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Explained: What is GitHub, at the centre of online sexual harassment probe?

GitHub is the world’s largest open-source developer community platform where users upload their projects and code for others to view, edit, and tweak.

Written by Shruti Dhapola | New Delhi |
Updated: January 4, 2022 11:32:39 am
While the latest app was taken down, Github has not revealed who is responsible for the app.

The open-source software repository service GitHub is in the news after it was used to create and share an offensively named app that sexually harassed Muslim women in India. The app used pictures of the women stolen from their social media handles and invited “users” to bid for them.

IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has announced that GitHub has blocked the user, and the Indian Computer Emergency Response System (Cert-In), the nodal agency for monitoring cyber security incidents, has been asked to form “a high-level committee” to investigate. Delhi and Mumbai Police have registered FIRs on complaints by some of the women who were targeted.

In June 2021, another app with a similar-sounding name, which too was hosted on GitHub, had been used to harass Muslim women in the same way. Police in Delhi and Noida had registered FIRs, but the probe has not progressed. Delhi Police have said GitHub is not cooperating.

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What is GitHub?

GitHub is the world’s largest open-source developer community platform where users upload their projects and code for others to view, edit, and tweak. The idea of GitHub is this: any developer can upload whatever software code or app code or software idea they have on the platform, and have others collaborate with them to help improve it, find errors, and fix problems.

Any public project can be viewed by others on the platform. Most of the features of the platform are free for users. Organisations can use paid accounts to upload their software and projects for collaboration.

The platform uses the software Git, which was created in 2005 by Linus Trovalds, the developer of the open-source operating system Linux, to track changes in a set of files and for coordination in software development.

What has it said on the complaints?

GitHub has taken down the app, but has not revealed who was responsible for it.

“GitHub has longstanding policies against content and conduct involving harassment, discrimination, and inciting violence. We suspended a user account following the investigation of reports of such activity, all of which violate our policies,” it said in a statement.

What is not allowed on GitHub?

GitHub’s stated policies require content to be respectful and civil at all times. Threats of violence “towards others or using the site to organise, promote, or incite acts of real-world violence or terrorism” are not allowed.

Topics such as “age, body size, disability, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, level of experience, nationality, personal appearance, race, religion, or sexual identity and orientation” are not forbidden. But speech that attacks a person or group of persons on the basis of their identity or on any of these topics is not allowed.

The platform claims it does not “tolerate bullying or harassment”, and “any habitual badgering or intimidation targeted at a specific person or group of people”. In the current case, however, Muslim women in India have been targeted twice in the space of six months, with the use of apps that are very similar. Some of the women have said they have been targeted by both apps.

GitHub also says it does not allow doxxing — revealing personal information with malicious intent — and the invasion of privacy. It claims sexually obscene and pornographic content is not allowed on the platform, even though this does not mean “all nudity or all code and content related to sexuality is prohibited”.

Posting gratuitously violent content, misinformation or fake news, active malware or exploits on the platform are prohibited.

When can an account be suspended or removed?

If a user is reported as violating the rules of the platform, GitHub can remove or block their content, and suspend or terminate the account. But it is not clear how long a suspension can last.

The policy page states, “We’ll review each abuse report on a case-by-case basis. In each case, we will have a diverse team investigate the content and surrounding facts and respond as appropriate, using these guidelines to guide our decision.”

Given the idea of GitHub, anyone can open an account and upload a code after providing just an email id. So even if an account is blocked or terminated, a new one can be created with another email id — and the offensive software code or apps can be uploaded again with perhaps a slightly different name. This is what seems to have happened in the two instances of harassment of Muslim women in India.

A senior officer of Delhi Police’s cyber cell said GitHub is yet to supply investigators with details of “the users or accused persons” in the earlier case. “We wrote to them and sent them a legal notice. GitHub officials asked us to follow Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty guidelines… We again sent a request and they forwarded it to their legal cell. They said some documents were missing and we had to apply again. We have approached the Home Ministry to push for an investigation from their (the company’s) side,” the officer said.

(With Inputs from Jignasa Sinha)

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