As I’ve said recently elsewhere, I don’t think technical projects do a good enough job to proactively defensively license their outputs. This, I’d say, is why we can’t have nice things.
While I agree with the sentiment around ‘ethical source’ models, the philosopher in me would argue that it’s an absolute minefield.
Ethical impulses aren’t new to software. The Free Software Foundation advocates for a “struggle against for-profit corporate control” and against restrictions on users’ freedom to inspect and modify code in the products they buy. It was started after its founder, Richard Stallman, found he was unable to repair his broken printer because he was unable to edit its proprietary code. However, the open-source movement distanced itself from this political stance, instead making the case that open source was good for corporations on “pragmatic, business-case grounds.” But both free and open-source software allow anyone to use code for any purpose.
So what about developers who don’t want their work to be used to help separate kids from their families or create nonconsensual pornography?
The Ethical Source Movement seeks to use software licenses and other tools to give developers “the freedom and agency to ensure that our work is being used for social good and in service of human rights.” This view emphasizes the rights of developers to have a say in what the fruits of their labor are used for over the rights of any user to use the software for anything. There are a myriad of different licenses: some prohibit software from being used by companies that overwork developers in violation of labor laws, while others prohibit uses that violate human rights or help extract fossil fuels. Is this the thicket Stallman envisions?
Will people who intend to commit evil acts with software care what a license says or abide by its terms? Well, it depends. While the anonymous users of the deepfake software I studied might still have used it to create nonconsensual porn, even if the license terms prohibited this, Ehmke suggests that corporate misuse is perhaps a more pressing concern: she points to campaigns to prevent software from being used by Palantir and a 2019 report by Amnesty International that raised concerns that the business models of big name technology companies may threaten human rights. Anonymous users on the internet might not care about licenses, but as Ehmke says and my own experience with lawyers in tech companies confirms, “These companies and their lawyers care very much about what a license says.” So while ethical source licenses might not stop all harmful uses, they might stop some.