The Internet Relies on People Working for Free

Who should be responsible for maintaining and troubleshooting open-source projects? From a report: When you buy a product like Philips Hue’s smart lights or an iPhone, you probably assume the people who wrote their code are being paid. While that’s true for those who directly author a product’s software, virtually every tech company also relies on thousands of bits of free code, made available through “open-source” projects on sites like GitHub and GitLab. Often these developers are happy to work for free. Writing open-source software allows them to sharpen their skills, gain perspectives from the community, or simply help the industry by making innovations available at no cost. According to Google, which maintains hundreds of open-source projects, open source “enables and encourages collaboration and the development of technology, solving real-world problems.”

But when software used by millions of people is maintained by a community of people, or a single person, all on a volunteer basis, sometimes things can go horribly wrong. The catastrophic Heartbleed bug of 2014, which compromised the security of hundreds of millions of sites, was caused by a problem in an open-source library called OpenSSL, which relied on a single full-time developer not making a mistake as they updated and changed that code, used by millions. Other times, developers grow bored and abandon their projects, which can be breached while they aren’t paying attention. It’s hard to demand that programmers who are working for free troubleshoot problems or continue to maintain software that they’ve lost interest in for whatever reason — though some companies certainly try. Not adequately maintaining these projects, on the other hand, makes the entire tech ecosystem weaker. So some open-source programmers are asking companies to pay, not for their code, but for their support services. Daniel Stenberg is one of those programmers. He created cURL, one of the world’s most popular open-source projects.