The Free Software Foundation (FSF) announced it is implementing a new Board Member Agreement and  Code of Ethics that is meant to guide members in their responsibilities, decision-making, and activities. The documents, which FSF says were “designed to help make FSF governance more transparent, accountable, ethical, and responsible,” were created as part of a six-month long consultant-led review.

In March, FSF founder and GPL author, Richard Stallman, announced that he was returning to the board, after resigning as director of the board and president of the FSF in 2019. His resignation followed a series of controversial remarks on rape, assault, and child sex trafficking, along with two decades of behaviors and statements that many have found to be disturbing and offensive. He was subsequently ousted by GNU project maintainers from his position as head of the project.

Stallman’s controversial return was supported by the majority of FSF’s board, with the exception of board member Kat Walsh who resigned after voting against his reinstatement. The organization’s executive director, deputy director, and chief technology officer also resigned in protest. 

At that time, the FSF’s board published a statement saying they “take full responsibility for how badly we handled the news of his election to a board seat. We had planned a flow of information that was not executed in a timely manner or delivered in the proper sequence.” His reinstatement took FSF’s staff by surprise, as they were not informed or consulted.

Mozilla, the Open Source Initiative, Red Hat, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other prominent tech organizations also opposed the decision in published statements and removed their support for FSF and critical funding.

The WordPress Foundation, which previously listed FSF among the project’s inspirations, quietly removed the link from the website following the controversy. WordPress’ executive director Josepha Haden Chomphosy published a statement, saying she did not support Stallman’s return as a board member, and confirmed to the Tavern that this is also the WordPress project’s official stance.

In what appears to be an attempt to claw its way back to a semblance of accountability, FSF’s newly approved Code of Ethics is targeted at preempting future incidents of board members acting on behalf of the organization without permission. A few relevant ethics in the document include the following:

  • Members of the board of directors will not undertake an activity that substantially hurts the FSF. When acting as board members, they will work toward the success of the FSF.
  • Board members shall all avoid placing–and the appearance of placing–one’s own self interest or any third-party interest, including the interests of associate members, above that of the organization as a whole.
  • Board members shall not speak on behalf of the FSF unless given explicit permission. Directors must not represent that their authority as board members extends any further than it actually extends. The board speaks as a whole, not as individuals.

New governance is a positive step towards transparency and accountability, but after all the damage done during the botched rollout of Stallman’s reinstatement, it’s not likely that opposing organizations will settle for anything less than his removal from the board.