Linux powers the internet, the Android in your pocket, and perhaps even some of your household appliances. A controversy over politics is now seeing some of its developers threatening to withdraw the license to all of their code, potentially destroying or making the whole Linux kernel unusable for a very long time.

An open letter posted to the Linux Kernel Mailing List explains:

Date	Thu, 20 Sep 2018 09:28:14 +0000
From	[email protected] ...
Subject	Re: A Plea to Unfuck our Codes of Conduct Regarding those who are ejected from the Linux Kernel Community after this CoC: Contributors can, at any time, rescind the license grant regarding their property via written notice to those whom they are rescinding the grant from (regarding their property (code)) . The GPL version 2 lacks a no-rescission clause (the GPL version 3 has such a clause: to attempt furnish defendants with an estoppel defense, the Linux Kernel is licensed under version 2, however, as are the past contributions). When the defendants ignore the rescission and continue using the plaintiff's code, the plaintiff can sue under the copyright statute. Banned contributors _should_ do this (note: plaintiff is to register their copyright prior to filing suit, the copyright does not have to be registered at the time of the violation however) Additionally when said banned contributors joined the Linux team, they were under the impression that it was a meritocracy: in-fact this belief was stated or ratified by those within the governing body regarding Linux when the contributors began their work (whatever that body was at that time, it could have been simply Linus, or Linus and a few associates). The remuneration for the work was implied to be, or perhaps stated, to be fame as-well as a potential increase in the contributors stature, in addition to membership in the Linux Kernel club or association, or whatever it is that the Linux Kernel Community actually is (which a court may determine... it is something, suffice to say). Thusly for work, consideration was promised by (Linus? Others? There are years of mailing list archives with which to determine). And now that consideration has been clawed-back and the contributors image has been tarnished. Thus the worker did work, however the other side of the implied, or perhaps written (email memorandums), understanding has been violated (once the contributor has been banned under the new non-meritocratic "CoC"). Damages could be recovered under: breach of contract, quazi-contract, libel, false-light. (services rendered for the contractual claims, future lost income for the libel claims) In addition to copyright claims. (statutory damages, profits) For greatest effect, all rescission should be done at once in a bloc. (With other banned contributors). Contributors: You were promised something, you laboured for that promise, and now the promise has become a lie. You have remedies available to you now, as-well as in the close future . Additionally, regarding those who promoted the Code of Conduct to be used against the linux kernel contributors, knowing full well the effect it would have and desiring those effects; recovery for the ejected contributors via a tortious interference claim may be possible.

“PLEASE DON’T”

An anonymous commenter clarifies:

The Linux kernel is licensed under GPL Version 2. Under normal circumstances what this license entails is that the code can be freely copied and distributed (and also that the code must be made available with binary distributions but thats not important here). The thing that becomes confusing is that whoever authored the code still owns the actual copyright for the code they contributed. Some projects under the GPL like Emacs have a smart policy where the maintainers will not accept your code unless you also turn over complete control of the copyright. Since you own the copyright and are merely licensing it under the GPL you can technically remove that license at any time. The GPL Ver 3 has a clause that Ver 2 lacks which dictates though that you may not rescind your license over your code. In a court, a lawyer would make the argument that since the Free Software Foundation(the license’s publisher) saw the need to add the clause, that the Ver 2 allows for rescinding of the GPL license.

If the threat is put into action, ramifications could include large parts of the internet being left vulnerable to exploits, and companies around the world might even inherit bundles of unwanted legal liabilities.

LULZ.com is currently reaching out to experts (including Richard M. Stallman) to ascertain the viability of the plan. This is a developing story.

September 22 update: Stallman’s reply. I wrote back hoping to get to his opinion on the GPLv2 vulnerability specifically and will add that instead if and when he replies again.

[[[ To any NSA and FBI agents reading my email: please consider ]]]
[[[ whether defending the US Constitution against all enemies, ]]]
[[[ foreign or domestic, requires you to follow Snowden's example. ]]] The developers of Linux, or any free program, can remove any and all
code, at any time, without giving a reason. However, this doesn't
force others to delete that code from their own versins of the program. They don't do this very often, because they have to pay the penalty:
they lose the functionality of the code they remove, unless they
replace it. I am not part of Linux development. Torvalds is no friend of mine,
and he advocates "open source" which disagrees with my views at the
level of basic values. See
https://gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html. So I don't think I will comment on those internal aspects of Linux
development. -- Dr Richard Stallman
President, Free Software Foundation (https://gnu.org, https://fsf.org)
Internet Hall-of-Famer (https://internethalloffame.org)

The controversy
Activists from the feminist and LGBTQIA+ communities have been trying to force the Linux project to join the Contributor Covenant since at least 2015. The Contributor Covenant is an agreement to implement a special Code of Conduct (frequently CoC from now on) aimed at changing the predominantly white, straight, and male face of programming. CC’s Code of Conduct is controversial particularly because it allows anyone to be banned from contributing code for any reason, usually with no mechanism for oversight or accountability.

On September 16 the pro-CoC side got their wish–Linux had officially committed to implementing and obeying the CC Code of Conduct–and they immediately set about using it to remove top Linux coders. Sage Sharp, who describes theyself as a “diversity & inclusion consultant, hufflepuff, non-binary agender trans masculine” and has 7k followers, cites GeekFeminismWiki and targets Google’s Theo Ts’o with accusations of being a rape apologist:

Many twitter users pointed out the apparent irony.

Several users on 4chan’s technology board speculate that Theo is targeted first because he famously resisted an Intel backdoor.

Opposition to CC’s Code of Conduct has generated thousands of posts on 4chan’s technology board alone. These are their arguments:

1. Insertion of the CoC into other projects has heralded witch hunts where good contributors are removed over trivial matters or even events that happened a long time ago–like Larry Garfield, a prominent Drupal contributor who was purged after it was discovered he had a sex fetish where women are submissive. 2. The lack of proper definitions for punishments, time frames, and even what constitutes abuse or harassment leaves the Code of Conduct wide open for abuse (see 1). 3. It gives the people charged with enforcement omnipotent and unaccountable power.

4. It could force acceptance of contributions that wouldn’t make the cut if made by cis white males.

5. CC’s Code of Conduct is purely about power.

6. “‘In all that time I never had to know or care whether my fellow contributors were white, black, male, female, straight, gay, or from the planet Mars, only whether their code was good’; namely, in a project that receives contributions from volunteers who are anonymous beyond a chosen handle, specious claims of exclusion and harassment crumble beneath the most haphazard scrutiny. Contributors reveal as much about their race, sex, and orientation as they want because no one cares about that tangential shit at the end of the day. If there really was some “straight white males only” mentality, the community would insist on determining whether a new contributor is “one of us” before accepting their code, but they don’t do that in the slightest. Thus, it’s patently clear there is no culture of exclusion, but rather a culture of total indifference to individual differences beyond coding ability. The rhetoric of diversity and inclusiveness is just a weapon being used to attack a community that is inherently opposed to identity politics, which is why they’re seen as such a threat to these SJW gestapo.