GitHub is forcing Microsoft to deal with thorny controversies two years after acquisition

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From left, GitHub CEO Chris Wanstrath, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and future GitHub CEO Nat Friedman at GitHub headquarters in San Francisco.
Source: Microsoft

In 2018, Microsoft made one of its priciest acquisitions ever, spending $7.5 billion on code-sharing site GitHub. It wasn’t the cleanest fit. GitHub is used by over 50 million developers who tend to be outspoken, including when it comes to things they dislike about Microsoft.

The deal continues to pose unexpected challenges, like a recent spat with the Recording Industry Association of America. In October, the RIAA asked GitHub to take down youtube-dl, a piece of open-source software that enables people to download videos from YouTube and other online services.

The software disappeared from the internet, and users objected.

One GitHub user, on the site, described the incident as “a shame for GitHub” and said “that Microsoft acquisition was really a mistake.” Another called for Microsoft to resign from the RIAA, an organization that consists primarily of record labels and musicians. The removal by GitHub so angered yet another user that the person responded by posting part of GitHub’s own proprietary software on the area of the site where digital copyright takedown requests are reported.

The code was adjusted by the person who maintained the project so that it was no longer in violation of the RIAA. The company then brought youtube-dl back online and announced a new process for handling similar claims.

Like fellow tech giants Amazon, Apple and Google, Microsoft faces all sorts of challenges related to its bigness, whether from its many rivals, millions of customers, profit-hungry investors or politicians concerned about competition. GitHub, as a storehouse of open-source projects and a virtual lifeline for programmers, creates tension of a different sort.

Some problems GitHub can solve by adhering to the demands of protesting users. Others are more sensitive, like the company’s work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

GitHub has refused to cut ties with ICE, leading employees to resign after the agency renewed its contract to use GitHub software. Key GitHub users published an open letter late last year insisting that GitHub end the contract, citing the agency’s separation of children from their parents and other activities. Hundreds of GitHub’s own workers signed an internal petition to have GitHub stop work with ICE last year, too, said two former employees who were not authorized to talk about internal affairs.

GitHub did not respond to a request for comment.

In addressing the ICE issue, GitHub expressed opposition to family separation. The company said it doesn’t have a services agreement with the agency, provides no consulting work and “has no visibility into how this software is being used, other than presumably for software development and version control.”

Microsoft has faced criticism, separate from GitHub, for its work providing cloud services to ICE, even though the company said in 2018 that it was “dismayed” by the practice of family separation.

For GitHub, the latest incident involving the video downloading tool has provided an opportunity for users to reignite the ICE controversy. Former GitHub engineer Zach Holman responded to an explanation provided by Nat Friedman, the company’s CEO, by bringing up the past incident.

Friedman’s tweets often receive replies to the effect of “Drop ICE.”

“The whole thing permeates everything they do now,” said Holman, who left GitHub in 2015 and now invests in start-ups. He said the easiest resolution would be to end the contract, which Friedman has described as “not financially material for our company.”

Earlier this year, GitHub was among the technology companies that showed support for the Black community following the killing in May of George Floyd while in police custody, and the nationwide protests that ensued.

A few GitHub users suggested that the company could rename part of its service so that “master,” a racially sensitive word, could be retired. The term referred to the primary area where developers store their code.

GitHub announced a plan to do exactly that one week later, changing the name to “main.” Even with good intentions, the company welcomed a fresh batch of comments about the ICE contract.

Holman summed it up this way: “How do I reconcile your position with ICE and what you’re saying about support for diversity in tech?”

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