The founder of the world’s most widely used database engine ignited a firestorm in the tech community after it was revealed that he had posted a code of conduct for users based on the teachings of the Bible and an ancient order of monks founded by Benedict of Nursia.
Codes of conduct (CoC) have been all the rage in online communities in recent years. The gaming and tech communities, in particular, have grappled with behavior standards for online users in forums where bad behavior sometimes proliferates. While a CoC for users of a forum or email list sounds like a good idea in theory, increasingly they’ve been used to push social justice talking points and left-wing ideologies. For example, this sample CoC from Geek Feminism bans harassment, which it defines as “Verbal comments that reinforce social structures of domination [related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, age, religion, [your specific concern here].”
In response to pressure from clients who were demanding a CoC before they would do business with him, Richard Hipp, the founder of the widely used SQLite database engine, adopted the Rule of St. Benedict as the guiding principles for his community. The move angered many in the tech community — but was applauded by others who are fed up with the distractions CoCs have caused in recent years. The rules encourage users to love God and their neighbors and to forsake overeating, laziness, and grumbling, among other things.
Chances are you’ve never heard of Hipp or SQLite unless you work in the tech industry, but it’s quite likely that you’ve benefitted from his embeddable database engine — it’s found in every mobile phone, Mac, and Windows PC, among other places. “There are billions of instances of SQLite running as we speak, and over a trillion active SQLite databases,” Hipp told PJM.
Even though Hipp, who has a Ph.D. in AI from Duke, signed away his rights to SQLite when he placed it in the public domain, he still does work with clients who use the technology he created. “But lately, when companies would come to us wanting to buy some service or product from us,” he told PJM, “they have increasingly been giving us lots of ‘supplier registration’ forms to fill out.”
Earlier this year, “two companies in a row sent us (different) supplier registration forms that requested (among many other things) a copy of our CoC,” he said. Hipp didn’t have one, so he “needed to come up with something.”
After looking around at contemporary CoCs, Hipp found them to be “vapid.” “I felt like they were trendy feel-good words that had no depth,” he said. “I could compare them to pop music, which sells millions of copies this week, but next year is forgotten.” He was looking for something more enduring, like Mozart. “What is the Mozart equivalent of a CoC?” he asked. He considered, among other things, Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues, the Ten Commandments, the Noahide Laws, Micah 6:8 from the Old Testament, and Mother Teresa’s prayer from her 1985 speech to the UN GeneralAssembly. “None of these provided a framework for governing the interaction of a community,” he explained. “But the ‘Instruments of Good Works’ from the Rule of St. Benedict seemed to fit the bill.”
The rules, created by Benedict of Nursia, have been in use by Benedictine monks for 15 centuries and include a whole host of biblical truths and commands designed to help the monks live peacefully with one another and within the larger community.
“Apparently Benedict had some behavior problems with his monks, which prompted him to write his rule in the first place, so I don’t think bad behavior is anything new,” said Hipp.
Considering that the Benedictine monks are still in existence, one could argue that the rules have been wildly successful.
Hipp’s CoC, which was published several months ago, mostly went unnoticed in the SQLite community. In fact, Hipp didn’t think SQLite even needed a CoC “since there were no problems in that community,” he said. “But I have heard that other communities were more high-strung and might have benefited from the application of a few rules of virtue. ” Before posting it, Hipp “got buy-in from all the SQLite developers.”
“I did not publicize the CoC because I didn’t think it was important,” he said. “The link exists so that I could fill in the appropriate fields of in supplier registration forms.”
But suddenly, the CoC began to receive public scrutiny this week.
Many in the tech community, accustomed to CoCs focused on sexual diversity, an obsession with gender, and safe spaces, were startled by Hipp’s move to adopt the overtly religious Code of Benedict.
“After the SQLite CoC went viral, I began seeing lots of comments on Twitter rebuking me for doing the CoC wrong,” said Hipp. Critics said that his CoC lacked a means of enforcement and insisted that a CoC must make people feel safe and welcomed.
That was news to Hipp. “Who decided this?” he asked. “Did I miss a memo? All this time, I was thinking a CoC was what it says — a set of guidelines (a ‘code’) on how to behave (‘conduct’). Who knew that there were all these other requirements?”
“I’m now beginning to understand that, unbeknownst to me, an entire subculture of codes of conduct has sprung up, with lots of specifications on what a good code of conduct should and should not do,” he lamented, noting that the Rule of St. Benedict does not meet those specifications.
“From what I’ve been able to piece together from tweets, the purpose of a CoC is to make marginalized people feel welcomed and safe. And there must be some means of enforcement written into the CoC so that if hostile forces infiltrate the community, ‘safeness’ can be restored by censoring or expelling the miscreants,” he explained. Those two rules are apparently “sufficient to disqualify the Rule of St. Benedict as a valid CoC.”
Hipp has received emails and private messages chastising him for being “insufficiently woke.”
“Your code of conduct is a terrible joke,” wrote one angry user. “Wow, you really didn’t understand sh*it, did you? What you’re doing there is just disgusting.”
“I will stop using SQLite wherever I can,” another user declared. “Please apologize publicly, replace bogus CoC by some actual CoC that addresses issues marginalised groups actually have, and if required (and I strongly suppose it is required!) seek professional help to avoid this kind of behaviour in the future.” He pointed out that Linux kernel creator Linus Torvalds is seeking therapy after being shamed for his bad online behavior, “so can you.”
Linux, which powers a large portion of the internet as well as all Android phones, adopted what many are saying is an overwrought CoC, partly in response to Torvalds’ abusive behavior online. The move prompted many developers to threaten to withdraw the licenses for their code en masse unless the CoC, which was widely condemned by developers, was rescinded.
“If the threat is put into action, ramifications could include large parts of the internet being left vulnerable to exploits, and companies around the world might even inherit bundles of unwanted legal liabilities,” Lulz.com wrote, warning that developers were threatening to pull the “kill switch” on the internet.
The website explained the controversy:
Activists from the feminist and LGBTQIA+ communities have been trying to force the Linux project to join the Contributor Covenant since at least 2015. The Contributor Covenant is an agreement to implement a special Code of Conduct (frequently CoC from now on) aimed at changing the predominantly white, straight, and male face of programming. CC’s Code of Conduct is controversial particularly because it allows anyone to be banned from contributing code for any reason, usually with no mechanism for oversight or accountability.
Some of their complaints include:
- Insertion of the CoC into other projects has heralded witch hunts where good contributors are removed over trivial matters or even events that happened a long time ago.
- The lack of proper definitions for punishments, time frames, and even what constitutes abuse or harassment leaves the Code of Conduct wide open for abuse (see 1).
- It gives the people charged with enforcement omnipotent and unaccountable power.
- It could force acceptance of contributions that wouldn’t make the cut if made by cis white males.
- CC’s Code of Conduct is purely about power.
Hipp tried to circumvent those problems by using a CoC that would have been completely uncontroversial a generation ago.
“I get the sense that the current CoC fad is an attempt to impose culture,” he observed. “The question then is ‘whose culture?'” The answer, he said, is mostly “San Francisco Democrat” culture. “I suppose that can be either good or bad depending on your politics,” he said.
Although the criticism has been harsh, Hipp said that he’s had “many more messages of support” from Christians, Jews, and avowed atheists. “They might not agree with the details of Benedict’s theology, but they understand the gist of the rule, and they also understand what I was trying to accomplish with my CoC, and they fully approve.”
While many have suggested Hipp’s CoC was intended as satire, he insists, “We actually believe this stuff. I cannot claim that the other developers are as gung-ho about it as I am, but everybody approved of the draft and agreed that it was a good CoC and agreed to be bound by it.”
In response to some of the criticism, Hipp at first made revisions to his CoC — adding an enforcement provision and making it clear that users were not bound by the religious aspects of the Benedictine Rule. After further consideration, he decided to change the name of his CoC to a “Code of Ethics” and adopted a new CoC to satisfy critics who were demanding one.
“The diplomatic solution is to rename the ‘Code of Conduct’ to be a ‘Code of Ethics’ and then install a pre-packaged and widely approved Code of Conduct that does meet the modern technical requirements in place of the old,” he said. “In this way, those who are very particular about what a Code of Conduct should and should not say are satisfied, and we old-school developers can keep our Benedictine Rule.” He hopes that with these compromises, “peace will be restored” in his community. “I imagine there will be some disappointment on all sides, but perhaps insufficient disappointment to cause further drama,” he said.
“My critics have often been harsh and intemperate,” said Hipp. “But I am bound by my own CoC, which commands me to (29) not return evil for evil, (34) be not proud, (67) shun arrogance, and so forth.” He hopes the “drama will soon die down and I can return to doing real work solving real problems.”
Perhaps the controversy will die down and the SQLite community will go back to work and forget this whole episode. But unfortunately, as the Linux community and countless others have discovered in recent years, activists who want to impose their worldview on others are rarely satisfied with compromises. They want their views to dominate and all others to be obliterated. They smell blood in the water at SQLite and will likely come back for more compromises — and a demand for Hipp to repent from his former “regressive” Christian beliefs.
As my colleague Michael Walsh likes to say, “They never stop, they never sleep, they never quit.”
Follow me on Twitter @pbolyard