GitLab pulls U-turn on plan to crank up usage telemetry after both staff and customers cry foul

CEO apologises for ill-considered proposal

GitLab has swiftly backtracked on plans to add telemetry services to track usage of its products.…

GitLab has swiftly backtracked on plans to add telemetry services to track usage of its products.

VP of product Scott Williamson announced on 10 October that “to make GitLab better faster, we need more data on how users are using GitLab”.

GitLab is a web application that runs on Linux, with options for self-hosting or using the company’s cloud service. It is open source, with both free and licensed editions.

Williamson said that while nothing was changing with the free self-hosted Community Edition, the hosted and licensed products would all now “include additional JavaScript snippets (both open source and proprietary) that will interact with both GitLab and possibly third-party SaaS telemetry services (we will be using Pendo)”. The only opt-out was to be support for the Do Not Track browser mechanism.

GitLab customers and even some staff were not pleased. For example, Yorick Peterse, a GitLab staff developer, said telemetry should be opt-in and that the requisite update to the terms of service would break some API usage (because bots do not know how to accept terms of service), adding: “We have plenty of customers who would not be able to use GitLab if it starts tracking data for on-premises installations.”

There is more background in the issue here, which concerns adding the identity of the user to the Snowplow analytics service used by GitLab.

“This effectively changes our Snowplow integration from being an anonymous aggregated thing to a thing that tracks user interaction,” engineering manager Lukas Eipert said back in July. “Ethically, I have problems with this and legally this could have a big impact privacy wise (GDPR). I hereby declare my highest degree of objection to this change that I can humanly express.”

On the other hand, GitLab CFO Paul Machle said: “This should not be an opt in or an opt out. It is a condition of using our product. There is an acceptance of terms and the use of this data should be included in that.”

On 23 October, an email was sent to GitLab customers announcing the changes.

Yesterday, however, CEO Sid Sijbrandij put the plans on hold, saying: “Based on considerable feedback from our customers, users, and the broader community, we reversed course the next day and removed those changes before they went into effect. Further, GitLab will commit to not implementing telemetry in our products that sends usage data to a third-party product analytics service.” Sijbrandij also promised a review of what went wrong. “We will put together a new proposal for improving the user experience and share it for feedback,” he said.

Despite this embarrassing backtrack, the incident has demonstrated that GitLab does indeed have an open process, with more internal discussion on view than would be the case with most companies. Nevertheless, the fact that GitLab came so close to using personally identifiable tracking without specific opt-in has tarnished its efforts to appear more community-driven than alternatives like Microsoft-owned GitHub. ®

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