Abusing Contributors is not OK

As reported in Ars Technica, the ongoing efforts to promote diversity in open source communities came up once more during the plenary Q&A session with Linus Torvalds, Andrew Tridgell, Bdale Garbee and Rusty Russell.

I was there for that session, and found that Linus's response appeared to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the motives of many of the folks pushing for increased diversity in the open source community, as well as a lack of awareness of the terrible situations that can arise when leaders in a community regularly demonstrate abusive behaviour without suffering any significant consequences (just ask folks like Kathy Sierra, Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu that have been subjected to sustained campaigns of harassment largely for being women that dared to have and express an opinion on the internet).

As the coordinator of the Python Software Foundation's contribution to the 2015 financial assistance program, and as someone with a deep personal interest in the overall success of the open source community, I feel it is important for me to state explicitly that I consider Linus's level of ignorance around appropriate standards of community conduct to be unacceptable in an open source community leader in 2015.

Linus's defence of his abusive behaviour is that he's "not nice", and "doesn't care about you". He does care deeply about his project, though, and claims to be motivated primarily by wanting that to continue to be successful.

To be completely honest, the momentum behind the Linux juggernaut is now large enough that Linus could likely decide to chuck it all in and spend the rest of his life on a beach sipping cocktails without worrying about open source politics, and people would figure out a way to ensure that Linux continued to thrive and grow without him. Many a successful start-up has made that transition when the founders leave, and there's no good reason to believe an open source community would be fundamentally different in that regard. The transition to a new leadership structure might be a little messy, but the community would almost certainly figure it out.

However, there's still a lot of scope for Linus to influence how fast Linux grows, and on that front his words and actions suggest that he considers being careless in his speech, without regard for the collateral damage his verbal broadsides may be doing to his cause, more important than having the most positive impact he is capable of having on the future growth of the Linux kernel development project and the open source community at large.

It's not (necessarily) about being nice

It may surprise some folks to learn that I don't consider myself a nice human either. My temper is formidable (I just keep it under control most of the time, a task online communication makes easier by providing the ability to walk away from the computer for a while), and any feelings of compassion I have for others are more a product of years of deliberate practice and hanging around with compassionate people than they are any particularly strong innate knack for empathy.

I'm pretty sure that genuinely nice people do exist, and I assume that one of their key motives for creating open, welcoming, inclusive communities is because it's fundamentally the right thing to do. The main reason I exclude myself from my assumed category of "nice people" is that, while I acknowledge that motivation intellectually, it's not really one that I feel viscerally.

Instead, what I do care about, passionately, is helping the best ideas win (where I include "feasible" as part of my definition of "best"). Not the "best ideas from people willing to tolerate extensive personal abuse". The best ideas anyone is willing to share with me, period. And I won't hear those ideas unless I help create environments where all participants are willing to speak up, not just those that are prepared to accept a blistering verbal barrage from a powerful authority figure as a possible consequence of attempting to participate. Those are upsetting enough when they come from random strangers on the internet, when they come from someone with enormous influence not only over you and your future career, but also your entire industry, they can be devastating.

The second order consequences

So there you have it, my not-nice reason for advocating for more welcoming and inclusive open source communities: because, from an engineering standpoint, I consider "has a high level of tolerance for receiving personal abuse from community leaders" to be an extraordinarily stupid filter to apply to your pool of potential contributors.

Exhibiting abusive behaviour as a leader has additional consequences though, and they can be even more problematic: by regularly demonstrating abusive behaviour yourself, you end up normalising harassment within your community in general, both in public and in private.

I believe Linus when he says he doesn't care about who people are or where they're from, only their contributions. I'm the same way - until I've known them for a while, I tend to care about contributors and potential contributors wholesale (i.e. happy people that enjoy the environment they're participating in tend to spend more time engaged, learn faster, produce superior contributions, and more quickly reach the point of being able to contribute independently), rather than retail (i.e. I care about my friends because they're my friends, regardless of context).

But when you're personally abusive as a leader, you also have to take a high level of responsibility for all the folks that look up to you as a role model, and act out the same behaviours you exhibit in public. When you reach this point, the preconditions for participation in your community now include:

  • Willing to tolerate public personal abuse from project leaders
  • Willing to tolerate public personal abuse from the community at large
  • Willing to tolerate personal abuse in private

With clauses like that as part of the definition, the claim of "meritocracy" starts to feel a little shaky, doesn't it? Meritocracy is a fine ideal to strive for, but claiming to have achieved it when you're imposing irrelevant requirements like this is arrogant nonsense.

We're not done yet, though, as this culture of abuse then combines with elitism based on previously acquired knowledge to make it normal to abuse newcomers for still being in the process of learning. I find it hard to conceive of a more effective approach to keeping people from adopting something you're giving away for free than tolerating a community that publicly abuses people for not magically already knowing how to use technology that they may have never even heard of before.

As a result of this perspective, the only time I'll endeavour to eject anyone from a community where I have significant influence is when they're actively creating an unpleasant environment for other participants, and demonstrate no remorse whatsoever regarding the negative impact their actions are having on the overall collaborative effort. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have only had to do this a few times in my life so far, but it's something I believe in strongly enough for it to have been the basis for once deciding to resign from a position paying a six-figure salary at a company I otherwise loved working for. To that company's credit, the abusive leader was let go not long afterwards, but the whole secretive corporate system is rigged such that these toxic "leaders" can usually quickly find new positions elsewhere and hence new subordinates to make miserable - the fact that I'm not willing to name names here for fear of the professional consequences is just one more example of how the system is largely set up to protect abusive leaders rather than holding them to account for the impact their actions have on others.

Ideas and code are still fair game

One of the spurious fears raised against the apparently radical notion of refusing to tolerate personal abuse in a collaborative environment is that adopting civil communication practices somehow means that bad code must then be accepted into the project.

Eliminating personal abuse doesn't mean eliminating rigorous critique of code and ideas. It just means making sure that you are critiquing the code and the ideas, rather than tearing down the person contributing them. It's the difference between "This code isn't any good, here are the problems with it, I'm confident you can do better on your next attempt" (last part optional but usually beneficial when it comes to growing your contributor community) and "This code is terrible, how dare you befoul my presence with it, begone from my sight, worm!".

The latter response may be a funny joke if done in private between close friends, but when it's done in public, in front of a large number of onlookers who don't know either the sender or the recipient personally, it sets an astoundingly bad example as to what a mutually beneficial collaborative peer relationship should look like.

And if you don't have the self-discipline needed to cope with the changing context of our online interactions in the open source community? Well, perhaps you don't yet have the temperament needed to be an open source leader on an internet that is no longer the sole preserve of those of us that are more interested in computers than we are in people. Most of the technical and business press have yet to figure out that they can actually do a bit of investigative journalism to see how well vendor rhetoric aligns with upstream open source engineering activity (frequency of publication is still a far more important performance metric for most journalists than questioning the spin served up in corporate press releases), so the number of folks peering into the open source development fishbowl is only going to grow over time.

It isn't that hard to learn the necessary self-control, though. It's mostly just a matter of taking the time to read each email or code review comment, look for the parts that are about the contributor rather than the code or the design, and remove them before hitting send. And if that means there's nothing left? Then what you were about to send was pure noise, adding nothing useful to the conversation, and hence best left unsent. Doing anything less than this as a community leader is pure self-indulgence, putting your own unwillingness to consider the consequences of your communications ahead of the long term interests of your project. We're only talking about software here, after all - lives aren't on the line when we're deciding how to respond to a particular contribution, so we can afford to take a few moments to review the messages we're about to send and consider how they're likely to be perceived, both by the recipient, and by everyone else observing the exchange.

With any personal abuse removed, you can be as ruthless about critiquing the code and design as you like. Learning not to take critiques of your work personally is a necessary skill to acquire if your ambition is to become a high profile open source developer - the compromises often necessary in the real world of software design and development mean that you will end up shipping things that can legitimately be described as terrible, and you're going to have to learn to be able to say "Yes, I know it's terrible, for reasons X, Y, and Z, and I decided to publish it anyway. If you don't like it, don't use it.". (I highly recommend giving talks about these areas you know are terrible - they're fun to prepare, fun to give, and it's quite entertaining seeing the horrified reactions when people realise I'm not kidding when I say all software is terrible and computers don't actually work, they just fake it fairly well through an ongoing series of horrible hacks built atop other horrible hacks. I'm not surprised the Internet breaks sometimes - given the decades of accumulated legacy hardware and software we're building on and working around, it's thoroughly astonishing that anything technology related ever works at all)

But no matter how harsh your technical critiques get, never forget that there's at least one other human on the far end of that code review or email thread. Even if you don't personally care about them, do you really think it's a good idea to go through life providing large numbers of people with public evidence of why you are a thoroughly unpleasant person to be forced to deal with? As a project leader, do you really think you're going to attract the best and brightest people, who are often free to spend their time and energy however they like, if you set up a sign saying "You must be willing to tolerate extensive personal abuse in order to participate here"?

What can we do about it?

First, and foremost, for those of us that are paid open source community leaders, we can recognise that understanding and motivating our contributors and potential contributors in order to grow our communities is part of our job. If we don't like that, if we'd prefer to be able to "just focus on the code", to the degree where we're not willing to learn how to moderate our own behaviour in accordance with our level of responsibility, then we need to figure out how to reorganise things such that there's someone with better people management and communication skills in a position to act as a buffer between us and our respective communities.

If we instead decide we need to better educate ourselves, then there are plenty of resources available for us to do so. For folks just beginning to explore questions of systemic bias and defaulting to exclusivity, gender-based bias is a good one to start with, by perusing resources like the Feminism 101 section on the Geek Feminism wiki, or (if we have the opportunity) attending an Ada Initiative Ally Skills workshop.

And if we do acknowledge the importance of this work, then we can use our influence to help it continue, whether that's by sponsoring educational workshops, supporting financial assistance programs, ensuring suitable codes of conduct are in place for our events and online communities, supporting programs like the GNOME Outreach Program for Women, or organisations like the Ada Initiative, and so on, and so forth.

For those of us that aren't community leaders, then one of the most effective things we can do is vote with our feet: at last count, there are over a million open source projects in existence, many of them are run in such a way that participating in them is almost always a sheer pleasure, and if no existing community grabs your interest, you always have the option of starting your own.

Personal enjoyment is only one reason for participating in open source though, and professional obligations or personal needs may bring us into contact with project leaders and contributors that currently consider personal abuse to be an acceptable way of interacting with their peers in a collaborative context. If leaving isn't a viable option, then what can we do?

Firstly, the options I suggest above for community leaders are actually good options for any participants in the open source community that view the overall growth and success of the free and open source software ethos as being more important than any one individual's personal pride or reluctance to educate themselves about issues that don't affect them personally.

Secondly, we can hold our leaders to account. When community leaders give presentations at community events, especially when presenting on community management topics, feel free to ask the following questions (or variations on these themes):

  • Are we as community leaders aware of the impact current and historical structural inequalities have on the demographics of our community?
  • What have we done recently as individuals to improve our understanding of these issues and their consequences?
  • What have we done recently as community leaders to attempt to counter the systemic biases adversely affecting the demographics of our communities?

These are questions that open source community leaders should be able to answer. When we can't, I guess the silver lining is that it means we have plenty of scope to get better at what we do. For members of vulnerable groups, an inability for leaders to answer these questions is also a strong sign as to which communities may not yet be able to provide safe spaces for you to participate without experiencing harassment over your identity rather than being critiqued solely based on the quality of your work.

If you ask these questions, you will get people complaining about bringing politics into a technical environment. The folks complaining are simply wrong, as the single most important factor driving the quality of our technology is the quality of our thinking. Assuming we have attained meritocracy (aka "the most effective collaborative environment possible") is sheer foolishness, when a wide array of systemic biases remain in place that work to reduce the depth, breadth, and hence quality, of our collective thinking.

Update 22 Jan, 2015: Minor typo and grammar fixes

Update 19 Apr, 2016: This article is also available in Russian, thanks to Everycloud technologies

DTCA Public Consultation - Brisbane

Over the weekend, Asher Wolf alerted me (and many others in the open source and cryptographic communities) to the Australian Defence Trade Controls Act 2012, and the current public consultation taking place around a bill proposing amendments to that act.

Being heavily involved in improving the security of open source infrastructure like the Python Package Index and the Python 2 reference interpreter, working at a multinational open source vendor, and having an extensive background in working under the constraints of the US International Traffic in Arms regulations, Asher's concern caught my attention, since bad legislation in this area can have significant chilling effects on legitimate research and development activities.

As a result, I've escalated this legislation for review by the legal teams at various open source companies and organisations, with a view to making formal submissions to the public consultation process that is open until January 30th (ready for bills to be submitted for consideration to federal parliament on February 23rd).

However, I was also able to attend the first public consultation session held at the University of Queensland on January 19, so these are my impressions based primarily on that sessions and my own experiences dealing with ITAR. I'm not a lawyer and I haven't actually read the legislation, so I'm not going to pick up on any drafting errors, but I can at least speak to the intent of the folks involved in moving this process forward.

What not to worry about

To folks encountering this kind of legislation for the first time, the sheer scope of the Defence and Strategic Goods List can seem absolutely terrifying. This was very clear to me from some of the questions various academics in the room were asking.

On this particular point, I can only say: "Don't panic". This isn't a unique-to-Australia list, it's backed by a treaty called the Wassenaar Arrangement - the DSGL represents part of the implementation of that arrangement into Australian law.

When the laws implementing that arrangement are well drafted, everyone outside the military industrial complex (and certain easily weaponised areas of scientific research) can pretty much ignore them, while everyone inside the military industrial complex (and the affected areas of research) pays very close attention to them because we like not being in jail (and because gunrunning is bad, and bioterrorism is worse, mmm'kay?).

A heavily regulated military supply chain is already scary enough, we really don't want to see the likely consequences of an unregulated one. (And if you're tempted to make a snarky comment about the latter already being the case, no, it really isn't. While folks can sometimes use overclassification to avoid regulations they're supposed to be following, that still introduces significant friction and inefficiencies into whatever they're doing. It's not as good as people actually respecting the laws of the countries they're supposedly defending, including genuinely meeting the requirement for civilian authority over the military, but it's still a hell of a lot better than nothing).

Getting back on topic, the US ITAR and crypto export control laws are currently considered the most strict implementation of the Wassenaar Arrangement amongst the participating nations (going beyond the requirements of the treaty in several areas), so if you see plenty of US nationals participating in an activity without being fined and going to jail, you can be fairly confident that it isn't actually a controlled activity under the DSGL (or, even if it is, permits for that specific activity will be fairly easy to get, and the most likely consequence of not realising you need a permit for something you're doing will be someone from your government getting in touch to point out that you should apply for one).

There are certainly some very questionable aspects of this list (with the perennial "favourite" being the fact the Wassenaar Arrangement does, in fact, attempt to regulate the global trade in mathematics, which is just as stupid and problematic as it sounds), but it's a known quantity, and one we're pretty sure we can continue to live with (at least for the time being).

What to worry about

The real problem here is that the regulations included in the 2012 Act are not well drafted, and the legislated 2 year transition period from May 2013 through to May 2015 prior to the enforcement provisions kicking in is about to run out.

The biggest problem with the 2012 act is that in trying to keep things simple (essentially, "if its on the DSGL, you need a permit"), it ended up becoming extraordinarily draconian, requiring a permit for things that don't require an export license even under ITAR.

For the general public, the most significant shift in the 2015 amendment bill is the fact that several cases around open publication of information related to dual-use technologies shift to being allowed by default, and only in exceptional cases would a permit be required (and in those cases, the onus would be on the government to inform the covered individuals of that requirement).

The amendments also include a variety of additional exemptions for little things like making it legal for Australian's own police and security agencies to collaborate with their international counterparts. (Snarky comment opportunity #2: in certain areas, making such collaboration illegal seems like a potentially attractive idea...)

That 2 year pilot was included in the original legislation as a safety mechanism, the feedback from the associated steering group has been extensive, and if things had gone according to plan, the relevant amendments to the bill would have been passed last year in the spring sitting of federal parliament, leaving DECO with at least 6 months to educate affected organisations and individuals, and start issuing the now necessary permits before the enforcement provisions became active in May. Unfortunately, we currently have a federal government that views pushing a particular ideological agenda as being more important than actually doing their job, so we're now faced with the prospect of regulations that industry doesn't want, academia doesn't want, the Australian public service don't want, and the Australian military don't want, coming into effect anyway.

Isn't politics fun?

What DECO are (trying) to do about it

The group tasked with untangling this particular legislative Charlie Foxtrot is the Australian Defence Export Control Office (DECO). Their proposal for addressing the situation hinges on two bills that they plan to put before the next sitting of federal parliament:

  • an amendment bill for the Act itself, which fixes it to be a conventional implementation of the Wassenaar Arrangement, in line with existing implementations in other Wassenaar nations (why we didn't just do that in the first place is beyond me, but at least DECO are trying to fix the mistake now)
  • a second bill to delay the enactment of the enforcement provisions for a further six months to provide sufficient time for DECO to properly educate affected parties and start issuing permits

As far as I am aware, the second bill is needed primarily due to the consideration of the first bill slipping by six months, since we're now looking at the prospect of only having 4 weeks for DECO to start issuing permits before the enforcement provisions come into effect. Nobody involved thinks that's a good idea.

If both of those bills pass promptly, then the only cause for concern is whether or not there are any remaining devils in the details of the legislation itself. Member of the general public aren't going to be able to pick those up - despite the surface similarities, legalese isn't English, and reading it without interpreting it in the context of relevant case law can be a good way to get yourself into trouble. Summary translations from legalese to English by a competent lawyer are a much safer bet, although still not perfect. (For the programmers reading this: I personally find it useful to think of legalese as source code that runs on the language interpreter of a given nation's legal system, while the English translations are the code comments and documentation that anyone should be able to read if they understand the general concepts involved).

If at least the second bill passes, then we have another 6 months to work on a better resolution to the problem.

If neither bill passes, then DECO end up in a bad situation where they'll be required by law to implement and enforce regulations that they're convinced are a bad idea. They actually have everything in place to do that if they have to, but they don't want this outcome, and neither does anyone else.

What industry and academia can do about it

While it's very short notice, the main thing industry and academia can do is to file formal submissions with DECO as described in their overview of the public consultation process.

There are three main things to be addressed on that front:

  • ensuring federal parliament are aware of the importance of amending the Defence Trade Controls Act 2012 to eliminate the more draconian provisions
  • ensuring federal parliament are aware of the infeasibility of putting this into effect on the original timeline and the need for a significant delay in the introduction of the enforcement provisions
  • ensuring DECO are alerted to any remaining areas of concern in the specific drafting of the amended legislation (although I'd advise skipping this one if you're not a lawyer yourself - it's the functional equivalent of a lawyer with no training as a programmer proposing patches to the Linux kernel)

We were apparently asleep at the wheel when DTCA went through in 2012, so we owe a lot of thanks to whoever it was that advocated for and achieved the inclusion of the two year transition and consultation period in the original bill. Now we need to help ensure that our currently somewhat dysfunctional federal parliament doesn't keep us from receiving the benefit of that foresight.

What's definitely not going to happen

This consultation process is not the place to rail against the details of the Wassenaar Arrangement or Australia's participation in it. You won't achieve anything except to waste the time of folks that currently have a really serious problem to fix, and a very limited window in which to fix it.

Yes, Wassenaar has some serious problems, especially around its handling of cryptography and cryptographic research, but we have a fairly settled approach to handling that at this point in history. The critical concern in this current case is to help DECO ensure that the associated Australian regulations can be readily handled through the mechanisms that have already been put in place to handle existing Wassenaar enforcement regimes in other countries. With the way the 2012 Act was drafted, that's almost certainly currently not the case, but the proposed 2015 amendments should fix it (assuming the amendments actually have the effects that DECO has indicated they're intended to).