Why Github's Decision to Block the Catalan App Isn't A Big Deal

As one of the most popular open-source code repositories and software development platforms on the web, Github hosts a positively staggering variety of projects. Everything from corporate applications to utilities to video game mods can be found within its vast library. As we’ve recently learned, that includes applications that certain governments would rather suppress.

Catalan is one such application, primarily used for organizing political protests within the community of Catalonia in Spain. Until recently, Github hosted the software’s APK. As reported by BBC News, the Spanish Military Police on Oct. 30 filed a takedown request to the repository, maintaining that the APK’s uploader, Tsunami Democràtic group, is a criminal organization responsible for inciting riots.

Github complied.

“We always comply with lawful requests,” a Github spokesperson told BBC. “Although we may not always agree with [the] law, we may need to block content if we receive a valid request from a government official so that our users in that jurisdiction may continue to have access to Github to collaborate and build software.”

At first glance, it seems like a pretty upsetting stance. As we’re certain most of our readers would agree, politics should be kept out of programming - and freedom of speech should be prioritized above all. Yet if you look a bit closer, Github’s actually made the right move here.

For one, as pointed out by a user on Reddit, the APK is still present on the site. All Github has done is prevent Spanish IP addresses from accessing it. In other words, anyone with even a modicum of technical expertise can easily bypass the block - and in the meantime, the company has for all intents and purposes complied with the lawful takedown request, which is ultimately self-defeating.

There are already multiple forks of the APK available on the web. There are already multiple sources through which protestors may gain access to Catalan outside of Github. In essence, the only thing the Spanish Military Police have achieved is to spread awareness of the protestors, in the process receiving what amounts to a pat on the head from Github.

From a legal perspective, we live in difficult times. Multi-national organizations must constantly strike a balancing act between different cultures, regulatory climates, and legal jurisdictions. While there’s certain to be some bad press around the decision, Github - and parent company Microsoft - handled things as well as could be expected.

It issued a regional lock on some of its content, likely fully aware that most users would be able to bypass it anyway.  There’s also a lesson here for anyone who might seek to block content on the Internet: don’t bother. Even the most well-suppressed stuff has a way of leaking through the cracks. 

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