Adrianne Jeffries, reporting for The Outline: Is a $4 million venture capital-funded startup stealthily taking over popular coding tools and injecting ads and spyware into them? That’s what some programmers fear may be happening. It is one of the most troubling scandals to hit the open-source community — a robust network of programmers who work on shared tools for free — in recent memory. It started back in April, when a programmer noticed a strange change to an open-source tool called Minimap. Minimap has had more than 3.5 million downloads, but like many open-source tools, it was maintained by a single person who no one knew much about other than their username: @abe33. At some point, @abe33, whose real name is Cedric Nehemie, was hired by Kite. Kite was started by Adam Smith, a successful tech entrepreneur who raised funding from a slew of big names including the CEO of Dropbox and the creator of WordPress. It is unclear what Kite’s business model is, but it says it uses machine-learning techniques to make coding tools. Its tools are not open source. After being hired by Kite, @abe33 made an update to Minimap. The update was titled “Implement Kite promotion,” and it appeared to look at a user’s code and insert links to related pages on Kite’s website. Kite called this a useful feature. Programmers said it was not useful and was therefore just an ad for an unrelated service, something many programmers would consider a violation of the open-source spirit. “It’s not a feature, it’s advertising — and people don’t want it, you want it,” wrote user @p-e-w. “The least you can do is own up to that.” “I have to wonder if your goal was to upset enough people that you’d generate real attention on various news sites and get Kite a ton of free publicity before your next funding round,” @DevOpsJohn wrote. “That’s the only sane explanation I can find for suddenly dropping ads into the core of one of the oldest and most useful Atom plugins.” […] Although Kite has no business model yet, it’s widely thought in Silicon Valley that having users is the first step toward profitability. Adding users potentially benefits the company in another way, by giving it access to precious data. Kite says it uses machine learning tactics to make the best coding helper tools possible. In order to do that, it needs tons of data to learn from. The more code it can look at, the better its autocomplete suggestions will get, for example.
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