[Linux-aus] Some Anti-Harassment Policies considered harmful

Russell Stuart russell-linuxaus at stuart.id.au
Mon Jan 31 19:14:28 EST 2011

I have been itching to contribute to the discussion on the Mark Pesce
talk, but have resisted doing so because I was a highly visible part of
LCA 2011 team and I didn't want to be seen to speak on behalf of the
conference, nor Linux Australia.  Now that LCA 2011 is safely over I'll
put in my 2c worth.

When I first read the proposed Geek Feminism Anti-Harassment policy I
was two minds about it.  On the one hand it was performing an important
task in keeping the Norin / Florian incident fresh in our minds.
Anything that drove the anti-harassment message out to a wider audience
was a very good thing.  On the other hand, I thought the policy was both
ill-conceived and poorly written.  It reminded me of some of the
similarly ill-conceived and poorly written laws that have followed 9/11.
So when some of my fellow team members proposed LCA 2011 adopt it I
resisted strongly.  I didn't prevail, obviously.

Nonetheless after it was pointed out that Mark talk had violated the
policy, I was one of those saying we must apologise.  We had made a
promise, we had broken it and so an apology was in order.  In fact had
we had our wits about us that morning, there were would have been no
need for an apology.  We had developed internal procedures for enforcing
the policy which naturally flowed from it.  Those procedures said Mark's
talk should have stopped when it became evident it violated the policy.
Given we had adopted the policy, I fully endorsed those procedures and
their implementation.  I don't know why they weren't followed for Mark's
talk.  Perhaps it was because it was at the end of a long week.  But had
it occurred there would no doubt have been a hue and cry that makes the
current one pale into insignificance, and I would found myself in the
unenviable position of having to defend the person who taken an action
that I personal find intensely distasteful.

So what is wrong with the Geek Feminism Anti-Harassment policy?

Firstly it is poorly targeted.  Mark's talk wasn't harassing anybody.
(Well nobody at the conference anyway.  Perhaps some authorities in
Egypt felt harassed by it.)  Nor did it encourage harassment.  (Any
suggestion that someone felt that Mark's presentation gave them
permission to put their hand up someone's skirt, or worse yet encouraged
it, is clearly absurd.)  Yet somehow a talk that didn't harass anybody
got king hit by this policy that supposedly targets only harassment.  At
the very least, it is a glaring bug.

Secondly it gives the more radical attendees a lot of hammers to hit the
conference organisers over the head with.  Get pissed off with someone
and don't want them in the same bar as you?  Claim that are harassing
you by following.  Don't like someone in photocomp doing portrait
studies at rego?  Claim it is "harassing photography" (circular
definition?).  Take offence at a picture?  Claim it is "sexual content".
It's all allowed for under the this particular policy which defines a
grab bag things (10's of them) as harassment.  None are well defined.
For example it is not clear when following becomes harassing, nor when
an image is sexual.  Now that I have organised a conference, I can
authoritatively say handing these ideas out is not necessary as
attendees are perfectly capable of thinking them up on their own.
Worse, you are now lending authority to those claims with your own

Thirdly, from what I could tell Geek Feminism policy wasn't just about
stopping harassment.  It was also about forcing open source conferences
to adopt the Geek Feminist view on what harassment is.  We know this
because LCA 2011 already had a strong anti-harassment policy in its
terms and conditions, inherited from previous LCA's.  It gives us
permission to do what we dammed well please when harassment occurs.
What's more, LCA has a history of using those permissions to throwing
people behaving inappropriately out of the conference.  And as hindsight
now tells us it doesn't contain bug the Geek Feminism one does.  So why
ask LCA 2011 to adopt it?  Well, the only substantial difference between
the documents is the Geek Feminism one spells out what they define as
harassment.  The issue I have with that is the society I happen to live
in already defines that in a way that is seemingly acceptable to the
vast majority of people who live within it.  And obviously it is better
written, as authored by lawyers and whatnot who do it as a day job, and
it is better vetted as it has been through the political treadmill we
subject most of our  Australian laws to.  I am not sure why as a
conference organiser I am asked to use a different definition.

Fourthly, I am fairly certain the Geek Feminism policy is an ice berg.
The bit you were meant to see was the anti-harassment stuff, and it was
noisily pointed to.  The berg underneath was the attempt to control what
could and could not be said at a geek conference - ie censorship.  This
was openly stated to me by some who worked on the policy.  The spin was
"we want to make open source conferences a place where women can feel
comfortable".  The underlying message was they intended to achieve this
by banning words and images they found personally distasteful.  I happen
to be a current member of the EFA (a sister organisation to the EFF) of
some years standing, I took a small role in the EFA's campaign against
Australian internet filter, and so I recognise the arguments in favour
of censorship.  This is one of them.  The motivations for such arguments
are usually good (just as they almost certainly are in this case), the
justifications put forward in support of them are always sound pure, but
as in this case the cure is dangerously simplistic and frankly puerile.

To state the obvious, the conference organises can't protect you from
bad talks.  Since isn't always clear where on the good/bad scale a talk
will finish up until it ends, what hope do the papers committee have
when they look at it 6 months before it starts?  But should you find
yourself listening to a bad talk, there is a simple solution.  It is the
same one all anti-censorship people give.  If you don't like it, stop
listening and leave.    No one is forcing you to be there.  You don't
need the conferences organisers to act as a nanny state for you.  If
enough people do that, you can be reasonably certain the speaker won't
be invited along next year.  If no one else does, then perhaps its you
and not the talk.

Which brings me to my final frustration with this entire saga.  One of
the roles of LCA organisers is to bring popular, enlightening and if we
get very lucky even inspiring talks.  By two measure's Mark Pesce's talk
was one of those.  It received one of the longest, it not the longest
acclamation of any talk at LCA 2011.  And if the chatter on our lists is
any guide, it caused more people to stop, think and act than any other
talk.  And yet we have a small minority of people who evidently take
offence at images and words that would be perfectly acceptable on
Australia broadcast TV, and are now suggesting the vast bulk of the LCA
attendees who enjoyed the talk should not have been allowed to see it
because they object to it.  And they got very close to achieving just

They did so because we adopted the Geek Feminism policy.  The banning of
overwhelmingly popular talks such as this would be positively harmful to
LCA and indeed to any conference that adopts it.  At they very least, I
believe all conference organisers should avoid using it until it gets
substantially re-worked.

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