Who is policing the word police? Github's retarded move causes user backlash.

Adland: 

The problem with trying to create a business around a community, is that you have to deal with the community. As Reddit's former interim CEO Ellen Pao discovered when the users are the commodity and they revolt, you'll have issues trying to "monetize". Github seems to have run into a similar issues. In an ever-increasing mood of pitchforks and torches online, everything from a fruit juice bottles text, to beer bottle lines to a big bold"beach body ready?" headline can be derailed if those who take offense are loud enough.

Currently a controversy is brewing over at Github, which can be described as "the facebook of programmers". That's one heck of an elevator pitch, and made Github the darling of VC-funders and happy users alike. It's a web-based Git repository hosting service, where you can upload your projects and if anyone takes a liking to your repo they can fork it and work on it too.
Git in this context is a free software distributed under the terms of the GNU General Public License, and every Git working directory is a full-fledged repository with complete history and full version-tracking capabilities. A fork is a copy of a repository. Forking a repository allows you to freely experiment with changes without affecting the original project, and the original project doesn't affect yours. Just making that clear so that Adria Richards doesn't come around in case I make any forking-jokes.

Currently, there's an all out gif-and-snark-war going on in this trainwreck of a thread over at Github, below a small change made in the fork of a repo. A change where the word "Retard" - "delay or hold back in terms of progress or development"- was removed and exchanged for the word "Git" - "an unpleasant or contemptible person". Why? Github wants to remove the word "retard" from code. Github had already deleted the original repo, and suddenly all forks from this repo were affected, ie; also gone from public view and use on Github. Nixx who had this fork was told by a friend of theirs that their repo had been taken down on Saturday the 25th of July; "I had not received any email from GitHub regarding this" Nixx explains. No warning. "I could not access any management panels, so even if I wanted to delete the repo and replace it with a dummy repo with the same name pointing to a new host, for instance, this would be impossible."

"I sent an email through GitHub's support form almost immediately, asking why it was taken down. 7PM the next day (Sunday, 26th) I received my first reply from GitHub. They stated that the original repo was taken down because it broke the terms of service"

Nixx notes that Github did not mention any specific clauses or details in their terms that had been breached. It's only in the follow-up response that Github refers to "Content that we determine in our sole discretion are unlawful, offensive, threatening, libelous, defamatory, pornographic, obscene or otherwise objectionable..." as a reason for removing the word retard.

"I replied almost immediately asking specifically what it was banned for." Nixx explains, then "9PM on Tuesday, the 28th, I got the response I included in the commit message, stating that my repository had been restored for 24 hours to allow me to remove the word 'Retard'."

When Nixx exchanged the word "retard" for "git", the comments to the change were suddenly filled with popcorn-eating gifs. Which words are kosher in code? Is the British insult better than the word for slow? Is the Image Manipulation Program called "Gimp", also hosted at Github, now problematic? There are currently 224,477 code results for the word "retard" at Github, are they all at risk of being shut down with no warning?

There are alternatives to Github, try Gitlab, or Gogs.io, or getgitorious. This is not the first time things have been removed from Github citing a terms of service breach, last year a repository called "Gamergate OP" was abruptly removed. The problem now is that by being "the facebook for programmers", Github is the centralised network for sharing projects, and leaving becomes difficult when you and your projects are connected to other users of Github.

But just like Facebook, it seems so important when you use it, but so redundant when you're not on it. By placing all their eggs in one basket, the happy code-sharing users actually made Github king over their projects, the language police of their code-comments, and put their work at the whim of any changes to this terms of service. On July 20th Github also announced that they adopted the Open Code of Conduct, a 'Code of Conduct is inspired by the code of conducts and diversity statements from several other communities, including Django, Python, Ubuntu, Contributor Covenant, and Geek Feminism. ' And suddenly it has dawned on people what a mistake it is to centralize a decentralized version control system. Vague lines in TOS are a dime a dozen, and a lawyers best friend that way any service can be arbitrary in their enforcing of "the rules".

The question is, looking at that trainwreck of a thread, who felt the need to actually start policing code-comments? By doing this, Github risks alienating their core users, though at least one user in the trainwreck thread insists that they should all "shoo". As in; "You all lose. Just leave. Go form your own git hosting service that'll wither and die. Shoo."
The thing is, the core users can literally do just that, and where would that leave Github the business? Will it be worth $2 billion after 224,477 repos are arbitrarily locked down or deleted?

about the author

Dabitch Creative Director, CEO, hell-raising sweetheart and editor of Adland. Globetrotting Swede who has lived and worked in New York, London, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm.

Comments (10)

  • Andrej's picture
    Andrej (not verified)

    Github need to define themselves: are they a publisher or a repository? Arbitrarily screwing up many peoples work without even a emailed warning is messed up. That people are some how defending this move is beyond me, it goes against the principle of sharing forks, the basic GNU principle of it all.

    Since you found many more examples of that word with a simple search I can only conclude that someone took personal offense at the original repo - not because of the word, but because of who maintained it. And BOUM, all the forks were nuked too. The word censorship is fitting here.

    Aug 04, 2015
  • Dabitch's picture
    Dabitch

    This is on Techdirt today too, check it out: Github Nukes Repository Over Use Of The Word 'Retard'

    However, there are two things in that article I take issue with, 1:
    "....but it couldn't be bothered to ask nixxquality (the person behind the offensive code comments)"

    I hoped I had made it very clear that "retard" was in the original repo, and thus ended up in all the forks made from that, and not something that Nixx had added to the fork. I guess I could have been clearer. It is incorrect to say that Nixx is the person behind the offensive code comment. I said as much on twitter so that this misinfo doesn't take hold.

    and 2:
    "....There's nothing censorious about a private company deciding what it does and doesn't want..."

    Actually, that's the definition of it. In this case Github is the entity suppressing speech (words) they consider objectionable.

    Aug 04, 2015
  • Dabitch's picture
    Dabitch

    I'll refer US based grammar police to the H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler 1906 British usage guide The King’s English in regards to how I do quotes. I also spell colour with a u. Cheers.

    Aug 05, 2015
  • steakman4's picture
    steakman4 (not verified)

    Thanks for the reference. I was speaking more to the inconsistency.

    Aug 05, 2015
  • David Felton's picture
    David Felton

    English Masters Degree Graduate chiming in.

    The thing about the English language - and this is confusing to many people learning it - is that one word can have many meanings. If I remember correctly, the word retard started as a scientific word, and then later evolved into an insult. Similarly, 'The Spastics Society' rebranded as Scope years ago, as the word 'spastic' was adopted as an insult. Going back to the word 'retard', well yes it is often used as an insult, but it means multiple things. Clothes have to be made 'fire retardant' don't they? If writing a scientific paper I might write 'Progress was retarded when faced with a lack of available resources.' No one would blink twice.

    When we police language like this, language is the loser. I couldn't care less about Github, but this seems like overkill.

    Aug 05, 2015
  • Gary Barnes's picture
    Gary Barnes (not verified)

    I sent someone a message via a US web site once, talking about a house where Charles Dickens lived. It didn't make much sense once rendered as "Charles ****ens".

    Here in the UK we refer to this, thanks to people having problems back in the day signing up to AOL, as the "Scunthorpe Problem".

    Aug 07, 2015
  • Shadow Agent 's picture
    Shadow Agent (not verified)

    Dabitch is right. Having centralized services is contradictory to the idea of an inter-net, we need to move back to decentralized protocols on everything. Allowing Facebook, Twitter et al to own our personal communication over email, Github and Sourceforge to host our code instead of personal servers, is wrong. The internet was created to be decentralized but now three major companies practically own it all.

    As for steakman4's failed effort to grammar police something that's not incorrect, if you don't have anything to say about the topic of a post stay out of the comment thread.

    Aug 06, 2015
  • Dabitch's picture
    Dabitch

    Ah, those poor yellowbellies, no AOL accounts or Google local searches due to that errant cunt. Poorly programmed profanity filters are complete tosh. My name in my email (note it's a name) has gotten caught in countless filters. This Github situation is in my humble opinion even worse, as someone somewhere had to report that repo, and a person who works at Github decided to close it down. And sliding down the slippery slope we go, because if "retard" offends someone, we'll soon find there are countless groups that can be offended by countless things. All it took was one Github staffer to disable (hehe) the Gamergate letter-writing repo. All it will take is for one person to find something offensive in your repo to get your work shut down.

    Aug 07, 2015

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