like Google, Facebook, and others are big contributors to the free software Linux project, which is still crucial to their businesses. In fact, 75 percent of contributions to Linux come from programmers who work for companies. The system has made these companies very rich, and their position is quite dominant. They don’t fear a small startup unseating them using Linux—the way they once dethroned Microsoft. Even Microsoft has revised its view. Company president Brad Smith said last year that “Microsoft was on the wrong side of history when open source exploded at the beginning of the century, and I can say that about me personally. The good news is that, if life is long enough, you can learn … that you need to change.”

This form of success, however, has brought with it a fundamental shift: A project once meant to help the little players is now propping up the biggest of them. It’s a shift in identity the community has yet to fully reckon with. This is because when it comes to the software itself, everything is humming along nicely. But beyond matters of coding, free software has been inert. On vital questions like how to make social networks safer for women or minorities or more conducive to productive debate or more likely to spread accurate information, free software hasn’t improved things at all—rather, it’s become an enabler, as Mastodon has been for Truth Social.

In that sense, free software joins a litany of “free” things—including markets and speech—that purport to solve problems by opening the floodgates. With enough eyes all bugs are shallow, the thinking goes, while the answer to bad speech is more speech, and a society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both. In truth, these free ideals perform well only on their own terms, that is, generating more wealth or speech or software.

When Rochko first discovered Gab was using Mastodon back in 2019, it led to a lot of soul-searching. He did his best to isolate Gab from other networks operating the software. One user of mastodon.social, the social network run by the Mastodon project, pressed for more, saying, “Wonder how feasible it is to have a LICENSE that explicitly forbids it from being used for hate.” Rochko’s response was lacking. He said that on a practical level, he had failed to get agreements from the 600 contributors at the time, so he would need each individual’s approval to change the licensing, but also that he wanted the protection of the free software system—“if someone violates AGPLv3, there are multiple established institutions willing to defend it, which a custom license does not benefit from.”


What exactly is the point of enforcing a license if it doesn’t accomplish what you want—namely to stop Donald Trump from using it to foment hate and oppose democracy? We really don’t have the luxury of treating software as some sort of academic exercise, removed from real-life consequences. Code in one corner, hate in the other. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that the two can’t be separated.

That earlier question, prompted by Gab’s use of Mastodon, bears reconsideration: Why not a license that prohibits hate? Or one that insists that software not be used for bad purposes, like making money from hate? In conversations with free software advocates, I have suggested a license limited to non-commercial uses. That provision would solve the Truth Social problem in a snap. And for the free software community, it would represent an important step toward taking notice of how its code shows up in the world.

Free and open source software began as a way for volunteer coders to collaborate on a project meant to make computers work better. Over the years, it’s become a way for companies to make more profit. The project has changed—and the world has, too. Perhaps the appropriate response is to keep free software away from for-profit actors. Of course, there could be a nonprofit hate-spewing social network, but the best hate spewers tend to follow the money. A common response to such a proposal is that if you restrict software’s use in any way, you restrict its potential to be tested, protected, and improved. You are dooming the software to a sputtering, second-class status, which, from a coder’s perspective, makes no sense. But from a citizen’s point of view, maybe it does.

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