Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce Call for code of conduct at FOSS conferences

Call for code of conduct at FOSS conferences

A GNU/Linux developer and consultant has called for the adoption of a code of conduct at open source conferences in order to avoid the harassment of women.

Valerie Aurora (formerly Henson), who made the suggestion in an article for the Linux Weekly News (LWN), an online technical publication run by kernel developer Jonathan Corbet, said such a code would also help to avoid harassment of people for reasons other than their sex.

(The article is subscriber-only content until December 9 but Corbet was agreeable to posting a free link to it.)

Aurora, who is also a writer and feminist, said she had made the suggestion because of the constant harassment that women had to put up with at open source conferences.

Her appeal comes close on the heels of the alleged sexual assault of Noirin Shirley, an executive vice-president of the Apache Software Foundation, at the ApacheCon conference last month. Shirley named her alleged harasser in an online posting and has registered a complaint with the Atlanta police.

Aurora has compiled a list of incidents of harassment, spanning the tech industry, FOSS, science fiction fandom, and comic book fandom, among others.

She wrote that despite the belief that open source was inherently progressive, this was definitely not the case where the treatment of women was concerned. She had stopped attending the Ottawa Linux Symposium because of the constant sexist behaviour, she added.

Aurora interviewed nine women, who are all closely involved with the open source community, for her article and said that of them, eight who had served as conference organisers had all come across at least one incident of harassment each.

Towards making such conferences incident-free, Aurora has drafted a generic code of conduct which she says could be adapted as needed. The Open Source Developers' Conference, held in Brisbane recently, adopted a code of conduct based on her draft.

LWN normally focuses only on technical things; there was no comment on the site last year when two of the most polarising issues of recent times, the keynotes given by Richard Stallman at the GNOME conference and Mark Shuttleworth at LinuxCon in Portland, Oregon, led to accusations of sexist utterances,

And when I asked Corbet during the 2009 Australian national Linux conference in Hobart why he had chosen not to write anything about the controversy which erupted in 2008 when Debian developer Josselin Mouette was accused of making sexist remarks on a mailing list, Corbet told me that LWN was concerned with technical things.

Hence, I asked Corbet why he had run Aurora's article. "I honestly don't remember that conversation," he said referring to the 2009 conversation with me. "I'm not saying it didn't happen - I just don't remember it.

"LWN is primarily technical, but we are definitely interested in all aspects of the free software ecosystem, project governance, etc. So I don't think that the article (by Aurora) is out of character for LWN at all."

In support of his contention, he provided the URLs for three articles - one in 2006, one in 2007, and a third this year - all concerned with the subject of women's participation in the FOSS community.

"It's an important issue, we were able to get some authoritative voices to talk about it, we ran the article," Corbet said.

"As we have said many times, our community is not so rich that we can afford to force talented people out of it - even if we could otherwise convince ourselves that it was an acceptable thing to do. If LWN can help to make things better, that is what we want to do."

As far as Australia is concerned, the LCA in Wellington last year was the first to adopt a lengthy code of conduct, probably as a result of the Stallman and Shuttleworth incidents. But harassment is as much defined by who is doing the harassing and who is being harassed as I discovered when I filed a complaint. Circling the wagons to protect people is common everywhere and hypocrisy abounds.

Hence, whether the adoption of a code will do any good is really up in the air. In the same manner than one cannot legislate for everything, a set of rules will do no good - unless they are enforced without fear or favour.

Asked for his opinion, senior Debian developer Russell Coker said it would probably be a good idea to keep the alcohol level low at official functions held at these conferences.

He cited the case of the LCA in 2007 where some delegates were excluded from the conference after being accused of unseemly behaviour at a function.

"The whole environment at that event wasn't particularly good; get a huge number of people in a dark environment with a drinking contest (there was an active contest to get the total spend for drinks as high as possible) and you can predict certain types of results," he said.

"This was one of several conferences I attended with a similar amount of free alcohol on offer and a similar result. While some of the bad behaviour at LCA was planned while sober it seems that some wouldn't have happened in a different environment. Not that I don't think anyone deserves criticism for doing what everyone used to do in terms of boozy conferences; it is something that can be improved in future.

"Generally if you want a civilised environment then the first thing you should do is to start by not having excessive quantities of alcohol or other mind-altering substances.

"Events where there are 2-3 free drinks per person tend to work well (even though a small minority of people get unused drink vouchers from other people). Events where most people drink excessively tend not to work well."

Russell said he had no objection to delegates going to bars and doing whatever they wanted. "What I specifically object to is conferences having official events that delegates will feel compelled to attend where excessive amounts of alcohol will be provided for free such that great drunkenness will occur.

"An event where there are two bottles of wine provided per table of ~10 or a few free drinks per person won't be a problem."




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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.