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GitHub says Chinese developers are safe from export restrictions

Developers will not lose access to open source code simply because the platform is based in the US

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

GitHub has allayed some of the fears that it will cut off access to open source code in China, leaving a vital tool open for the country’s developers.

Some developers previously voiced concerns that GitHub, as a US-based platform, could be caught up in the ongoing US-China tech war. But the company told Abacus that the provision of software services over the internet, such as the code collaboration in repositories on, is not subject to the new US export control mandates related to local companies in China.

“Developers can continue to engage in these repositories,” a spokesperson for GitHub said.

Chinese developers were initially alarmed after discovering (or rediscovering) GitHub’s export control rules. The rules reference the Export Administration Regulations ( EAR) -- the same regulations used to restrict Huawei from accessing products and services made by US companies. GitHub is based in San Francisco and was bought by Microsoft last year.

GitHub is the world’s largest code hosting platform. It stores countless open source code projects that people from around the world can view and collaborate on, which means losing access would be a major headache.

Chinese developers fear losing open source tech to trade war

Open source software is a part of many of our favorite online products like Facebook or Netflix. Some tech is made entirely on open source code including Mozilla Firefox, Linux and Google’s mobile OS Android.

For this reason, a ban would not only have hurt Chinese companies but also innovation around the world, local developers said.

“For developers, source code is a very important resource,” director of operations for Open Source China (OSChina) Liu Chen told us in an earlier interview.

Chinese developers say restricting GitHub would hurt open source communities everywhere. (Picture: Shutterstock)
This source code could even be important for Huawei as it faces restrictions to Google’s services. Since Android is open source, the company can continue to update its custom version of Android even if it’s cut off from bundling it with proprietary Google apps and services like Gmail and YouTube. The company is also reportedly working on its own OS that will be compatible with Android apps, another likely benefit of using open source code.
With the trade war heating up, Huawei is likely not the only Chinese company that will face restrictions on using US products. Chinese surveillance camera maker Hikvision and a major facial recognition company called Megvii are among the companies that could also be banned from accessing US tech.

Still, GitHub did not mention access to their paid products such as the Enterprise Server, which offers more features. The platform already restricts some countries subject to the EAR from accessing its Enterprise Server, including Iran and North Korea.

GitHub started a new round of policy updates in March, which included its export control rules. Since last week, the company has updated its export control webpage. It now notes that it’s the user's responsibility to ensure that GitHub’s products and services are used in accordance with US laws, including export restrictions.

“While GitHub is committed to full compliance with applicable law, we also examine government mandates thoroughly to be certain that users and customers are not impacted beyond what is required by law,” the company said in a statement.

Apache Software Foundation (ASF), another US-based organization that offers open source software, also published an announcement last week saying that open source software and collaboration on open source code are not subject to the EAR.

Although things seem to have worked out for Chinese developers in this case, fears about being cut off from foreign technology have sparked a debate about self-sufficiency. That question now looms over Huawei and other Chinese tech companies in their pursuit to build more tech in-house.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.