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Can a modified MIT ‘Hippocratic License’ to restrict misuse of open source software prompt a wave of ethical innovation in tech?

hippocratic license
5 min read

Open source licenses allow software to be freely distributed, modified, and used. These licenses give developers an additional advantage of allowing others to use their software as per their own rules and conditions. Recently, software developer and open-source advocate Coraline Ada Ehmke has caused a stir in the software engineering community with ‘The Hippocratic License.’

Ehmke was also the original author of Contributor Covenant, a “code of conduct” for open source projects that encourages participants to use inclusive language and to refrain from personal attacks and harassment. In a tweet posted in September last year, following the code of conduct, she mentioned, “40,000 open source projects, including Linux, Rails, Golang, and everything OSS produced by Google, Microsoft, and Apple have adopted my code of conduct.”

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[box type=”shadow” align=”” class=”” width=””]The term ‘Hippocratic’ is derived from the Hippocratic Oath, the most widely known of Greek medical texts. The Hippocratic Oath in literal terms requires a new physician to swear upon a number of healing gods that he will uphold a number of professional ethical standards.[/box]

Ehmke explained the license in more detail in a post published on Sunday. In it, she highlights how the idea that writing software with the goals of clarity, conciseness, readability, performance, and elegance are limiting, and potentially dangerous.“All of these technologies are inherently political,” she writes. “There is no neutral political position in technology. You can’t build systems that can be weaponized against marginalized people and take no responsibility for them.”The concept of the Hippocratic license is relatively simple. In a tweet, Ehmke said that it “specifically prohibits the use of open-source software to harm others.”

Open source software and the associated harm

Out of the many privileges that open source software allows such as free redistribution of the software as well as the source code, the OSI also defines there is no discrimination against who uses it or where it will be put to use.

A few days ago, a software engineer, Seth Vargo pulled his open-source software, Chef-Sugar, offline after finding out that Chef (a popular open source DevOps company using the software) had recently signed a contract selling $95,000-worth of licenses to the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has faced widespread condemnation for separating children from their parents at the U.S. border and other abuses.

Vargo took down the Chef Sugar library from both GitHub and RubyGems, the main Ruby package repository, as a sign of protest.

In May, this year, Mijente, an advocacy organization released documents stating that Palantir was responsible for the 2017 ICE operation that targeted and arrested family members of children crossing the border alone. Also, in May 2018, Amazon employees, in a letter to Jeff Bezos, protested against the sale of its facial recognition tech to Palantir where they “refuse to contribute to tools that violate human rights”, citing the mistreatment of refugees and immigrants by ICE.

Also, in July, the WYNC revealed that Palantir’s mobile app FALCON was being used by ICE to carry out raids on immigrant communities as well as enable workplace raids in New York City in 2017.

Founder of OSI responds to Ehmke’s Hippocratic License

Bruce Perens, one of the founders of the Open Source movement in software, responded to Ehmke in a post titled Sorry, Ms. Ehmke, The “Hippocratic License” Can’t Work . “The software may not be used by individuals, corporations, governments, or other groups for systems or activities that actively and knowingly endanger harm, or otherwise threaten the physical, mental, economic, or general well-being of underprivileged individuals or groups,” he highlights in his post.

“The terms are simply far more than could be enforced in a copyright license,” he further adds.  “Nobody could enforce Ms. Ehmke’s license without harming someone, or at least threatening to do so. And it would be easy to make a case for that person being underprivileged,”  he continued. He concluded saying that, though the terms mentioned in Ehmke’s license were unagreeable, he will “happily support Ms. Ehmke in pursuit of legal reforms meant to achieve the protection of underprivileged people.”

Many have welcomed Ehmke’s idea of an open source license with an ethical clause. However, the license is not OSI approved yet and chances are slim after Perens’ response. There are many users who do not agree with the license. Reaching a consensus will be hard.

Even though developers host their source code on open source repositories, a license may bring certain level of restrictions on who is allowed to use the code. However, as Perens mentions, many of the terms in Ehmke’s license hard to implement. Irrespective of the outcome of this license’s approval process, Coraline Ehmke has widely opened up the topic of the need for long overdue FOSS licensing reforms in the open source community. It would be interesting to see if such a license would boost ethical reformation by giving more authority to the developers in imbibing their values and preventing the misuse of their software.

Read the Hippocratic license to know more in detail.

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