The Culture War Comes to Linux

After Linux adopted a new Code of Conduct, a small group of programmers threatened to rescind their code from the project. Lead Linux developers say the threat is "hollow."

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Sep 26 2018, 4:01pm

Image: Shutterstock; Composition: Motherboard

A small group of programmers are calling for the rescission of code contributed to Linux, the most popular open source operating system in the world, following changes made to the group’s code of conduct. These programmers, many of whom don’t contribute to the Linux kernel, see the new Code of Conduct as an attack on meritocracy—the belief that people should mainly be judged by their abilities rather than their beliefs—which is one of the core pillars of open source software development. Other developers describe these attacks on the Code of Conduct as thinly veiled misogyny.

It’s a familiar aspect of the culture war that many online and IRL communities are already dealing with, but it has been simmering in the Linux community for years. The controversy came to the surface less than two weeks after Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, announced he would temporarily be stepping away from the project to work on “understanding emotions.” Torvalds was heavily involved with day to day decisions about Linux development, so his departure effectively left the community as a body without a head. In Torvalds’ absence, certain developers seem committed to tearing the limbs from this body for what they perceive as an attack on the core values of Linux development.

So far, these threats haven’t actually resulted in developers pulling code from the Linux kernel, but some Linux contributors fear that this controversy could snowball to the point where significant chunks of the Linux kernel are revoked from use. This would have huge ramifications for anyone online, given that most internet services used on a day to day basis run on Linux. I spoke with a number of Linux developers about the source of the controversy, what could be done to improve the Code of Conduct, and why they think these threats to implement a Linux “killswitch” are totally overblown.

What's Up With the New Linux Code of Conduct?

Earlier this month, Torvalds announced he would temporarily step back from Linux, the open source operating system he created almost 30 years ago, to take some time to learn how empathy works. The announcement came just prior to the publication of an article in the New Yorker about Torvalds’ long history of verbal abuse toward his fellow developers. The article made the case that Torvalds’ abrasive personality disproportionately affected women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups within the Linux community.

Read More: Linux Creator Apologizes For Being a Jerk, Says He’s Working on “Understanding Emotions”

Shortly before Torvalds announced his departure on a Linux kernel mailing list, he and six other developers signed off on a new Code of Conduct that was added to the Linux documentation. Prior to this change, interactions among Linux developers were governed by a “Code of Conflict” that was adopted in 2015 after repeated calls for more civility among devs. The Code of Conflict is a short document describing what to do if “anyone feels personally abused, threatened, or otherwise uncomfortable” in interactions with other Linux developers. According to the Code of Conflict, these issues should be resolved by contacting the Technical Advisory Board at the Linux Foundation, which bankrolls Linux development.

“It’s no secret that the software industry would like to see more diversity,” the Linux Foundation wrote after the Code of Conflict was adopted. “While this code does not address that directly, we feel it’s an important step to make clear that civil discourse is an important part of an open source community and to make it very plain that all are welcome.”

Over the last three years, however, the verbal abuse among Linux developers, a lot of it coming from Torvalds himself, hardly abated. In fact, Elon University computer science professor Megan Squire even used machine learning to recognize Torvalds’ insults, which numbered in the thousands during a four year period. According to Squire’s analysis, most of this abusive language wasn’t gendered.

“He’s an equal-opportunity abuser,” Squire told the New Yorker, but added that “women throw in the towel first.”

Although Torvalds embraced his abrasive persona, it resulted in several Linux developers leaving the development community altogether rather than weathering the abuse. Among them was Sage Sharp, a Linux developer who served on the Linux Foundation’s Technical Advisory Board for two years. In 2015, Sharp stopped contributing to Linux and cited the “brutal” communication among developers as the reason for their departure.

The new Linux Code of Conduct is meant to rectify the shortcomings of the Code of Conflict. In particular, it cites explicit examples of unacceptable behavior, namely “the use of sexualized language or imagery and unwelcome sexual attention or advances, trolling, insulting/derogatory comments, and personal or political attacks, public or private harassment, publishing others private information, and other conduct which could reasonably be considered inappropriate in a professional setting.” This would apply anywhere Linux developers congregate, such as conferences and mailing lists.

Like the Code of Conflict, violations of the Code of Conduct are supposed to be reported to the Linux Foundation’s Technical Advisory Board, which will decide on the appropriate corrective action. In a message to the Linux kernel mailing list lead developer Olof Johansson, who also serves on the Technical Advisory Board, said that he was more interested in using the advisory board’s power to mediate disagreements rather than dole out punishments.

“I much prefer all be free to have their opinions, but at the same time be respectful of each other when we communicate,” Johansson said. “There are extreme edge cases but they’re theoretical at this point.”

Why Are People Mad About the Linux Code of Conduct?

The new Linux Code of Conduct is pretty standard for the open source community. It’s adapted from the Contributor Covenant, which was created by the software developer Coraline Ada Ehmke in 2014 and is now used by over 40,000 open source projects. Nevertheless, some Linux developers saw the new Code of Conduct as an attack on open source values and example of “social justice warriors” run amok.

Just three days after Torvalds posted his apology to the Linux developer listserv, 27-year old Hawaiian developer Joey Pabalinas posted a message to the mailing list titled “A Plea to Unfuck Our Code of Conduct.”

“Why did we even start mucking about with these blasted computers in the first place? Because it was _fun_,” Pabalinas wrote. “Now why, instead, are we now so dead-set on being so goddamn serious all the time?”

Pabalinas’ rambling message placed the blame for the controversy in the Linux community equally on all developers and concluded that “empathy should be our weapon of choice.” (Motherboard has contacted Pabalinas for contact and will update this post when we hear back.)

The following day, an anonymous user going by the handle “unconditionedwitness” called for developers who end up getting banned through the Code of Conduct in the future to rescind their contributions to the Linux kernel “in a bloc” to produce the greatest effect. (It is worth noting that the email address for unconditionedwitness pointed to redchan.it, a now defunct message board on 8chan that mostly hosted misogynistic memes, many of which were associated with gamergate.) These initial messages sparked intense conversations about the future of the Linux community on a number of prominent developer forums, such as Hacker News, Reddit, and Slashdot.

The Linux kernel is licensed under Version 2 of GNU General Public License (GPL), a type of copyleft license that allows works to be freely distributed and reused under the same terms. According to unconditionedwitness, the second version of the GPL license allows contributors to rescind their contributions to a project at any time. This, in principle, would allow for disgruntled Linux developers to pull any of the code in the Linux kernel they helped develop if they’re banned under the new Code of Conduct.

"A good Code of Conduct, if followed properly, limits the arbitrary power that maintainers have over their communities by creating a social contract between maintainers and participants.”

Unconditionedwitness justified rescission on the grounds that Linux was no longer the meritocratic system that Torvalds created almost 30 years ago. They wrote that this was a system that judged individuals on the basis of their abilities, rather than their identities.

“Contributors, you were promised something, you labored for that promise, and now the promise has become a lie,” unconditionedwitness wrote. “You have remedies available to you now, as well as in the close future.”

Critics of the new Linux Code of Conduct have latched on to this “death of the meritocracy” argument to justify their opposition. Some, such as game designer and gamergater Mark Kern, portrayed the Code of Conduct as a slippery slope that leads to code being added to the Linux kernel not because it is good, but rather to ensure that there is equal representation in the codebase. He also was concerned that the Code of Conduct would be used to unfairly target conservative developers.

“In a post-meritocracy world of Linux, you can expect a push to include more code for representation purposes, rather than code quality,” Kern said in a Twitter thread. “It becomes more important that code commits reflect percentage of population distribution rather than quality. Quality is secondary.”

Read More: ‘Master/Slave’ Terminology Removed from Python Programming Language

Although few dispute that the open source software (OSS) movement was founded on the principle of meritocracy, its legitimacy as a governing model has been called into question recently. In addition to creating the Contributor Covenant that is the basis of the Linux Code of Conduct, Coraline Ada Ehmke has also been leading the charge against meritocracy.

“If open source is truly based on a genuine and sincere meritocracy, where people rise to positions of influence and power based solely on their intellectual contributions, the only rational explanation for the dominance of cisgender straight-passing white men in our field is that these people somehow have constitutional or biological advantages that make them better coders than transgender and nonbinary people, white women, women of color, and men of color,” Ehmke wrote in a recent blog post.

In May, Ehmke launched the Post-Meritocracy project, whose manifesto calls for the software industry to “abandon the notion that merit is something that can be measured, can be pursued on equal terms by every individual, and can ever be distributed fairly.” Instead, it should embrace a paradigm that draws on “the diversity of our identities, backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives,” as well as making room “for people who are not like us to enter our field and succeed there.” Since the manifesto was posted, it has received hundreds of signatures in support, including from Torvald’s daughter, Patricia.

When I spoke with Ehmke over email, she emphasized that fears about the Code of Conduct being used to target developers are based on a misunderstanding about how Codes of Conduct work.

“An open source project’s Code of Conduct expresses the intended tone and values of the community, provides examples of positive and negative behavior, and outlines enforcement policies,” Ehmke told me. “Ultimately arbitration is left to the discretion of the project maintainers. In fact, a good Code of Conduct, if followed properly, limits the arbitrary power that maintainers have over their communities by creating a social contract between maintainers and participants.”

Can Developers Really Remove Their Code?

Given that the internet runs on Linux, the big question is whether reactionary developers could actually rescind their code contributions and end up crippling the project. The prominent open source advocate Eric Raymond wrote in a message on the Linux developer listserv that “what we have now is a situation in which a subgroup within the Linux kernel's subculture threatens destructive revolt.” He claimed that the “threat has teeth” and sent a message to the Linux mailing list on Sunday to “urge that we all step back from the edge of this cliff.”

Read More: Open Source Developers Reverse Decision to Block ICE Collaborators From Using Their Software

“I researched the relevant law when I was founding the Open Source Initiative,” Raymond wrote in the message, called “On Holy Wars and a Plea for Peace,” which mostly talks about game theory and its application to the Linux controversy. “In the US there is case law confirming that reputational losses relating to conversion of the rights of a contributor to a GPLed project are judicable in law.”

Despite Raymond’s conviction, however, others in the open source community don’t think it’d be very easy for developers to revoke their code from Linux. Jonathan Corbet, founder of the Linux-focused webzine LWN.net and a developer on the Linux Foundation’s Technical Advisory Board, told me he doesn’t believe the threat is legitimate.

“The GPL is a license which, like many, includes termination conditions. ‘I changed my mind’ is not among those conditions," Corbet said. "Consider a world where any developer could revoke permissions for their contributions to free-software projects. Think about the chaos that would happen as soon as developers realized they could hold users of their software for ransom by threatening to revoke the license. The whole thing would’ve come crashing down long ago.”

Furthermore, Corbet argued, “no actual developer has gone anywhere near this—all of the people talking about rescission on the list are from outside the kernel development community.” Although Corbet was adamant that he doesn’t think any developers will or could remove their code, even if they did, he said it wouldn’t be a huge issue. The Linux community has gone through several controversies before and each time emerged stronger because of them.

“If we truly lost the ability to use some code, which I do not believe can happen, then we would remove it and replace it,” Corbet told me in an email. “A typical kernel release cycle adds about 200,000 lines of code in a nine-week period. We can replace a lot of code if we have to.”

Bruce Perens, who wrote the standard-bearing Open Source Definition, told me he also thinks the “threat of withdrawing code is hollow.”

“The GPL doesn’t terminate for arbitrary causes, and even if it did, the people who terminated it would then have to bring a suit to make it stick,” Perens told me in an email. “What they can do is decline to participate in kernel development from now on. But these guys may be just the misogynistic hotheads who foam at the mouth on the kernel mailing list already and probably a lot of developers would like to see them leave.”

Although Perens said he thinks the Code of Conduct is going to be “just fine,” he said he was “wary of some of the anti-meritocracy material.”

“Obviously we need more diversity, but there is nothing antisocial about valuing an artist for great works, and in the end the purpose of an open source community is to make great things,” he said “That means the most important people will remain those who can make things very well and in a way that motivates others.”