Chinese Workers Are Trying to Bake Fair Labor Practices Into Software

The 996.ICU movement has largely organized on GitHub, and has produced a software license aimed at forcing companies to treat workers fairly if they use open source software.

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Apr 4 2019, 7:40pm

Image: Shutterstock

Chinese workers are attempting to use an open source licensing agreement to code fair working conditions into software used by corporations.

The plan is part of a protest movement primarily hosted on GitHub, a website software developers used to collaborate and track projects. At more than 1760,000 stars—a way to bookmark GitHub repositories—and growing, the movement’s GitHub is currently the site’s most popular repository. Users have translated an explanatory section of the repository into 25 different languages.

According to the GitHub’s readme and a linked website, the movement is called 996.ICU, a reference to an unhealthy schedule of working 9 AM to 9 PM six days a week. The “ICU” part is a reference to a hospital’s intensive care unit—as in, it’s a work schedule that’s liable to put you in the ICU. Forcing workers to stay on the job for more than eight hours in a day, without government approval, is explicitly prohibited by Chinese law.

The GitHub contains a collection of stories about overwork, lists of tech companies that ask too much of employees, and a clever software license meant to open the door for punishing companies that overwork employees.

Two 996.ICU supporters—Katt Gu, a PhD student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Suji Yan, CEO of tech company Dimension where Gu is lead counsel—crafted a license agreement that willing open source software developers can slip into their end-user license agreements (EULA). The license is designed to force a company using open source software to follow local labor laws, or else have its access to the software revoked.

“The individual or the legal entity must strictly comply with all applicable laws,” the license says. “The individual or the legal entity shall not induce or force its employee(s)...[to] weaken or relinquish his or her rights or remedies under such laws.”

“Open source software is a public treasure and you shouldn’t give public treasure to those companies who do evil,” Yan told Motherboard via Skype.

According to Gu and Yan, the 996.ICU movement started on Chinese social media, where anonymous Chinese tech workers gathered to trade stories about working long hours, often without compensation. That conversation grew into the 996.ICU GitHub repository.

“My research interest has always been the combination of tech and law,” Gu, who drafted the legal language of the license, told me via Skype. “If you don't respect labor laws, your whole project is going to be doomed.”

The pair envision the anti-996 license as a kind of trap that will force companies using open source software into compliance with local labor laws. Still, Gu and Yan don’t expect that companies caught unawares by the license will take it sitting down.

Yan thinks that attaching the provision to the EULA that typically comes with software will make it harder to fight in court. “Intellectual property law is very strong,” he said.

This isn’t the first time someone has used a software license to push an agenda. In 2003, programmer Douglas Crockford created JSMin—a program that shrinks JavaScript to speed up its load time on internet browsers—and released it with a tweak to the standard MIT open source license: “The Software shall be used for Good, not evil.”

This minor addition proved troublesome for Google, which once had the motto “Don’t be evil.” In 2009, the company removed a piece of software containing the license—a derivative of Crockford’s program—from its now-defunct Google Code site for hosting open source projects. According to the developer who uploaded the software to Google Code, Google considered the tweak to be a use restriction that made the software non-free.

The anti-996 license might run into similar trouble.

“There’s no question that [the anti-996] license is not an open source license,” Aaron Williamson, General Counsel & Director of Governance at the Fintech Open Source Foundation, told Motherboard over the phone.

“An open source license cannot discriminate against fields of endeavor,” he explained. ”You can’t use an open source license to say ‘you can’t use my software for this or that business objective in this this or that kind of business,’ and still call it an open source license.”

Williamson said that developers might be hesitant to use any software with the anti-996 license, even if they’re good employers who treated employees well. Many open source licenses, including the popular General Public License, prohibit additional restrictions in open source licensing, meaning that any additional software integrated into a suite of open source programs must have a conforming license.

“If you try and go and combine [software containing the anti-996 license] with software under, say, a copyleft license, you've got this restriction that is prohibited by the copyleft license from being included in the overall licensing mix,” Williamson said. “And so now you're violating that license merely by including a non-open source license in your product.”

But Gu and Yan aren’t worried. “The history of free and open source software is all about programmers fighting for rights,” Gu told Motherboard in an email. “I think the [anti-996 license] is exactly the embodiment of the spirit of free and open source software.”

Williamson admires the spirit of the project, he said, and argued that the most important aspect of 996.ICU is that it’s harbored on GitHub, which the global tech community relies on.

After China briefly blocked GitHub in the country in 2013, some in the Chinese software development community—including former Google China president Kai-Fu Lee—were up in arms because of how much the industry depends on the site.

Some homegrown web browsers in China like Qihoo’s 360 Browser are blocking the 996.ICU GitHub repository page, according to Abacus, an offshoot of the South China Morning Post. But, according to Abacus, most browsers—including Chrome, and Firefox—can still access the site.

“The most important is that they're using GitHub, a website that is going to be difficult for the government or companies to block without causing disruption to a wide swath of economic activity,” Williamson said. “I think that's great and is potentially a really successful mode of protest.”

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