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November 20, 2019

Filed under: tech»open_source

Repackaged apps

Earlier this week, a member of the Google developer relations team ported Caret to the web. He's actually the second person from Chrome to do this — a member of the browser team created a separate port last month. The reasons for this are simple: Caret is a complete application with a relatively small API surface, most of which revolves around file I/O. Chrome has recently rolled out trial support for the Native Filesystem API, which lets web apps open and edit local files. So it's an ideal test case.

I want to be clear, Google's not doing anything wrong here. Caret is licensed under the GPL, which means pretty much anyone can take it and do whatever they want, as long as they give me credit for the code I wrote and distribute the source, both of which are happening here. They haven't been rude about it (Ben, the earlier developer, very kindly reached out to me first), and even if they were, I couldn't stop it. I intentionally made that decision early on with Caret, because I believe giving the code away for something as fundamental as a text editor is the right thing to do.

That said, my feelings about these ports are extremely mixed.

On the one hand, after a half-decade of semi-active development, Caret has found a nice audience among students and amateur hackers. If it's possible to expand that audience — to use Google's market power to give more students, and more amateurs, the tools to realize their own goals — that's an exciting possibility.

But let's be clear: the reason why a port is necessary is because Google has been slowly removing support for Chrome Apps like Caret from their browser, in favor of active development on progressive web apps. After building on their platform and watching them strip support away from my users on Windows and OS X, with the clear intention of eventually removing it from Chrome OS after its Android support is advanced enough, I'm not particularly thrilled about the idea of using it to push PR for new APIs in Chrome (no other browsers have announced support for Native Filesystem).

People have ported Caret before. But it feels very different when it's a random person who wants to add a particular feature, versus a giant tech corporation with a tremendous amount of power and influence. If Google wants to become the new "owner" of Caret, they're perfectly capable of it. And there's nothing I can do to stop them. Whether they're going to do this or not (I'm pretty sure they won't) doesn't stop my heart from skipping a beat when I think about it. The power gradient here is unsettling.

Lately, a group of journalism students at Northwestern University here in Illinois came under fire for an apology for and retraction of their coverage of protests against former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. This includes the usual suspects, like Bari Weiss, the NYT columnist who regularly publishes columns in the biggest paper in the world about how she's being silenced by critics, but also a number of legitimate journalists concerned about self-censorship. But the editorial itself is quite clear on why they took this step, including one telling paragraph:

We also wanted to explain our choice to remove the name of a protester initially quoted in our article on the protest. Any information The Daily provides about the protest can be used against the participating students — while some universities grant amnesty to student protesters, Northwestern does not. We did not want to play a role in any disciplinary action that could be taken by the University. Some students have also faced threats for being sources in articles published by other outlets. When the source in our article requested their name be removed, we chose to respect the student’s concerns for their privacy and safety. As a campus newspaper covering a student body that can be very easily and directly hurt by the University, we must operate differently than a professional publication in these circumstances.

You may disagree with the idea that journalists should take down or adjust coverage of public events and persons, but it is legitimately more complicated than just "liberal snowflakes bowing to public pressure." No-one is debating that the reporters can take pictures of public protests, or publish the names of those involved. But should they? Likewise, when a newsroom's community is upset about coverage, editors can ignore the outcry, or respond with scorn. It shouldn't be surprising that certain audiences turn away or become distrustful of a paper that does so.

The relationships in this situation, as with various ports of Caret, are complicated by power. In both cases, what would be permissible or normal in one context is changed by the power differential of the parties involved, whether that's students to the paper to the university, or me to Google, or data journalists to the people in their FOIA requests, or tech workers to their employers' government contracts.

Most newsrooms don't think very much about power, in my experience, or they think of it as something they're supposed to check, not something they possess. But we need to take responsibility for our own power. It's possible that the students at the Daily Northwestern overreacted — if you protest in public, you should probably expect that pictures are going to be taken — but they're at least engaging with the question of what to do with the power they wield (directly and, in the case of the university's discipline system, indirectly). Using power in ways that have a real chance of harming your readers, just on principle and the idea that "that's what journalists do," is tautocracy at work.

As much as anything, I think this is one of the key generational shifts taking place in both software and journalism. My own sympathies tend toward a vision of both that prioritizes harm reduction over abstractions like "free speech" or "intellectual property," but I don't have any pat answers. Similarly, I've become acclimated to the idea of a web-based Caret port that's out of my hands, because I think the benefits to users outweigh the frustration I feel personally. I can't do anything about it now. But I will definitely learn from this experience, and it will change how I plan future projects.

Future - Present