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With Linux’s founder stepping back, will the community change its culture?

Earlier this week, the Linux community got an unusual message from Linux’s creator, Linus Torvalds. “This week people in our community confronted me about my lifetime of not understanding emotions,” wrote Torvalds in a Linux update email. He apologized for “flippant” and sometimes personal attacks on community members, and announced that he would be temporarily stepping away from Linux. “I need to change some of my behavior, and I want to apologize to the people that my personal behavior hurt and possibly drove away from kernel development.”

It was a major about-face from Torvalds, who’s known for his blunt, furious emails and has said before that “I simply don’t believe in being polite or politically correct.” And in another surprising move, the Linux Foundation changed its short “code of conflict” to a new, more traditional code of conduct based on the widely adopted Contributor Covenant. But while there’s been plenty of support for the change, it’s also drawn criticism both from people who think it’s an ominous step toward over-policing Linux developers’ behavior, and from people who worry it’s just empty talk.

The revamped Linux code of conduct encourages behaviors like accepting constructive criticism gracefully, using inclusive language, and being respectful of “differing viewpoints and experiences.” It bars “sexualized language or imagery,” derogatory comments and personal or political attacks, and “public or private harassment,” among other behaviors. Community members can report violations to the Linux Foundation’s Technical Advisory Board or TAB, a 10-person committee that fosters communication between the community and the official Linux Foundation.

The code is longer and more specific than the old version, which primarily advised people to “be excellent to each other,” a reference to the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The old code also placed particular emphasis on the idea that developers should be ready to face harsh criticism. That’s consistent with Torvalds’ communication style, which — according to his critics — created an environment where vicious personal attacks and verbal abuse were justified as honest feedback.

Some developers quickly raised concerns about the new language. They worried about ambiguity over terms like “harassment,” as well as whether the rules could create collisions between different communication styles. Linux kernel maintainer Willy Tarreau suggested that American community members might find European members’ communication styles brusque and unwelcoming, for instance, although he tentatively endorsed the code itself.

But a lot of the outcry, especially on external forums like Reddit, has little to do with the code’s language. It’s focused on the Contributor Covenant’s original creator Coraline Ada Ehmke — who has vocally criticized the open source software movement with speeches and articles like the Post-Meritocracy Manifesto, which calls on the community to change how it evaluates “pure” technical skill. That’s spurred claims that the code of conduct is a Trojan horse for Ehmke’s political views, or even suggestions that Linus Torvalds’ daughter — who signed the Post-Meritocracy Manifesto — manipulated Torvalds into adopting the Covenant.

Ehmke emphasizes to The Verge that the Linux Foundation’s advisory board hasn’t been in touch with her at all, which isn’t unusual for an organization adopting her code. The Contributor Covenant is already in broad use — it’s been adapted for Google’s open source operations and Apple’s Swift programming language community, along with around 40,000 other open source projects by Ehmke’s count. “I am very happy that they selected a code of conduct, and I’m happy that they selected my code of conduct, but people seem to have this impression that it was forced on them or that I had something to do with it,” she says.

Ehmke notes that “a lot of people are skeptical” that Linux and Torvalds will stick to a new, more inclusive policy. “The real test is going to be, now that there is a code of conduct, will it be enforced fairly, and will it be enforced in good faith? And I think a lot of people are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward that,” she says. The Verge contacted the Linux Foundation to ask for more detail about how the code would be enforced, but didn’t receive a response.

One of the new code’s most prominent skeptics is Sage Sharp, a former Linux developer and TAB member who publicly left the community in 2015, expressing frustration with senior developers who refused to deliver technical criticism with “basic human decency.” Sharp wrote yesterday that unless TAB commits to releasing transparency reports, they “have no faith” in the advisory board’s ability to handle complaints effectively. They also argued that the code had been rushed out the door in advance of a critical New Yorker article about Torvalds’ abusive communication style — which likely helped motivate his decision to step away.

Sharp and Ehmke both criticized the diversity of the current all-male advisory board, whose members Ehmke worried wouldn’t have a strong understanding of “the dark side of open source.” Sharp also pointed out that TAB members, who are longtime community leaders, could easily end up mediating cases where they had a conflict of interest.

On the Linux message boards, meanwhile, TAB member Olof Johansson has asked community members to trust that the board will act in good faith. “It doesn’t particularly matter to me personally who wrote the text, as much as what is in it, and how we apply it,” he wrote. “There is a lot of focus in several discussions right now on punishment and what will be done to those who violate the code of conduct. I’m much more interested in figuring out what we can do to help mediate in case of disagreements such that all parties can get along and work together. That’s the end goal for me.”

Even if TAB makes a point of transparency and Torvalds returns to the project, it will be a while before the results of this week’s changes become visible. But Ehmke is hopeful. “If that project does manage to turn around, then I think it’s a major coup for diversity and inclusivity and welcoming in the open source world,” she says. “A lot of people look up to Linus, and a lot of people emulate his behavior.”

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