Ethical software?

after the whole github thing ( and their apology ), i’ve been wondering more about ethical software development in general

if moderation isn’t neutral, is software itself neutral? ( work of people like timnit gebru says maybe not. )

zello, gab, parler, etc. aren’t just built on aws, google, and apple tech – they’re built on open source software written by legions of ( hopefully ) well meaning developers.

i can’t help but wonder what the current internet landscape would be like if software licenses weren’t ostensibly “neutral” but were actively anti-racist and pro-social justice.

at first glance the “hippocratic license” – based on the united nations’s human rights definition – seems interesting, as does the non-violent public license. ( less credible perhaps is the antifa license )

i found the first two linked via a group called the ethical source movement. and, i’m curious if anybody has any thoughts about or experiences working with a license like that.


I’d say no. I don’t think any artifact, whether it’s a simple tool, a comparatively advanced technology or something more abstract such as language or law, can be truly neutral in any absolute sense, because they’re made and used by humans and humans have biases. That said, there’s three closely related and closely interacting aspects to technology: the intent, the design and the implementation. Where I think ethics has been overlooked in the past and is just now starting to become more of a widespread concern is in the design, but it seems to be early days and one of the most critical things to do is to not allow that concern to fade.

The technocracy of Big Tech is structurally hostile to ethical design because it increases the steps in development, costing money, hours and introspection by the self-satisfied toxicity of an industry that routinely mistakes money and influence for wisdom.

That’s where I think activists come in by holding tech companies accountable and introducing ethical considerations into the incentive and disincentive structures of their bottom lines.

But the open source movement has an arguably unique (at least for now) opportunity for activist developers to find ways to undermine, or disrupt if they prefer, the consolidation of wealth and power that’s led to the feudalism of modern software and the oligopolistic balkanization of the internet.

Open source developers are a workforce that holds a lot of potential political and economic power if they’re willing to use it. The idealization at the root of the movement has been largely, though not entirely, co-opted by that same consolidation because in the short term it was easier to work within a conventional hierarchy than rely on volunteerism for organization.

The reality as that for the foreseeable future - and I dearly hope this isn’t the permanent state of affairs because I don’t it’s sustainable - end users are mostly unequipped to hold design itself accountable, though of course they can and should still be activist in the socioeconomic arena. But designers, including software developers, are in a position and have the tools to not take the centralized path of least resistance.

Just my 2¢.


Counter argument: If we don’t talk about software for facial recognition etc. but look at something like: compression algorithms, conversion from one image format to another, scientific modelling, … those are basically implemented (numerical) math. This, I would argue is indeed inherently neutral.

Still, I also agree that everything can be “weaponized” and used non-neutral. I guess this is “guns don’t kill people” argument?!


Math is almost certainly neutral. Similarly, there’s almost certainly an entire universe of objective facts, some of which we seem to be better at understanding than others.

Nonetheless, how we use that understanding can’t be neutral, and that’s all that technology is. Wherein the design of technology to choose ethical objectives from which to work however is very much a necessary part of the process of ethical design, just as it is with any technological goal.


As was initially pointed out, those human biases come out in development and implementation…and the result turns something neutral into this:


the addition and subtraction is (probably) neutral, but i’d guess an analysis of which fields in math have gotten the most attention might yield some interesting cultural biases.

maybe for instance there are some underserved fields that would help advance the understanding of social dynamics, where instead we put our efforts into block chain for the sake of capitalism

the use of ten-based counting or the lack there of can also be political ( hey french revolution ) and might help re-enforce cultural barriers ( weights and measures, pounds and thruppence or whatever ) – the latter similar to the use of english keywords in most programming languages, and permissibility ( or not ) of unicode identifiers.

i think there’s a strong undercurrent of believing all tech is basically good, because “progress” is good ( even though in my experience people will then say it’s neutral when you try to talk about how tech can be bad )

it’s interesting to note that the open source initiative pushed back against her license when she published it

to me it seems disingenuous to conflate their organization which contains the name “open source” with the actual concept of open source. ( i read the first version of the license, and can see no confusion )

likewise the argument from one of their founders seems dismissive and poorly thought through

Ultimately, 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. Thus… Ms. Ehmke’s license is self-contradictory

his about page at the same site includes this tidbit “Bruce Perens… was the person to announce “Open Source” to the world”. he doesn’t even bother to mention christine peterson, the woman who coined the term, which leads me to believe some misogyny may also be at play

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I am confused. I literally said “not facial recognition” and gave examples where I think it’s clearly different.

If that was wrong, please explain how my examples (compression algorithms or conversion from one image format to another) can be biased.


My bad, distracted reading! :crazy_face: This topic immediately makes me think of how difficult ethics are to enforce. Facial recognition is the low-hanging fruit for figuring out how to push back against the bias or eventual weaponization and monetizing of things that were never developed for that purpose.


I can’t help but think of what caused Right to Repair. It would be interesting to see software with controls or consequences for ethical violations. Companies currently brick devices and vehicles…imagine a system where unethical software (a violation of license terms) no longer works.


Yup. Rentier capitalism is just feudalism by any other name.


10 PRINT “Hello, world”
20 GOTO 10

I’ve probably done something quite wrong.

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bias doesn’t necessarily mean a negative result. ( like the ethical license implies, perhaps you try to bias things for the better. )

so, there’s nothing wrong with your program. it is however biased towards english speakers, as is the basic language it’s written in. and it probably makes some greenhouse gases if you run it somewhere, and some annoyed people if it’s a bot outputting comments to the bbs.

people create tools to make changes, and change always has consequences. your program doesn’t do much, so it’s consequences are small. more utility means larger or more important changes. more important to who is the question, and what are the consequences

i think people get defensive about ethics because they don’t want to be doing “bad things” :tm: but a life without consequence seems pretty boring to me. i feel like we should be thick skinned enough to look at both the good and the bad results of what we make


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