Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce Ada Initiative 'threat' gets talk at tech conference cancelled

Ada Initiative 'threat' gets talk at tech conference cancelled

A non-profit organisation that aims to increase the participation of women in free and open source software and culture appears to have used threats to get a presentation at a technical conference, with which it did not agree, cancelled.

Ada Initiative executive director, Valerie Aurora, was the person involved in getting the talk cancelled, according to accounts of the incident by the presenter, the Ada Initiative and the organiser, Ian Fung. The Ada Initiative also issued a "clarification" to its post.

That the organiser was muscled into the cancellation is clear from his comment: "We do not agree with the Ada Initiative's belief that the discussion of sex at tech conferences is harmful to women."

The talk in question was scheduled to be given at the Security BSides conference in San Francisco last month. The presenter was well-known speaker Violet Blue and the talk was titled "sex +/- drugs: known vulns and exploits".

According to Blue, while it had been decided that she would make a presentation at the conference, the subject had been up in the air. She finally decided to give the same talk she had given at the Security BSides conference in Las Vegas last year.

The synopsis of the talk runs thus: "What drugs do to sexual performance, physiological reaction and pleasure is rarely discussed in - or out of - clinical or academic settings. Yet most people have sex under the influence of something (or many somethings) at some point in their lives.

"In this underground talk, Violet Blue shares what sex-positive doctors, nurses, MFT's, clinic workers and crisis counselors have learned and compiled about the interactions of drugs and sex from over three decades of unofficial curriculum for use in peer-to-peer (and emergency) counseling. Whether you’re curious about the effects of caffeine or street drugs on sex, or are the kind of person that keeps your fuzzy handcuffs next to a copy of The Pocket Pharmacopeia, this overview will help you engineer your sex life in our chemical soaked world. Or, it'll at least give you great party conversation fodder."

According to Blue, "The talk is structured with harm reduction methodology, the act of giving the talk is an act of harm reduction for the community, and also gives me another opportunity to tell the hacking/security communities about what harm reduction is.

"I have presented talks about sexuality at tech conferences all over the world, and I make it clear each time that my talks are not technical and that they are about issues that affect the culture to which I am presenting."

Blue says she arrived at the venue 30 minutes before schedule. She was then asked "is there any rape in your talk?" by organiser Fung.

He then told her that there had been a complaint about the talk from someone who is a rape survivor "and they said they will be triggered by your talk if there's any rape in it".

When Blue said that her talk did cover "date rape" drugs, the organiser asked if methods of use of such drugs were mentioned, adding: "They said that if you are going to tell people how to use date rape drugs then it's the same as rape, and there’s going to be a problem."

Blue then offered to shift her talk, but Fung told her, "No, they’re (the people agitating against the talk) here and they’re not leaving. They told me they’ll make it into a bigger problem if you do your talk."

She later found out that she had been targeted by the Ada Initiative.

Aurora was present at the conference and noticed the title of the talk. She then emailed the co-founder of the conference, claiming that the talk would be unwelcoming to women.

As a result, the organiser, Fung, was copied in on the reply from the co-founder to Aurora and asked for more information. Following this, Fung spoke to Blue with the result that has been detailed above.

The Ada Initiative denies that any threats were used. "Several people have suggested that the Ada Initiative threatened or coerced the BSides SF organizers (sic) into cancelling this talk. To the contrary, in their discussions Valerie emphasized (sic) repeatedly that the Ada Initiative would not retaliate against and was not threatening BSides SF. It is true that warning people of a potential bad effect of their actions is a common method of threatening people; that's one reason why we wait for conference organizers to contact us first. If someone requests our opinion, as BSides SF did in this case, then it is more difficult to mistake sharing our expertise as threats."

The fact is that, going by the two Ada Initiative accounts, BSides only asked Aurora for any input after she had emailed the organiser to lobby against the talk. Thus, the Ada Initiative's account does not seem to be strictly accurate.

This is borne out by comments from the organiser, Fung.

He has contradicted some of the Ada Initiative's claims, saying that "Valerie starts her recollection of the events by say the BSides SF organizer (sic) requested the Ada Initiative's advice on the talk. While this is true... it implies I had originally reached out to her on my own. The omitted information that I feel is pertinent here is that Valerie had sent complaints to co-founders of Security BSides and organizers (sic) of various BSides events saying "This is total bullshit even if it somehow ends up giving an anti-rape, pro-consent message. Framing a talk about sex in the vocabulary of computer security does not magically make it on-topic, and it definitely doesn't stop it from being a giant 'You are not welcome or even safe' sign for women."

Fung adds: "I then replied saying that 'I would love to talk to you about this. As I am obviously not a woman, I am lacking a female's perspective on this. It would be really appreciated if you could let me know your thoughts. I am not sure about the exact contents of Violet's talk, but if the past is any indication, it should not alienate women'."

Additionally, Fung writes: "Valerie (in the Ada Initiative account) said "At this point, Ian told Valerie that he would cancel the talk if it included discussion of rape, but not otherwise." From my recollection, I told Valerie that I would cancel the talk if it taught people how to date rape someone."

And finally, Fung says that another incorrect thing in the Ada Initiative account is that "Valerie said 'Ian returned a few minutes later and told Valerie that the talk did include discussion of rape, and that Violet Blue had agreed to cancel it.' I had returned to tell Valerie that the talk included "discussion of date rape drugs" (not rape), but we're going to cancel it anyway. I did not mention Violet's response or reaction to the situation."

Fung has not disagreed with anything from Blue's account which has been cited in this story. He has disagreed with a couple of conclusions which Blue reached based on her talks with him.

iTWire contacted the Ada Initiative for any further comment but the organisation has not responded.


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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.