It is important for free software to use free software infrastructure March 29, 2022 on Drew DeVault's blog

Disclaimer: I founded a project and a company that focuses on free software infrastructure. I will elect not to name them in this post, and will only recommend solutions I do not have a vested interest in.

Free and open source software (FOSS) projects need infrastructure. Somewhere to host the code, to facilitate things like code review, end-user support, bug tracking, marketing, and so on. A common example of this is the “forge” platform: infrastructure which pitches itself as a one-stop shop for many of the needs of FOSS projects in one place, such as code hosting and review, bug tracking, discussions, and so on. Many projects will also reach for additional platforms to provide other kinds of infrastructure: chat rooms, forums, social media, and more.

Many of these needs have non-free, proprietary solutions available. GitHub is a popular proprietary code forge, and GitLab, the biggest competitor to GitHub, is partially non-free. Some projects use Discord or Slack for chat rooms, Reddit as a forum, or Twitter and Facebook for marketing, outreach, and support; all of these are non-free. In my opinion, relying on these platforms to provide infrastructure for your FOSS project is a mistake.

When your FOSS project chooses to use a non-free platform, you give it an official vote of confidence on behalf of your project. In other words, you lend some of your project’s credibility and legitimacy to the platforms you choose. These platforms are defined by network effects, and your choice is an investment in that network. I would question this investment in and of itself, and the wisdom of offering these platforms your confidence and legitimacy, but there’s a more concerning consequence of this choice as well: an investment in a non-free platform is also a divestment from the free alternatives.

Again, network effects are the main driver of success in these platforms. Large commercial platforms have a lot of advantages in this respect: large marketing budgets, lots of capital from investors, and the incumbency advantage. The larger the incumbent platform, the more difficult the task of competing with it becomes. Contrast this with free software platforms, which generally don’t have the benefit of large amounts of investment or big marketing budgets. Moreover, businesses are significantly more likely to play dirty to secure their foothold than free software projects are. If your own FOSS projects compete with proprietary commercial options, you should be very familiar with these challenges.

FOSS platforms are at an inherent disadvantage, and your faith in them, or lack thereof, carries a lot of weight. GitHub won’t lose sleep if your project chooses to host its code somewhere else, but choosing Codeberg, for example, means a lot to them. In effect, your choice matters disproportionately to the free platforms: choosing GitHub hurts Codeberg much more than choosing Codeberg hurts GitHub. And why should a project choose to use your offering over the proprietary alternatives if you won’t extend them the same courtesy? FOSS solidarity is important for uplifting the ecosystem as a whole.

However, for some projects, what ultimately matters to them has little to do with the benefit of the ecosystem as a whole, but instead considers only the potential for their project’s individual growth and popularity. Many projects choose to prioritize access to the established audience that large commercial platforms provide, in order to maximize their odds of becoming popular, and enjoying some of the knock-on effects of that popularity, such as more contributions.1 Such projects would prefer to exacerbate the network effects problem rather than risk some of its social capital on a less popular platform.

To me, this is selfish and unethical outright, though you may have different ethical standards. Unfortunately, arguments against most commercial platforms for any reasonable ethical standard are available in abundance, but they tend to be easily overcome by confirmation bias. Someone who may loudly object to the practices of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, for example, can quickly find some justification to continue using GitHub despite their collaboration with them. If this example isn’t to your tastes, there are many examples for each of many platforms. For projects that don’t want to move, these are usually swept under the rug.2

But, to be clear, I am not asking you to use inferior platforms for philosophical or altruistic reasons. These are only one of many factors which should contribute to your decision-making, and aptitude is another valid factor to consider. That said, many FOSS platforms are, at least in my opinion, functionally superior to their proprietary competition. Whether their differences are better for your project’s unique needs is something I must leave for you to research on your own, but most projects don’t bother with the research at all. Rest assured: these projects are not ghettos living in the shadow of their larger commercial counterparts, but exciting platforms in their own right which offer many unique advantages.

What’s more, if you need them to do something differently to better suit your project’s needs, you are empowered to improve them. You’re not subservient to the whims of the commercial entity who is responsible for the code, waiting for them to prioritize the issue or even to care about it in the first place. If a problem is important to you, that’s enough for you to get it fixed on a FOSS platform. You might not think you have the time or expertise to do so (though maybe one of your collaborators does), but more importantly, this establishes a mentality of collective ownership and responsibility over all free software as a whole — popularize this philosophy and it could just as easily be you receiving a contribution in a similar manner tomorrow.

In short, choosing non-free platforms is an individualist, short-term investment which prioritizes your project’s apparent access to popularity over the success of the FOSS ecosystem as a whole. On the other hand, choosing FOSS platforms is a collectivist investment in the long-term success of the FOSS ecosystem as a whole, driving its overall growth. Your choice matters. You can help the FOSS ecosystem by choosing FOSS platforms, or you can hurt the FOSS ecosystem by choosing non-free platforms. Please choose carefully.

Here are some recommendations for free software tools that facilitate common needs for free software projects:

* Self-hosted only
† Partially non-free, recommended only if no other solutions are suitable

P.S. If your project is already established on non-free platforms, the easiest time to revisit this choice is right now. It will only ever get more difficult to move as your project grows and gets further established on proprietary platforms. Please consider moving sooner rather than later.

  1. I should note here that I’m uncritically presenting “popularity” as a good thing for a project to have, which aligns, I think, with the thought processes of the projects I’m describing. However, the truth is not quite so. Perhaps a topic for another day’s blog post. ↩︎

  2. A particularly egregious example is the Ethical Source movement. I disagree with them on many grounds, but pertinent to this article is the fact that they publish (non-free) software licenses which advocate for anti-capitalist sentiments like worker rights and ethical judgements such as non-violence, doing so on… GitHub and Twitter, private for-profit platforms with a myriad of published ethical violations. ↩︎

  3. I have made the arguments from this post to Libera staff many times, but they still rely on GitHub, Twitter, and Facebook. They were one of the motivations for writing this post. I hope that they have a change of heart someday. ↩︎

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