TL;DR: Lane Raspberry, Andrew Lewman, and I just had a discussion about online harassment and what can be done to combat it. We’ve decided that the Tor Project needs a code of conduct and Wikimedia needs a better one. We also discussed the idea of partnering to contract a third-party organisation to handle harassment complaints. At the moment this would just be to collect data on the problem, but eventually they would act on the complaints as well.
I just finished having a rather productive conversation with Lane Raspberry and Andrew Lewman about online harassment and what Wikimedia and Tor can do about it.
The discussion began with us giving mostly anecdotal tales of harassment we have seen and discussing the general scope of the issue within both communities. Both the Wikimedia community and the Tor community have had a large number of issues in the past. Generally two peoples that we found that were frequently harassed in both of our communities were those within the technical communities and women. Women have long been the target of male harassment online. Many men seem to not understand or not care that what they are doing is harmful. Within the technical community we harassment that stems from the discussion of “religious issues”1 such as choice of security solution or software. Discussion on these issues tend to quickly degrade into harassment and name calling that often out-lasts the original discussions themselves.
We also briefly discussed two specific controversies involving harassment, one within each community. Within the English Wikipedia community there was a controversy that revolved around an editor calling another editor a cunt and then insisting that where he comes from the word is not sexually degrading. Within the Tor community there was a recent incident with a Tor user getting harassed in real live because of her gender and her involvement with Tor. Both of these incidents were extremely disheartening and rather distressing to hear about.
Lane had the idea to try to contract out a third-party organisation to handle harassment complaints. He compared it to how an HR department might handle harassment complaints in a “brick-and-mortar company”. The idea would be that at first they would accept complaints about harassment from Tor users and Wikimedia users. At first they would simply catalog and organise the complaints, but would eventually move into acting on them to try to put a stop to the harassment. We are still in the early stages of discussion of this idea though, so the primary purpose of such an organisation, at least at first, would simply be to collect data. This data would give us an understanding on what the scope and severity of the problem is and allow us to determine how we should allocate resources to combat it.
We are unsure still what forms of harassment are most prevalent in our communities. Clearly there are people who are trolls and there are people whose harassment borders on or is criminal. There is a lot of area between those two extremes as well, and, while it is all problematic, the way that you deal with the trolls is very different than the way you deal with the sustained harassers and stalkers.
We discussed various groups that we might be able to contact about doing this. In specific, we discussed asking the Cyber Rights Initiative or the Ada Initiative to handle the complaints. The Cyber Rights Initiative mostly works to fight against revenge porn and their approach is largely founded in the legal system. The Ada Initiative, while seeming to be a better fit, as they deal with online harassment much more generally, has an already established relationship with Wikimedia that nobody wants to see damaged if this idea doesn’t work out. If the Tor Project goes it alone, they might have some luck in getting the Ada Initiative on-board.
Some numbers were thrown out as to what the Wikimedia Foundation might be willing to contribute financially, but these were just unofficial estimates based on previous projects and the monetary value of lost contributions to harassment, so I won’t go into discussion of them here.
Andrew pointed out that many online communities have a code of conduct. He pointed to Ubuntu, Python, Mozilla, and Apache as having particularly well thought out codes of conduct. The Tor Project currently does not have a code of conduct, and while Wikimedia does have one, it is not as fleshed out as it could be. After a bit of discussion it was resolved that Tor should draft a code of conduct and that the Wikimedia code of conduct should be reviewed. We can use the other codes of conduct that were discussed as starting points for doing this. While I did not bring it up in our discussion, in writing this post, it has occurred to me that this is an area in which asking for help from the Ada Initiative would be useful and likely available.
I think we’ve made a good start. Certainly we didn’t come up with fully fleshed out solutions to the problems at hand, but we only spoke for about an hour and this is a difficult issue to handle. I’m going to bring up the topic on the Tor-talk mailing list and Lane is going to start a discussion on English Wikipedia. I’ll update this post when I have links to both of those discussions. I’m hopeful we might be able to make further progress by including more people in our brainstorming.
1. This was not the term used in our discussions, but I believe that it is one of the more succulent ways to describe these sorts of problems.