It’s time to boycott AWS

I woke up this morning not planning to write anything on this blog, much less anything about AWS. But then, as I was eating breakfast, I read a horrifying story in Mother Jones about how an AWS employee was treated as he did his best to cope with his wife’s terminal cancer.

In the free software community, Amazon (more specifically AWS) has been criticized for years for taking a largely exploitative position concerning FOSS projects. These conversations frequently result in proposals to use licensing as a weapon against AWS. In general, I believe that it would be difficult to target AWS with licensing, as statutory licenses must be fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory. But the issue of exploitation remains: AWS takes from the commons of FOSS projects and productizes that work, frequently without giving anything back.

They are, of course, allowed to do this, but at the same time, in doing so, they have frequently undercut the efforts of developers to monetize the labor involved in software maintenance, which leads to projects adopting licenses like SSPL and Commons Clause, which are significantly problematic for the commons.

On top of this, licensing-based attacks are unlikely to be effective against AWS anyway, because in the process of productization, they wind up significantly modifying the software anyway. This means that it is only another step further to just completely rewrite the software, which is something they have done in the past, and will likely do again in the future.

But my issue isn’t just the exploitative relationship AWS has with the commons (which is largely specific to AWS by the way), but rather the corporate culture of AWS. When I read the story in Mother Jones this morning, I saw no reason to disbelieve it, as I have heard many similar stories in the past from AWS employees.

As participants in the technology industry, we are free to choose our suppliers. This freedom comes with a damning responsibility, however. When we choose to engage with AWS as a supplier, we are enabling and affirming the way they do business as a company. We are affirming their exploitation of the commons.

We are also affirming their exploitative practice of placing AWS employees on a “pivot” (their parlance for a Performance Improvement Plan), which involves working employees to the bone, saying they failed to meet their PIP objectives and then firing them.

The free software community must stand against both kinds of exploitation. We must stand against it by boycotting AWS until they recalibrate their relationship with the commons, and their relationship with their employees. We must also encourage the adoption and proliferation of humane, freedom-respecting technology.