Cryptocurrency Enthusiasts are Right To Be Wary of a Microsoft-Controlled Github
On Monday, June 4, Microsoft officially confirmed suspicions that they had reached a deal to acquire open-source software platform, GitHub. The news was well received by traditional investors but set off alarm bells in the heads of many cryptocurrency enthusiasts.
GitHub, for those who are unfamiliar, is the world’s leading open-source software development platform—essentially a website where developers can share code, sell software, and work collaboratively on new projects. GitHub is also home to the code repositories of many of the world’s biggest cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin, Ethereum, Monero and countless others, which is why the news sent shockwaves throughout the industry.
To fully understand the reaction, you must first be aware of the important role GitHub plays for cryptocurrencies.
From Bitcoin on, the primary goal of cryptocurrencies has been to eliminate the need for trust. Open-source development is an essential component in realizing that goal, because only through open-source platforms can people examine a cryptocurrency’s code to verify that it works as it is claimed to. GitHub is not the only platform that could serve this function, but it is far and away the most popular option.
That is why, within hours of the announcement, posts began to appear on various cryptocurrency subreddits (Ethereum, Monero, Cryptocurrency) with users openly discussing whether or not developers should move their code to alternative open-source platforms—the assumption being that Microsoft’s involvement indicates that GitHub can no longer be trusted.
Most users’ concerns are related to issues of censorship and the possibility that Microsoft may not be “neutral” in their support for all software projects, including cryptocurrencies.
Though I am generally skeptical that Microsoft will actively censor projects that the company doesn’t like, concerns over Microsoft’s neutrality do have some validity. The Seattle-based company was heavily criticized earlier this year when their updated terms of service included a section which stated that publicly posting or sharing “offensive language” on services like Skype or Outlook could be punishable with a full ban of users’ Microsoft accounts.
It’s possible that a Microsoft-controlled GitHub would implement similarly vague policies that could effectively censor the platform. Critics have also raised concerns that Microsoft might arbitrarily shut down code repositories for software that competes with Microsoft products.
This kind of censorship is a particular concern for cryptocurrencies because Microsoft has already been cracking down on them in a variety of ways, most notably in May, when news broke that Microsoft would be joining Google and Facebook in banning cryptocurrency ads. The decision reportedly came as part of an effort to counter phishing sites and to protect users from other cryptocurrency scams.
Another hit against cryptocurrencies came earlier in the year, when Microsoft Founder and technological adviser Bill Gates characterized cryptocurrencies as “super risky” and, due to their potential use in violent crime, as “a rare technology that has caused deaths in a fairly direct way.”
These events, while relatively small, give some credence to concerns that Microsoft may not be the most welcoming host to cryptocurrency projects.
But cryptocurrency enthusiasts are not alone in their skepticism of the partnership. Reactions from the larger GitHub community have also been mixed at best. In fact, the top trending repository on GitHub in the days since the announcement was one calling itself the GitHub Evacuation Center.
“The immediate goal is to be a sort of GitHub Evacuation Center. A space for evacuees to declare their status . . . A space to learn or share escape routes — In the coming days we will collaboratively put together resources and guides on where best to move you and your projects and how,” the post said.
In a questionable PR decision, GitHub manually removed the post from the site’s trending page while it was still in the #1 position. Critics are calling this evidence that censorship has already begun on the platform.
“We have not violated any terms of service,” the Evacuation Center said in response to the ban. The center went on to question whether the new Microsoft-controlled GitHub was committed to being “an open platform for all projects.”
With these factors in mind, should cryptocurrency investors feel wary about a Microsoft-Controlled GitHub?
Simply put, yes.
There are numerous legitimate reasons to be skeptical about a Microsoft-controlled GitHub; censorship and the notion that Microsoft may not be equally invested in all projects are just two of many.
Another potential risk is mismanagement from Microsoft stemming from a misunderstanding of what GitHub users want from the platform. If we’ve learned anything from Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars, it’s that sometimes major companies who acquire beloved products still have a difficult time tapping into what made the original so special. As a commenter on the Monero subreddit named Edwin den Boer points out “Microsoft doesn’t need evil intentions to make [GitHub] suck.”
A final legitimate reason to be wary about “Microsoft GitHub” is that it simply doesn’t feel right. Even reading the words may be enough to leave a bitter taste in some developers’ mouths. Ironically, this is the least objective of the reasons I’ve described, but I suspect it may be the most important.
We have all experienced it before: when a band you loved makes a pop album, when your wild friend from college settles down at a boring desk job. It’s a sentiment that is eloquently expressed by the first post at the GitHub Evacuation Center:
“GitHub has sold us out.“
It must be acknowledged that, in spite of the negatives described in this article, there are obvious reasons to be optimistic about GitHub’s future at Microsoft. For one, Microsoft has near-infinite resources, and in the words of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft is “. . . all in on open source.”
GitHub’s partnership with Microsoft brings with it tremendous opportunities for future growth. Still, it’s hard not to feel like the platform might lose some of its soul along the way.
It’s a particularly hard pill to swallow because Microsoft has historically been one of the most vocal critics of the open-source software movement. Their change in tone and new commitment to the practice is bittersweet:
It is both a tremendous validation that the movement was correct, but at the same time feels like the loss of something special.
Matthew Godshall is the editor in chief at Unhashed.com. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Matthew hopes to turn Unhashed into the Internet’s premiere site for cryptocurrency resources.