Software developers aren’t introverts writing closely guarded code in a dark room. At least not anymore. The rise of open source has shown software development is fundamentally a collaborative, community endeavour where millions of developers share and build on each other’s work.

That’s according to GitHub CEO Nat Friedman who this week declared open source has won the development war against proprietary software during the company’s annual event in San Francisco. 

But Friedman also had to defend his company’s decision to continue selling products to US immigration forces, a stance which goes against the wishes of many of GitHubs employees and the wider developer community.

Open source rise

“Today, 99 per cent of all new software projects have open source dependencies,” Friedman told delegates at GitHub Universe overnight.

“So whether you’re working in a big company or a startup or you’re a scientist or researcher or a student you rely on open source and you rely on the people who build this [code].”

GitHub, which offers hosting and services for popular open source code management tool Git, says there are now over 40 million developers on its platform and 3 million organisations using GitHub, including half the Fortune 500. 

By 2025, GitHub expects the number of developers using GitHub will hit 100 million.

GitHub has benefited from the rise of open source and last year was acquired by one time adversary Microsoft for $US7.5 billion. And Microsoft, initially a proprietary software company, now proudly declares it is an open source company.

GitHub CEO Nat Friedman presents at GitHub Universe in San Francisco. Photo: Joseph Brookes.

Friedman says open source development has shifted over the last 25 years from an academic “fringe” activity to now being something like “the world’s biggest team sport” where developers effectively rely on the work of strangers to help them develop software, usually for free.

I.C.E Controversy

But as GitHub grows rapidly along with open source, the company is still dogged by its decision to provide products to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, a policy which sits uncomfortably with many members of the open source “team” including GitHub employees.

ICE has been widely criticised for its heavy handed enforcement of immigration laws under the Trump administration, including separating families at borders, locking children in cages, and deporting refugees to dangerous places.

GitHub plans to renew its contract with ICE to license its GitHub Enterprise Server, an on premise product, despite protests from company employees. Friedman and Github upper management defended the decision despite them personally “strongly” disagreeing with “many of the current administration’s immigration policies”.

In a letter to GitHub employees, later published on the company blog after it was leaked to activists, Friedman described the contract amount – $US200,000 – as “not financially material for our company”. But GitHub will continue selling ICE the product because, Friedman says, it is the right thing to do in a democracy where the federal government is a customer.

In a media session which was not allowed to be recorded Friedman told press GitHub will continue to push for reforms through lobbying for policy change rather than refuse to provide products and services to organisations it does not agree with.

He said non-profit groups have told GitHub abruptly ending its contract with ICE could lessen the agencies capabilities and result in worse outcomes for immigrants.

After the backlash GitHub pledged to donate $500,000 to charities supporting immigrant communities impacted by the Trump administration’s policies.

But some GitHub employees are not satisfied with the response or the continued contract. In an open letter to Friedman, employees said, “Continuing to hold this contract does not improve our bargaining power with ICE.

“All it does is make us complicit in their widespread human rights abuses.

“We cannot offset human lives with money. There is no donation that can offset the harm that ICE is perpetrating with the help of our labor.”

Parent company Microsoft has a similar stance – pushing for legislative reform rather than withholding services – and has defended and downplayed its own multi-million dollar contracts with ICE.

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