Posted on Thu 07 June 2018

Read Time: 3 minutes

Microsoft, GitHub and the Realities of Centralized Control

Update: This was a originally part of a larger post. I decided to split these discussions into two separate posts for better clarity.

Let’s start with a simple fact: if your content is not controlled and not stored by you, you don’t own it. You never did. There’s been a lot of anger and fear surrounding the recent news that GitHub has been sold. For many, the worst part of that news was that they would soon have their code hosted on a Microsoft-owned platform. Of course, they were already storing their code on a centralized server owned by another company. We know that never ends well (Finley 2015), but no one seemed to be concerned about that. Instead, they only became upset when GitHub was bought by Microsoft because Microsoft is “evil.”

Apparently, these people have been living under a rock for the past couple decades. I have my issues with Microsoft, but let’s be clear, compared to the surveillance monstrosity that is Google, the crushing giant tendrils of an ever-present Amazon, and the “we will happily sell out our users until we’re caught”- mindset of Facebook, Microsoft is not the worst company on the Internet. In fact, if I had to create a list of companies that I would want to buy GitHub, Microsoft would be pretty high on that list.

And, here is the reality, GitHub was always going to be sold. No one should be shocked. The only shock for me was that it took so damn long.

As users, we like to tell stories about the platforms we use; especially when those platforms work to become a part of our identity. GitHub certainly does that as do many other brands. Indeed, this connection is the core of modern marketing. We don’t buy products we buy an identity built around a myth about who we are and who we should be (Strizhakova, Coulter, and Price 2008). Naomi Klein has called this form of corporate development “hollow branding” and has discussed it at length in her book No Logo (2000) and revisits in her discussion on the 2016 elections in No Is Not Enough (2017). We need to be careful about buying into these stories, though. GitHub isn’t a community resource. It is a company. It wants profits. Now yes, those profits are earned by providing a service to the community. Never doubt, though, that profits will always come before anything else.

As customers, I completely agree that we must hold our platforms responsible for their actions. The GitHub sale is not an action worth leaving over. In fact, as I mentioned in a tweet a short while back, I am very interested to see how Microsoft deals with the GitHub acquisition. This is an opportunity for them to show that their commitment to the Open Source community is as real as they say. Indeed, their recent actions in this space have (for the most part) been quite encouraging.

That said, we cannot forget that these platforms are not our own. We are storing our content on the servers of another company. Plan accordingly. I will still use GitHub the way I have been. It is a great tool and platform. I use it to store a few public and a few private repositories. I do not store anything that I consider confidential, and all critical repositories (aka my dissertation) are backed up elsewhere. I don’t trust GitHub. I use GitHub. I trust my private backups and my private servers. GitHub is a service I use because it makes some work easier, but I could do without it if a problem does arise. Don’t rely on platforms you don’t own. This is particularly important for small businesses who use these services as critical tools. Sooner or later, they will suffer for that choice.

Author: Geoff Gimse

Category: rhetoric

Tags: technology, open-source, free-software

© Geoffrey Gimse. Built using Pelican. All photos are my own. Other images used on this site are in the Public Domain and available from Openclipart, or have been purchased for use via The Noun Project.