Ethics Working Group

Is Open Source ethical? What are the ramifications of bad actors in open source, and how can we work together to move beyond ethical boulders on the path to sustainability?

Bottom liner: Chris Chinchilla

Issues & Pull Requests:


Here’s the text from the website:


To bring an ethical perspective to FOSS projects, in the what we create, and the way we treat staff and contributors.


  • Create guidelines for creating Ethics boards
  • Help facilitate labor organizing
  • To normalize ethics as part of development
  • Lowering barriers for ethics in terms of legal and technology
  • Help create or facilitate tooling and education

Guiding questions

  • What does it mean to work ethically in open source?
  • How can ethics and a free and open source license coexist?
  • What does ethical enforcement and regulation look like?
  • How can we do the most moral good while also making open source software?

Reports and documents

None at the moment. The goal is to have guidelines for ethical work: see the Goals section above.



How to get involved

For now, this group is very low activity (largely due to other concerns during this time). To get involved and to help bootstrap efforts, your best bet is to get in touch with either Chris Chinchilla or Richard Littauer.


Our first meeting will be on Tuesday, May 12th, at 1600 Berlin time! Let us know if you’d like to be there. :slight_smile:

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Report back from meeting on May 12th 2020.

In attendance:

We discussed initial plans and motivations for the WG, and our initial steps. These ended up being:

  • @RichardLitt is registering a new domain this will be a medium-term podcast series to interview some of the leading voices in Open Source and Ethics (and maybe tech more generally) to grow an actionable body of ideas and feedback for projects to follow.
  • @ChrisChinchilla to go through existing notes and extract potential people and projects to speak with, and any of the more actionable, practical projects useful for the sustain community to use and contribute to.
  • Jacob Green to create a document for potential guests and start adding and asking those individuals.

Update! I’ve shared this document with you all:

I’ve also bought, but haven’t had a ton of mental space to move this further yet. Next goal involves putting up a simple website explaining what we’re trying to do, I think, and sourcing more names for the Podcast.

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This is really cool. I’ve been kind of a lurker around here but just want to raise my hand & say if you want somebody to bounce ideas off of I’m happy to jump on a call sometime.


Hi! Are you still looking for input on this? I am one of the co-editors of the W3C Technical Architecture Group’s “Ethical Web Principles”. While this is from an adjacent area (open standards) I thought it might be a useful input. :wave:

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May I will express a non-humanitarian opinion that ethics is not useful in interconnected age. The discussion of “good” and “bad” doesn’t make any sense without specific cases. Every story so far is highly personal and ethics kind of tries to put things away in more generalized manner not helping those people, and distracting attention. I don’t mind people playing philosophy and having good time, but I’d prefer this to be tied to specific cases rather than abstract thinking, which I blame myself for as well.

Takling about ethics and humanitarian principles itself may serve as a psychological relief and a soothing point for some maintainers, but to “sell it” to more practical and technical part of OSS community it needs to define risks and actions to prevent those risks. Something that people can validate and think about workarounds. Something low level like “If that then this”. There is no need in abstract categories now that we can have every little thing defined and processed. Sometimes even without writing code.

@abitrolly - I applaud the request for specific examples. They’re always more concrete and relatable.

However, “ethics is not useful in interconnected age” is incredibly disappointing to read at any time, especially in a world where racism and un-necessary pandemic-related deaths are reaching the news every day.


FWIW I disagree – I think there are strong ethical statements about technology that can be generalised and don’t boil down to personal anecdotes or derive from definitions of “good” and bad." I think if you follow this train of though it would invalidate any realm of professional ethics.


The point is - it is impossible to enforce ethics into people. Those who don’t behave in a certain desirable way, won’t do this just because somebody discussing ethics to them. However, explaining how certain mechanisms work, may shift people into maybe pursuing other goals, rather than those that put them into the conflict with ethical people.

As for invalidating professional ethics, after looking at pharma industry that caused opioid crisis in US, and which keep HIV and cancer treatment costs as high as market allows, I don’t really believe in professional ethics.

In a chaotic world where poverty, racism and inequalities across geneders, religions you name it… it is extremely disappointing that we are still toying with whether ethics are needed… we absolutely need ethics because we already know what happens without them, the result are already around us and it is not looking good.

Basic ethics, care for the people, care for the planet should be the foundation of any discussion around the implications of oss development relevant not only to what is being coded but also how it is impacting others and the planet.

It does not help to say yeah but others are not giving a shit… this is just an excuse to keep the current broken and flawed thinking that got us here in the first place. We must strive to do better.


I think it’s great to have an opportunity to examine the role of ethics in community, institutions, and technology – so I am grateful for Anatoli’s comments here and will take them seriously even though their handle suggests that they are trolling us.

This perspective seems similar to that which I’ve heard in many technology-focused communities, in which people believe that technology is neutral and that ethics are not relevant.

Personally, I was initially attracted to technology-focused communities not as a technologist (which I’m not), but as a person who values democracy. For a long time I believed that the form of digital technologies was somehow inherently related to their function – that distributable and adaptable technologies were somehow inherently democratizing and empowering.

I no longer believe that to be the case. I think some technologies have the potential to be democratizing and empowering – tools that enhance people’s agency and well-being – but that potential is not guaranteed. Such tools can easily be used to obscure, confuse, disempower and harm. And in a world of unequal power distribution, with inequitable institutions, we need to anticipate that digital technologies will be used by powerful people to concentrate their power further – and that this can and in many cases will ultimately result in harm to others.

It’s only through the development of ethics, and the application of those ethics to the processes of technology design and governance, that we have any hope of anticipating, preventing, and remediating such harm.

(I’m still interested in the potential for digital technologies to be used for good, of course, and I also think ethics are essential in guiding us along the path towards such good. But harm reduction, at this point in history, seems to be a priority.)

If we want to increase the chances for good outcomes and minimize the chances of harmful outcomes, we need to actively reject amoral and ahistorical “neutrality” by positively declaring some basic values with which everyone in a community can be expected to agree. This is not just a matter of principle, but a matter of sustainability – without shared values, a community is extremely vulnerable to collapse or worse.


@RichardLitt what would you say is the difference between what you have in mind for and what is being developed at ?

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tl;dr: Be considerate, be respectful, be kind.

Hi all. A brief reminder to assume best intentions from others and to keep the discussion kind and respectful. Which I think it has, but I wanted to add a reminder anyways.

I encourage others to approach this discussion with an open mind and know that there is no single answer to a broad discussion about ethics. Discussions should generally keep to a focus or purpose. If we want to have a meta discussion about the value of Free Software ethics, we should do that in another thread, and not derail the Ethics Working Group planning thread.

There are no defined moderation guidelines or principles for the Sustain site. The admins of the Discourse are mostly volunteers. However, if you want to voice a private concern, my inbox is always open.


That would be fantastic @torgo I’ll add you to that doc above for future contact


Hey all, sorry I wasn’t getting notifications on this thread.

A couple of things from my perspective as the bottom liner for this WG, though we are still defining what this group will be.

First time I had heard of the group, but I am aware of many others, and am even writing a book myself, lots of people talking about this subject.

It’s worth thinking that the main function of many of the Sustain WGs is to help maintainers of projects, so for this group this is to provide them with knowledge, tools and frameworks for understanding the potential of their software, and how people could use it, or misuse it. We don’t want to be prescriptive on what is wrong or right, but help maintainers have those thoughts themselves, and draw up their own conclusions.

I am also keen to provide very practical summaries and tips to maintainers on various ethical frameworks, and tools/checklists they can use to ensure they have thought about the implications of their software.

I hope all that makes some sense, I’m a little tired :slight_smile:

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I found this helpful… thanks a bunch :grin:

As a general F.Y.I. for folks who are new to Discourse, you can change your notifications for a specific thread. :slightly_smiling_face:

Screenshot of notification settings in a specific discussion thread on Discourse

I think this is a helpful framing of this Working Group’s focus.

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Hello everyone!

Glad to see this WG is getting some traction after it was first sketched at the event in Brussels half a pandemic ago.

Yes, I agree this is a pretty good definition. I don’t see Ethics in FLOSS (or in Tech, more broadly) as something that has to be necessarily imposed on people (although, obviously, organisations or companies might want to develop their own corporate guidelines), but rather as something people involved in developing FLOSS should gradually incorporate into their way of thinking⁠—even if that comes with the shocking realisation that no easy algorithm applies to most ethical decisions :wink:

So maybe a good medium-term objective for this WG would be to produce a minimum set of tools or resources for maintainers willing to introduce to their projects and fellow colleagues the debate around the legitimate application of Ethics to FLOSS/Tech (at least as a starting point)…?

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