For too long, software developers have divorced themselves from the consequences of the code that we write. We have told ourselves that development is a pure and abstract pursuit, and have spent our careers writing programs with the goals of clarity, conciseness, readability, performance, and elegance.
But we are starting to realize that the software that we create has a real and lasting impact on the world in which we live.
Politics and software are so tangled that they cannot be reasonably separated. Consider the GPS software that tells you how to get to a restaurant; it’s also used to direct military drones to their targets. The facial recognition software that unlocks your phone? It’s being used to record, track, and target the activities of political dissenters. Even simple choices, like limiting gender options on sign-up forms, have an impact on the well-being of our users.
All of these technologies are inherently political. There is no neutral political position in technology. You can’t build systems that can be weaponized against marginalized people and take no responsibility for them.
One of the delightful things about code is discovering its utility in novel situations. But if those novel situations involve harming other people, we can and should feel responsible. So what can we do about it?
Open source licenses have long been the primary tool for promoting the use of our software under our own rules and conditions. In the past these licenses were used to allow the free distribution, modification, and use of our software. But there is nothing stopping us from taking this further.
Introducing the Hippocratic License: a modified MIT license that specifically prohibits the use of open source software to harm others and embodies the principles of Ethical Source Software.
You can view and download the latest version of the Hippocratic License here:
Simply make a copy of the text of the license and enter the copyright date and name of the copyright holder. Put this license file (e.g. LICENSE.txt) in the root directory of your project repository and include it with the distribution of your software.
The Hippocratic License is a living document, and has been open sourced. Contributions in the form of issues and pull requests are welcomed and encouraged.
We are grateful for the contributions of Matt Boehm, Greg McMullen, and our contributors and participants on GitHub.