For the past two years, software engineers and systems administrators from San Jose to Seattle have engaged in the tech industry’s latest rite of passage: reading the news to discover that their employer contributed to something they find unethical. In 2018, Google workers learned of the company’s secret U.S. military contract and state-censorship search project in China from media reports. In February, Microsoft workers signed a letter saying they “did not sign up to develop weapons,” after reports revealed the existence of a $480 million contract between the software giant and the U.S. military. Seven months later, in September, Amazon staff mobilized after finding out how their work on cloud computing supports the oil-and-gas industry.
The next month, the Los Angeles Times reported that Immigrations and Custom Enforcement had renewed a 2016 contract with the code-hosting service GitHub. It seemed like history repeating itself: another backlash, another reckoning.
But GitHub is different.
With 37 million users, GitHub is the largest host of source code in the world. Much of the code hosted on GitHub is open source, meaning it’s accessible, shareable, and modifiable to anyone. Developers join the platform, download one another’s code, then collaborate, improve it, and tweak it for their own projects. Google, Facebook, the federal government, and many other technology firms rely on open-source licensing, a legal framework that lets users borrow ideas and pool together the insights and labor of volunteer developers. GitHub is itself built on open-source tools, and sometimes uses code hosted on the platform to improve itself.