GitHub is a rare American website that operates in China free from censorship, and has been the host of coronavirus news that authorities there have otherwise wiped from the country's internet. That's according to a report in WIRED, which found a thriving community of GitHub repositories (collaborative projects) where Chinese internet users share personal stories about the pandemic and save news articles before they're censored elsewhere.
This isn't the first time Microsoft products have been used to create an underground railroad of censored information — Minecraft has also been repurposed to to sneak sensitive information into countries under oppressive regimes.
All or nothing — Chinese authorities normally don't allow any foreign platforms to operate in the country without hosting their data locally and complying with censorship requirements. That's expensive and morally dubious, so Facebook, Twitter, and others have chosen to opt-out of the serving Chinese users altogether. But it turns out that GitHub's vast collection of open-source software is too valuable for China to risk losing, so it's mostly turned a blind eye to the site heretofore.
It's not possible for China to block visits to individual repositories because GitHub is an encrypted site — it's all or nothing.
In contrast to other tech companies, Microsoft, which owns GitHub, does offer censored versions of its other services including LinkedIn and Bing in the country. That GitHub is accessible in China without any censorship is a sentiment to the importance of open source code, which helps developers in China build new software without needing to write all the underlying infrastructure from scratch.
Balancing act — GitHub is an enviable position being able to offer free speech in China like nobody else can. But the company has in the past said it was planning to open a subsidiary in China before walking that statement back. It also continues to maintain a contract with ICE in the United States despite backlash. If criticism of the Chinese government becomes too intense on GitHub it seems likely that the company would comply with orders to localize operations, making it easier to target content inside the country's borders. Chinese users contribute the second-largest amount of projects to GitHub after the U.S., meaning it's a valuable country for the company.
Microsoft could be in a tough position, but it's important to guard against the continued bifurcation of the internet into separate, nationalized versions. We're already seeing the U.S. move in a similar direction with the attack on Chinese-owned TikTok, even though Americans enjoy the app. It's understandable to an extent, to retaliate because China censors foreign apps, why not do the same to them.
But GitHub shouldn't nationalize in China like TikTok shouldn't in America. A shared global internet offers economic benefits for everyone — including shared open source software — and as we're seeing, information wants to be free. Microsoft should take a stand and not create a censored version of GitHub.