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Monday, 10 June 2013 13:18

Money makes the mare — and the Ada Initiative — go

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A non-profit organisation that aims to increase the participation of women in free and open source software and culture is using coverage of a rather dubious sort to solicit donations from the public.

The Ada Initiative's executive director, Valerie Aurora, quietly took representatives of the American magazine Marie Claire to the BSides SF security conference in San Francisco in February, after she had bullied the organisers into dropping a talk from the conference schedule. (Organiser Ian Fung's account of the incident is here.)

Aurora wanted the talk dropped because, according to the policy of her organisation, it was not suitable for a security conference at which women would be present. She had been in touch with Security BSides Global — the umbrella body for BSides conferences — to try and get them to adopt a code of conduct based on the Ada Initiative's restrictive code which it has got several other conference organisers to adopt.

But the BSides organisers — who leave decisions on individual conferences to the organisers on-site — had not agreed to anything at the point when Aurora raised the issue with them.

While Marie Claire describes Aurora as having "coaxed" the organisers of the San Francisco conference to drop the talk in question, Aurora's language does not exactly fit in with this description.

"This is total bullshit even if it somehow ends up giving an anti-rape, pro-consent message," Aurora wrote to the BSides people about the talk she wanted pulled. "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"."

The Ada Initiative, through articles [ 1, 2 ] on its website, has indulged in falsehood about how it came to demand the cancellation of the talk, indicating that the organisers sought guidance about it. Published correspondence makes it abundantly clear that it was Aurora who went on the front foot and pushed for the cancellation.

The title of the talk, to be given by well-known sex educator Violet Blue was "sex +/- drugs: known vulns and exploits". Marie Claire could not get this right; the title, according to them' was "Sex Drugs: Known Vulns and Exploits".

Marie Claire clubbed this instance of a bid to impose censorship with instances where women were actually harassed at tech events in an article about sexual harassment in the technology industry. It tends to diminish the seriousness of actual incidents of harassment.

The magazine did not bother to contact Blue for her take on the incident. iTWire wrote to Marie Claire's Lizzy Oppenheimer, one of two staffers who was taken to the BSides SF conference by Aurora, for clarification. She has not responded.

When iTWire contacted Blue, she was clearly annoyed. "They lied about the name of my talk too – to make it look rapey. How could they not fact check that? They were *there*," she replied. "They really f***ed over the hacker communities with this." (Blue's account of the incident is here.)

Blue added: "I did read the piece. It is absolutely not an accurate or fair representation of what happened, or what happens at security and hacker conferences. Fact checkers would not have allowed that piece to pass go if they had done any due diligence.

"Additionally, the article was a publicity stunt planned by Ada Initiative long in advance, with my talk as a (now-completely-misrepresented) target, with evidence coming online only after the fact. Also, emails have been published showing that Ada Initiative contacted the conference first, saying that allowing me to speak was 'bullshit' and threatened the conference with repercussions if the conference did not pull my talk.

"Ada Initiative did not know the content of my talk, and still do not as the talk is not public anywhere (despite that I had presented the same talk at the BSides conference in the past). Ada Initiative insisted from start to finish of the Marie Claire stunt — planning weeks before to the day my talk was pulled — that Ada Initiative would not speak to me. Valerie Aurora specifically told the BSides organiser my talk would not be allowed to happen because there was a rape survivor in the nightclub, one who wanted to remain anonymous. This was essentially a lie.

"My talk is a harm reduction talk that explains the concept of informed consent, and goes in detail about the effects of drugs on the human body when combined with sex – and how to avoid unsafe scenarios. Aside from BSides SF and its 2012 attendees in Las Vegas, and my co-counselors, fellow healthcare workers and co-teachers who worked on the talk, you are the only person who knows what my talk is about."

In the past, iTWire has always contacted the Ada Initiative for comment. But the organisation never responds, so this time I did not bother.

The Ada Initiative's response to the Marie Claire article has been in keeping with its misrepresentation about the cancellation of the talk. "Welcome, Marie Claire readers! Thank you for caring about the serious issue of harassment of women in technology. You can join the cause by donating to the Ada Initiative today," reads a blurb on the front of its website.

In a blog post, there are a number of laudatory things mentioned about the article. No mention of the dissembling that has gone on about the talk and its cancellation.

It looks like any tactic which works will be used by the Ada Initiative to raise money. Despite promises to provide information about how the money it raises was being used, the Ada Initiative has said nothing on this front so far. In the first nine months of 2011 (corrected), a little over $US130,000 was raised.


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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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