Open source software: Open to all?

Today yet another story broke about a U.S. politician making comments downplaying rape. This time, it was a candidate for U.S. Senate Richard Mourdock describing pregnancies from rape as "a gift from God." Before him were Roger Rivard, a U.S. State representative, with "some girls rape easy," and U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin's with "legitimate rape" never resulting in pregnancy. As a result of these stories, many Americans are now familiar with the effects of powerful people dismissing and redefining rape: at best, it is horribly insensitive and blames the victim, at worst it condones a serious crime.

That's why I was shocked and horrified when a prominent leader in the Linux open source software community – our equivalent of politicians – made comments that also downplayed the seriousness of all rape. (If you're not familiar with open source software or the free Linux operating system, they are the technology behind everything from Google searches to Facebook updates to Android phones.)

Here's what happened: In February 2011, on a public open source software mailing list, prominent open source software leader Theodore Y. Ts'o wrote that rape was impossible if both people were drunk enough, and that including several common kinds of rape in rape statistics could be "hyperbolic and misleading." I won't go into detail here because it's pretty offensive, but the full text of two of his emails on the subject are archived here.

What matters for the open source community is that, just as many politicians immediately withdrew their endorsements of Mourdock, Rivard, and Akin, the open source community should also withdraw their support of leaders who make statements like this. Ts'o continues to hold many leadership positions in the Linux open source community after making these comments, from maintainer of the widely used Linux ext4 file system to chair of the most important Linux conference, the Linux Kernel Developers' Summit.

Refusing to condone statements like these is especially important in open source software because it already has a major gender gap: women make up less than 2% of the open source community. That's worse than Fortune 500 CEOs, currently at 4% women! We can't afford to look the other way when leaders in open source make what are, at best, horribly insensitive comments about the sexual assault of women.

Valerie Aurora speaking at AdaCamp DC

Valerie Aurora, Executive Director of the Ada Initiative

The Ada Initiative sparked a community-wide movement to stop assault and harassment of women at open source conferences, which included groping and pornography in talks. The Ada Initiative is a non-profit dedicated to supporting women in open technology and culture, founded in 2011. Working together with the community, we've made amazing progress in less than 2 years, with over 100 open source conferences adopting policies banning harassment – and enforcing them, too. This grassroots movement has been so successful in part because many open source community leaders publicly stood up for women's right to attend conferences safely.

But harassment doesn't end when the conference ends. It also happens online: in mailing lists, in IRC channels (a kind of online chat room) and in blogs. How effective is a policy banning groping if a speaker at the conference says women who get groped were "asking for it?" What if a person on the organizing committee routinely makes sexual comments on the project's official IRC channel? How can we expect women to feel safe at conference receptions when other people at the party believe rape is impossible if they get drunk enough?

We have to act together as a community to send the message that actions like these don't reflect the values of the majority of the open source movement. We can do this in many ways. Here are just a few:

  • Reply publicly online and disagree with the person's opinions
  • Publicly advocate adopting specific, enforceable codes of conduct in your community's online spaces
  • Send email to organizers of conferences expressing your discomfort with being in the same physical location as someone who condones assault
  • As event organizers, do not invite the person to speak or attend your event
  • As administrators of mailing lists, IRC servers, and blog aggregators, design and adopt policies governing behavior

Some people argue that the principle of free speech requires us to allow people to say whatever they want in online communities, even if it is threatening, hateful, or discriminates against women and minorities. But as many have pointed out, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from the consequences of what you say. People are free to say whatever they want – and you are free to react in any (legal) way. Neither do you have any obligation to publish someone else's free speech. You and your community can support free speech while refusing to condone speech you find abhorrent by publishing it yourself, or supporting the person who said it.

The Ada Initiative has already had many successes in making open source software conferences welcoming spaces for women. We want to work together with open tech/culture communities to keep this culture change moving forward. Let's increase civility and respect for women in our online spaces in ways that strengthen our communities and our work.


If you would like the women you know and love to feel comfortable in your open tech/culture community, you can do something about it: Donate to support women in open tech/culture today.

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5 thoughts on “Open source software: Open to all?

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  2. Patrick Elliott-Brennan

    Good summary, Valerie.

    I'd initially read only some of what Ted had written – which related to clarification of definitions – which is a fine issue to raise as long as it's done purposefully and with good intent and an informed awareness of the issues.

    Then I came across the 'rape/drunk' part of his comments and realised that while entitled to an opinion, that doesn't make it an informed or accurate one.

    As I've commented elsewhere, definitions vary according to whether one is a psychologist or therapist of some form, or whether one writing laws and prosecuting alleged breaches of the law or conducting research.

    The 'drunk/rape' discussion Ted engages in misses the point because while it tries to create some form of 'definitive definition' of rape, the issue is really one of sexual abuse and sexual assault, with rape being a subcategory.

    Ted's discussion strikes me as one of those 'how many hairs does it take to make a beard?' reductions and his poor awareness of the issues and clearly stated bias and lack of empathy is evident.

    It would appear that while Ted wishes to say "Well, that's not rape" he fails to address the fact that while a law may determine it wasn't, researchers can say it is and a therapist can also. It is up to the research and praxis community to debate the utility of the definitions and for informed community discussion as to that utility to take place.It is the 'informed' part which is important.

    Given the complex and intricate nature of the issue, the emotional content and historical background, it's a matter which requires extra careful discussion and consideration when raised in public forums.

  3. Isaac Uribe

    "downplayed the seriousness of all rape"? Seriously? Please, I believe one rape is too many, so does Tso, he was talking about statistics, not rape itself.
    This is just plain wrong, bashing open source community efforts because of personal opinions, particularly if those opinions are taken out of context.
    I would recommend reading "Lie with statistics" by Darrel Duff and Irving Geis, that's what Tso was complaining…
    The Ada initiative is doing a noble effort, cheers for that; rape is a terrible thing, but jumping into conclusions without understanding, that is not right either.

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