Open Source Doesn't Mean More Software Is Better Software

Eugen Rochko discovered last month that Donald Trump's Truth Social Network is being run by Mastodon, a software project he had started while at university. This was a troubling discovery because, as Rochko stated to Vice, "If you want my personal opinion about Trump, I cannot stand him."
Rochkos initial instinct may have been to tell Trump to leave right away, but Rochko does not control Mastodon that way. It was made as open-source software, free to download and run, with a copyleft license. This means that anyone can use it and make changes, provided they keep the original license intact and share the modified version. Trump is allowed to use the software for his personal purposes. Truth Social saves millions of dollars on programming costs by using the free software. Mastodon only asks that Truth Social pay it forward.

SIGN UP Subscribe to WIRED to stay informed with your favorite Ideas writers.

Trump isn't a guy who pays it forward, however. There is no acknowledgment of Mastodon on the Truth Social site, nor is there a way to obtain the altered source code. Rochko was made aware of this noncompliance by Mastodon, who last week announced that he had written a formal letter asking Truth Socials chief lawyer to make the source code public in accordance with the license. The letter states that Truth Social must comply with the license within 30 days. This could be done by requesting a court to do so.

Although this act of force may have provided Rochko and hundreds of other contributors to the project with some relief, any feeling of retaliation against Trump is likely to be fleeting. According to lawyers I spoke to, they don't know of any case where a site has been shut down for not following the terms of a free software licence. It's not difficult to comply. The offender would just shift gears and do the right thing if a court was ever close to taking action. You can see an example of a website full of Trumpian misinformation, hate-running on Mastodon, here's a link to Gab. It has followed AGPLv3 exactly.

No matter how things turn out, the Mastodon Trump kerfuffle serves as a warning to those who think the internet or software code can make the world a better place. The idea of free software was a radical vision for programming. It was a breakthrough in the creation of excellent software by insisting corporations and brilliant individuals share their discoveries, rather than working alone. The free community has held firm to these ideals over the years. Even though the rest of the internet seems to have woken up, It has avoided responsibility for the code's use and its intended purpose.

Instead, the emphasis has been solely on the code and, as such, open-source software has been a huge success. It is the foundation of many tech companies that were founded at the beginning of the new millennium. The free operating system Linux, which is open source, helped Facebook and Google grow quickly and cheaply, challenging Microsoft's dominant position. Many would agree with the idea of universal acceptance of free software making some of the most frustrating parts of the internet disappear. Amazon would not be able to return a book that you have purchased, nor would Microsoft require you to update your software. John Deere tractor tractors would also not be able to stop you from fixing your computerized devices. The users would be able to control the software.