GitHub forces Microsoft to grapple with delicate controversies two years after the acquisition
In 2018, Microsoft made one of the most expensive acquisitions ever, spending $ 7.5 billion on the code-sharing website GitHub. It wasn't the cleanest fit. GitHub is used by over 50 million developers who tend to be open-minded even when it comes to things they don't like about Microsoft.
The deal continues to present unexpected challenges, such as a recent spat with the Recording Industry Association of America. In October, the RIAA asked GitHub to remove youtube-dl, an open source software that allows people to download videos from YouTube and other online services.
The software disappeared from the Internet and users protested.
A GitHub user on the website described the incident as "a shame on GitHub" and said "the Microsoft acquisition was really a mistake". Another called on Microsoft to leave the RIAA, an organization made up mostly of record labels and musicians. GitHub's removal annoyed another user so much that the person subsequently posted some of GitHub's proprietary software on the section of the website that reported requests to remove digital copyright.
The code has been adapted by the person who maintained the project so that it no longer violates the RIAA. The company then brought youtube-dl back online and announced a new process for handling similar claims.
Like the other technology giants Amazon, Apple, and Google, Microsoft faces all sorts of challenges related to its size, whether from its many competitors, millions of customers, for-profit investors, or politicians worried about competition. GitHub as a warehouse for open source projects and a virtual lifeline for programmers creates tension of a different kind.
Some issues GitHub can solve by meeting the requests of protesting users. Others are more sensitive, like the company's work with US immigration and customs.
GitHub has refused to cut ties with ICE, which resulted in employees resigning after the agency renewed their contract to use the GitHub software. Key GitHub users posted an open letter late last year insisting that GitHub terminate the contract, citing the agency's separation of the children from their parents and other activities. Hundreds of GitHub's own employees signed an internal petition last year that GitHub should no longer work with ICE, said two former employees who were not authorized to speak on internal matters.
GitHub didn't respond to a request for comment.
When solving the ICE problem, GitHub spoke out against a separation of the family. The company said it has no service contract with the agency, does not offer consultancy work, and "has no insight into the use of this software, except, presumably, for software development and version control."
Microsoft, separately from GitHub, has been criticized for its work in providing cloud services for ICE, despite the company saying in 2018 that the practice of family separation was "dismayed".
For GitHub, the recent video download tool incident gave users an opportunity to rekindle the ICE controversy. Former GitHub engineer Zach Holman responded to a statement from Nat Friedman, the company's CEO, by pointing out the incident in the past.
Friedman's tweets often get replies about the effect of "Drop ICE".
"The whole thing permeates everything they do now," said Holman, who left GitHub in 2015 and is now investing in startups. He said the simplest solution would be to end the contract, which Friedman described as "financially insubstantial to our company".
Earlier this year, GitHub was among the tech companies that showed support for the black community after George Floyd's murder in police custody in May and nationwide protests that followed.
Some GitHub users suggested that the company could rename part of its service so that "master," a racially sensitive word, could be retired. The term refers to the primary area in which developers store their code.
GitHub announced a plan to do just that a week later and change the name to "main". Despite good intentions, the company welcomed a number of new comments on the ICE contract.
Holman summed it up as follows: "How can I reconcile your position with ICE and what do you say about supporting tech diversity?"
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