Bruce Byfield would like to hear from you about current Codes of Conduct and anti-harassment policies at FOSS conferences.
With the spread of the covid-19 virus, the chances of a FOSS conference in the next few months seem remote. However, hearing my editor Christine Hall complain of a rant against against anti-harassment policies made me wonder if these policies are effective when FOSS advocates get together.
Anti-harassment policies in the FOSS world had two causes. First, at Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth and community manager Benjamin Mako Hill implemented a Code of Conduct in 2004, which was later encouraged by Hill’s successor Jono Bacon. Similar codes were implemented elsewhere that were chiefly concerned with how volunteers could work more efficiently together. Although these early codes were not specifically designed to reduce harassment, their purposes overlapped such concerns, doubtlessly creating an atmosphere in which more specific codes would be welcomed.
The more direct cause was Noirin Shirley’s allegations of harassment at ApacheCon in November 2010. As a result of Shirley’s experience, the Geek Feminism community started to push for the adoption of anti-harassment policies in FOSS projects and conferences, producing templates to make their use easier. A typical policy would begin with a general statement, with options in square brackets:
$CONFERENCE is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone [, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, age or religion [insert any other specific concerns here]]. We do not tolerate harassment of conference participants in any form. [Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.] Conference participants violating these rules may be sanctioned or expelled from the conference [without a refund] at the discretion of the conference organizers. Our anti-harassment policy can be found at:
[URL for full anti-harassment policy]
A full template would go on to talk about the types of unacceptable behavior, how the policy was enforced, and how to report an incident publicly or anonymously.
In many circles, including The Ada Initiative, such policies quickly became a priority. The rationale seems to have been that, after succeeding in such a relatively minor issue, feminists could eventually move on to other issues. However, in practice, by the time policies had become routinely accepted around 2015, Geek Feminism was less active, and those other issues were never addressed.
All the same, the success was enough to make extreme conservatives nervous. Eric S. Raymond, for instance, claimed that such efforts were part of a conspiracy of woman to seduce male leaders in FOSS, then accuse them of sexual harassment and replace them. However, in the unlikely event that such a conspiracy ever existed, it was obviously inept and the claim can be safely ignored.
Such paranoia aside, how were anti-harassment policies received?
The majority of projects and conferences quickly adopted them. No doubt virtue-signalling was a factor, as well as a wish to avoid legal complications. However, enough instances of sexism and harassment had surfaced that many saw a need to do something.
In addition to merely having a policy, organizations soon learned that showing the willingness to act when a policy was violated was as important as the policy itself. The conventional wisdom was that a policy would prevent violations, and signal to women in particular that the project or conference was a place where they could feel safe.
Soon after such policies became common, I recall several women in FOSS making decisions about attending conferences or contributing to projects according to the policies each organization adopted. In this sense, policies did seem to work as intended, at least in the short run.
By contrast, doubters pointed out that similar policies had been implemented around the turn of the millenium and were soon forgotten. It was also pointed out that abusers did not expect to get caught and would not take a policy seriously. Like security precautions at the airport, a policy might prove to be nothing more than security theater. In other words, they would give the illusion of safety, while providing none.
However, anti-harassment policies have been in place now for almost ten years. During that time I have attended few conferences and haven’t contributed to non-personal projects or helped to run a conference. I have a vague sense that everybody except conspiracy theorists accepts policies as the norm, but I have no idea how they are regarded. For that reason, I would be interested in hearing from anyone with first hand experience.
Among my questions are:
Do projects and conferences have a healthier atmosphere thanks to anti-harassment policies? Have people been warned about their behavior, or ejected from conferences for their conduct? Are the policies enforced, or an empty threat? Overall, how effective have policies been? Is their enforcement still a major concern for project leaders and conference organizers, or have they become a footnote in the history of FOSS?
Also, while we are investigating, does the rise of video conferences in the Age of the Virus require modifications to existing policies? What are the challenges of video conferences in the effort to combat harassment? I have no immediate answers, which is why I am asking.
Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I receive enough comments, I will summarize what I’ve heard in an upcoming article, with anonymity for those who request it.
Bruce Byfield has been involved in FOSS since 1999. He has published over
2000 articles, and is the writer of “Designing with LibreOffice,” which
is available as a free download at