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Ethics in, ethics out -- promote user-respecting software development platforms

by Zak Rogoff Contributions Published on May 11, 2016 10:02 AM

This post was written by FSF campaigns manager Zak Rogoff and community member Andrew Ferguson.

In April, the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project announced evaluations of several major repository-hosting services. These services are the bedrock infrastructure that our community uses to collaborate and communicate while building software, and therefore a big part of what we put into the construction process that creates free software. Using the GNU Ethical Criteria for Code Repositories, the evaluations judge code-hosting services for their commitment to user privacy and freedom. Now we are asking you to help support sites that meet the criteria and improve those that do not.

Currently, Savannah and GitLab meet or surpass the baseline standards of the criteria. You can explore the completed evaluations on the evaluation page. The criteria page offers more information on the evaluation process, as well as the criteria themselves.

Ethical code hosting is important not just for developers, but for users of free software, too. Repositories usually provide Web sites with downloadable executable programs compiled from the code they host, and are thus a popular way for users to get up-to-date copies of free software. The sites also host issue trackers that let users submit bug reports and provide feedback to developers.

Because they are central to free software in so many ways, the practices of code hosting services have ripples into the world of free software, and software in general. The repository evaluations promote and honor good ethical practices by repositories, and make it easy for users to find services that respect them.

There are four things you can do to help, depending on how you participate in the free software community:

  • Share the criteria and evaluations with the administrators of hosting services, and discuss them in communities of developers that use such sites.
  • Propose a service to be evaluated, and/or contribute to the evaluation process. Start by joining the Repo Criteria Discuss email list.
  • If you are a developer, use code hosting services that score at least an acceptable rating per the criteria.
  • If you help administer a repository-hosting service, contact the experts at for help improving your score. We are friendly and eager to help!

"More volunteers with coding ability are needed to aid the development of existing repository services to help them meet these criteria," said Andrew Ferguson, a community member who played a leadership role in the evaluation project. "All community members are encouraged to write the administrators of code-hosting services, to build awareness and a motivation to improve their ethical evaluations. GitHub has responded to some requests from the free software community and has recently updated its license chooser to include the GPLv3 license. However more community advocacy is required, as GitHub still fails to meet the criteria."

Indeed, political pressure and technical assistance from the free software developer community are the best tools we have for improving the ethical practices of code hosting sites. We expect many successes in this journey in the years to come, as projects like the ethical criteria for code hosting repositories build awareness of the infrastructure of free software development.

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