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Wednesday, 26 October 2011 09:19

Female FOSS dev quits tech industry due to harassment

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Repeated online harassment, all of it based on her sex, has forced a prominent female open source developer and community organiser to quit the tech industry and also rethink her participation in LCA 2012.

Alex "Skud" Bayley, (until recently known as Kirrily Robert), a resident of Melbourne who was working on Freebase.com, an open data repository acquired by Google in 2010, is scheduled to give a talk on "Saving Australian music, the open source way" at the Australian national Linux conference in Ballarat in January.

Bayley wrote, in a blog entry for the Geek Feminist website, which she founded, that she feared harassment from an individual who goes by the online nomenclature Markus G.

Someone posting under the same moniker had sent an abusive email to a woman at the time when the issue of technologist Mark Pesce's keynote address to the 2011 Linux conference was being discussed; Pesce, as may be recalled, was censured by the conference organisers for the use of images deemed to be sexual in nature, to illustrate his talk.

In the post, Bayley traced her targetting for harassment back to an address to the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in 2009 about the participation of women in FOSS projects. Online, the text of the talk attracted a big audience, and among them were some who were apparently not prepared to let a woman speak her mind.

One of those who has harassed her and a number of other women has been an individual who goes by the moniker MikeeUSA, Bayley wrote. (This individual has also posted to the iTWire forums). A second had been a Wikipedia troll who had found his way to her employer's online database and tried to fill it with rubbish. And a third person kept phoning various people's workplaces and accusing them of being involved in child pornography.

Bayley and another woman were taken to task some time ago by open source luminary Eric Raymond when a complaint by one led to the removal of code belonging to MikeeUSA, whose real name is Mikhail Kvaratskhelia, from SourceForge. The complaint was made by Beth Lyn Eicher, a director of the Ohio LinuxFest. Raymond's intervention led to a decision to host the code on the Geek Feminism website.


Bayley wrote: "I'm fairly conflicted about my choice to quit the tech industry. I don't want to be part of some statistic about retention rates, but on the other hand, I need to do something that feels rewarding and fun, and the work I was doing - which involved lots of speaking at conferences '” wasn't giving me that any more.

"So, here's our situation. We have a man (presumably; at any rate he appears to want to be identified as such) in the Australian Linux community, who targets women by sending them private abusive emails from a throwaway address and with a name that can't readily be connected to any publicly known member of the community. His ISP won't hand out information about him without a court order, his abuse doesn't present the kind of imminent threat to physical safety that might interest law enforcement, and despite Linux Australia's diversity statement and Linux.conf.au's anti-harassment policies, it's not clear that there's any practical thing that either of those groups can do about him."

Asked by iTWire what she thought was the best method to deal with situations such as this and whether a public complaint would be a good idea, Bayley responded, "Thanks but no thanks - I'm not interested in speaking to the media about it at this time."

The co-founders of the Ada Initiative, Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner, were also approached for comment; Aurora replied that the Sydney-based Gardiner would be providing comment on behalf of the project which has been set up to try and boost the participation of women in FOSS projects.

Gardiner responded: "This kind of harassment and bullying is endemic in many circles, including towards women in technical communities, particularly if they complain about community norms.

"Public reporting has a major advantage in exposing the scope of the problem: not only how many people it happens to, but sometimes that there are relatively few perpetrators. In this case, Alex Bayley's (Skud's) reports quickly showed that two incidents of harassment linked to the Linux Australia community have the same perpetrator 'markus g'. Online harassment is an iceberg problem: a great deal of it happens in private communications and is never identified as such.

"However, public reporting may not be the best response in all circumstances: if you report to an entirely unsympathetic community you will simply receive more of the same in response. However in a community whose leadership has taken a stand against harassment like Linux Australia has, it can gain you support and bolster the community's commitment to anti-harassment norms."

Gardiner also pointed to a post she had written on the topic.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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