October 29, 2020 by Drew DeVault

Mailing lists are resistant to censorship

As a US entity, SourceHut is obliged to comply with DMCA notices. In this event, our next step would likely be to coach the affected project through the counter-notice process, and contribute to their legal costs if we believe that they’re in the right. We know that the DMCA is a constantly abused force for censorship, and there are no friends of the RIAA here. They represent much that our mission statement — to support and improve the free- and open-source software ecosystem — stands in opposition to.

Even beyond our principles, however, the mailing list based workflow we espouse is resistant to this kind of censorship. Git repositories are easily re-hosted, of course. However, if a lot of your project’s value requires rapid updates and the ongoing support of its development community, a centralized, pull-request-style system is vulnerable to censorship.

If you use mailing lists, you might not even immediately notice that something was wrong. That contributions pass through a centralized mailing list is often only a formality — the project maintainers and others likely to have comments will usually be Cc’d on the emails, and they’ll be delivered directly to them without the list’s help. Recipients can provide feedback by replying to the email, sending their comments directly to the contributor, and bypassing the mailing list entirely. The list faithfully records these emails and forwards them to interested parties, but it’s not actually required for this to work.

A mailing list also provides every maintainer, contributor, and onlooker a copy of everything which has happened on it. Like git distributes repositories to anyone working on them, mailing lists distribute a complete archive of the list to everyone who is subscribed to them. Taking this archive somewhere else and carrying on is effortless.

Moreover, you would be hard pressed to make a strong argument that new patches could be covered by the DMCA, as they represent original additions to the codebase. We’d consult our lawyers to consider the specific circumstances, but it’s entirely possible that we wouldn’t even have to shut off the mailing list when dealing with this situation. SourceHut’s tools — bug trackers, mailing lists, git repos, and so on — can work independently of one other.

Embracing decentralized, open standards like email and mailing lists is a good tool for censorship resistance. Putting all of your eggs into a basket controlled by a single corporate entity, who will be coerced by bullies and bad laws, is not a strategy for success. Times like these remind us why open source projects need to use open source infrastructure, built on open standards.

Haven’t used email with git before? Here’s what it’s like:

Check out git-send-email.io to try an interactive tutorial.