Privacy and Harassment on the Internet

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Katherine Maher speaking on "Privacy and Harassment on the Internet" at MozFest 2016

Privacy and Harassment on the Internet[edit]

Moderator: So without further ado, let me welcome to the stage Katherine Maher. She is executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation.

[0:14] Katherine Maher: Hello there. I’m here today from the Wikimedia Foundation, as you just heard, which is the organization behind Wikipedia. We were asked today to speak about open innovation and Wikipedia is an incredible example of this, communities coming together collaboratively to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. At Wikimedia, our vision is a world in which every single human can freely share in the sum of all knowledge and we take this incredibly seriously. Wikimedians have spent millions of hours building one of humanity’s most remarkable resources, forty million articles, three hundred languages, used by half a billion people every month, from every corner of the planet, from McMurdo Station in Antarctica to here in London.

[0:52] But there are some problems on our path to the sum of all knowledge, and I want to share them with you today. Because they’re not just Wikimedia’s problems, they’re our problems, the problems of the internet, and the problems of society. And if we’re truly here to realize the power of openness, we need to solve for them together.

[1:08] So, I want to start my presentation today with a story. On Wikimedia you can be anyone. We’re pretty into the anonymity and pseudo-anonymity thing, which means Wikimedians often have some pretty creative user names. One of my favorite user names, and one of my favorite users, is a user named GorillaWarfare. GorillaWarfare has been editing on English Wikipedia for more than ten years. They have been elected to a number of leadership positions within the English Wikipedia community, including administrator, checkuser, oversighter, and arbitrator. And for those of you who are not familiar with the Wikimedia universe, these are pretty important positions. These volunteers often handle sensitive information, or urgent situations on Wikipedia. They’re trusted by the Wikimedia Foundation and by their peers. They’re charged with keeping policies adhered to, arbitrating community disputes, and investigating some of the most challenging issues, such as threats of self-harm or harm to others. They’re not to be taken lightly.

[2:07] GorillaWarfare also happens to be a young woman who is open about her name and gender on Wikipedia. GorillaWarfare is Molly White. Molly gave me permission to tell her story here today. Molly is a software engineer who also loves to rescue cats, and encourage women in tech. She’s a real live person with a job, interests, skills, and accomplishments. She’s also the target of repeated harassment because of her involvement with Wikipedia. She’s been targeted by people who disagree with the calls she’s made as an administrator. She’s been targeted for her physical appearance. She’s also been targeted for no apparent other reason than she is an editor who openly identifies as a woman. Molly has been harassed on Wikipedia and off. Posts have been made implying that she was elected to her leadership roles because of her appearance, because of a sexual involvement with other Wikimedians, or because she has tongue piercings. Recently she told me she was greeted by a message on a talk page on-wiki, by someone saying she was a “homosexual Jew-tard who deserves to be shot dead”. While these posts are reverted on Wikimedia, the harassment continues across the internet. She’s been doxed. Her private Facebook account has been posted to 4chan, Encyclopedia Dramatica, and Reddit. People have dug into her relatives’ Facebook pages with fewer privacy settings than hers. They’ve shared photos of Molly to various websites, photoshopping her face onto lewd images, and they’ve taken a photo of her with her baby niece, and captioned it with racial slurs. They’ve added data to these images, to make sure that they’re some of the first results you see when you search for her name or user name. A slew of Twitter accounts have been created to harass her, commenting on her physical appearance, her weight, her family, her sexual preferences. Calling these “comments” is actually a bit of a euphemism, they’re pretty terrible. And of course, when reported, Twitter decided they were not in fact abuse.

GorillaWarfare in 2011

[4:00] Occasionally when the harassment is pretty bad, it begins to affect her offline as well. Molly worked on an arbitration case involving Gamergate. She stopped answering calls from unknown numbers. She told me that she goes so far as to impose privacy protections on her friends as well, who are often not as concerned about these kinds of things, for example, recently asking someone to take down an image that had been geo-tagged on Instagram from her apartment. She no longer believes that privacy on the web can be real, and has become very cautious about anything that she says on the internet. She feels that everything that she does will be viewed through the lens of people who already believe that she’s a terrible person.

[4:40] So why am I telling you all of this? Because unfortunately, Molly’s story is not unique. A 2015 survey conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation found that 38% of responding users had experienced being harassed on or about the Wikimedia projects. Many of them are women, people of color, people of non-binary gender identities, people from places other than Europe or North America. And more than half of these people reported leaving or decreasing their participation in the Wikimedia projects as a result of this harassment. We’re missing their voices, and we’re missing their knowledge.

[5:15] And why does this matter? Well, English Wikipedia, which is widely regarded as the most complete Wikipedia, has about five million articles. But on English Wikipedia, only 16% of the more than 1.3 million biographies are of women. In a 2012 evaluation, by the Oxford Internet Institute, they found that more than half of the articles on Wikipedia are about places, events, and people, that only represent 2.5% of the world’s land area. And of all the geo-tagged articles on Wikipedia, only 2.6% actually represent anything on the continent of Africa, which holds 14% of the world’s population. At the Wikimedia Foundation we know that representation and quality of articles improve when more people contribute, and when more diverse people contribute.

Harassment Survey 2015

[6:04] And of the five million articles, that’s just the beginning. Never mind all the world’s knowledge, we’re just getting started. There’s a current estimation by one of our Wikimedians that there are about a hundred and four million notable things out there in the world. Which leaves ninety-nine million things that have not yet been represented, in part, because we are not seeing representation of the people who actually are familiar with these subjects and can contribute this knowledge.

[6:23] And this isn’t just a problem with Wikimedia. This is a problem of the internet. Our internet. Seventy-three per cent of Americans—adult users--have witnessed online harassment, and 40% of them have experienced it themselves. This was not what our internet was supposed to be.

[6:40] I’m old enough to remember the early internet, and it was a magical place, where you could find almost anything and anyone. It was a place for creativity and freedom, a place for connection and belonging. Wikimedia was born in the early internet, and we still believe in that magic; we believe in freedom of expression and freedom of information, and the ability to share our knowledge, thoughts, and desires for the future, freely with the world. Harassment threatens that sharing.

[7:07] Many of us here are advocates for the open web, and as Wikimedians, advocates of collaboration and openness, we are fiercely committed to protecting that. But if we protect the open web for it to simply become a place of hatred and of fear, then what are we protecting it for? If we close out the voices of those who are harassed, and they are told that their contributions are not valid, they are not welcome here, then what is openness?

[7:28] We don’t just need an open web, we need an inclusive web. And I’m here to tell you that while we may not have it right yet, Wikimedia is here to fight for the right to participation and inclusivity. After all, our vision is a world in which every single human can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s not just a statement, that is a promise of inclusivity, it’s a part of what we do. Every single human, all knowledge. For us, inclusivity isn’t just an aspiration, it is a necessity. It is not a nice-to-have, it is a need-to-have. For us to have all knowledge, we require the participation of all people. We need all voices together so that we can create something greater than the sum of our individual parts. Which brings me back to Molly. We need more Mollies. But people shouldn’t have to be as tough as Molly in order to participate.

[8:17] So how are we going to do this? I don’t have all the answers. These are systemic issues. These are very deep within our cultures and societies as human beings.

[8:24] But I believe we must start with intention. We must start by naming the problem, by articulating what it is we stand for. Standing on stage and declaring that this matters. Backing it up with the data that I’ve just shared with you. Changing the narrative.

[8:40] So, how can you do this in your community? How can you support this open inclusive web that we need? Start with active outreach and listening. Identify the people who are not here yet, the people that you want to work with. And go and talk to them, listen to them--more importantly than talk. You have to understand why they are not working with you yet, what are their objections, what are they—why aren’t they here, and not dismiss those objections because this is the way that we work and this is the way that our communities work and our cultures work, but actually reflect on them, and think about where we need to make changes. For us, for example, this meant surveying our users about harassment, and publishing the results of that. In fact, a recent article in the Guardian identified Wikimedia as one of the only organizations out there that actually does this. We do this because we believe that we need to be honest with ourselves. We need to name the problem in order to address it. Which gets me to my next point.

[9:31] Respectful, diverse, inclusive communities don’t just happen because you want them to. You actually have to resource it. We used to do this thing, where we sat around and we talked about having a more welcoming community for women and people of color and people from the global south. It didn’t really get us very far. So now, we actually have dedicated budget, resources, and staff, who actually work with our emerging communities, to help these groups participate, and grow, and understand what their needs and barriers are. Part of our model is community grants. In the last two years we’ve set aside half a million dollars to fund resources for increasing gender diversity and addressing tools and initiatives to support healthy culture. We’re working with our community members in order to understand what the issues are that they see and give them training and tools so they can identify toxic behavior and take effective action on their own. So that it comes from within the community, not from above or outside.

[10:28] Set clear expectations. In addition to letting people know that you want them to join your community, it has to come from the community as to what the rules of engagement actually are, so that you can identify when people are acting outside of those barriers and of those rules. You need to be clear within your community on how to welcome people, engage people, and make space for people to participate. For us, this means friendly spaces and codes of conduct, and much more, but it also means clarifying our values, so that they’re not just about open, but they’re about diverse and inclusive, so that we as a community can make decisions about the culture that we want, and reject the culture that we don’t want, that is unhealthy.

[11:04] We have a lot of work to do. I know that. We know that. As Molly’s story illustrates, we are not there yet. But we want to make space for everyone. We need to make space for everyone. This isn’t just an aspiration, this is a necessity. And I know that all of us here in this room are committed to it, because you’re here in this room. So I encourage you all to go forward, with these thoughts in mind, continue your work—and continue working with us—because as I said, we’re not perfect, we have a way to go, but this actually matters, and it matters not just because it’s something that we feel is important, it is not an aspiration as I said, it is actually a necessity to represent the web and the world that we want. Thank you. [applause] And thanks, Molly.

Q&A[edit]

Oh, questions.

Moderator: Who has a question for Katherine? Down here.

Male voice: Hello Katherine.

Katherine: Hi.

[12:10] Male voice: My name is Gustavo, I’m a reporter from a Brazilian tech website. First of all thank you for all the, for the amazing talk. Secondly, one thing I hear a lot is that when people talk about the importance of an open internet, these negative examples of harassment are shown sometimes in such a light so as to say, Oh look this is what happens when you have a completely open community, we can’t have that. We need to control the internet so that we have the power to not let this happen, so these situations are used to justify something, I imagine, equally negative. So how to you answer to that, in those cases?

[12:56] Katherine: This actually came up right before I came on stage, someone was asking about, for example the issue of anonymity, which is something that we firmly believe in. In fact we used to have this saying about Wikipedia that part of the reason it works is because more people actually want good things than want bad—if people only wanted bad, we would never be possible. You know, from our perspective, it is actually about bad, it’s that we believe that most people who participate in our community and in the open web are generally there because they are appreciative of the good parts about it, the creativity, the innovation, the connection. And one of the things that we have found is that we actually think that addressing some of these issues, for us, is possible---I think there’s a feeling that these are really pernicious issues and they could be impossible to address, but one of the things that we found is that by starting in a place where we have a culture around expectations, around what the things are that the community actually wants and what the, sort of, guidelines are for participation, it’s around clarifying within that culture that expectations, and building and strengthening and reinforcing it. I think that if you start from zero it becomes very difficult, and we’ve seen that in the number of communities on the web in general, is that if you have no rules and you have no expectations about how to participate, it becomes very difficult to then later set them. But if you start from a place with understanding around belonging and understanding about community norms and behavior, then you can actually start to bring people back into those community behaviors. And so I’m hopeful that, based on the fact that we have a sense of commitment to norms and behaviors around what we want in the community, it’s about strengthening them, and seeing them succeed. I’m not sure if that answers your question, but...

Moderator: Anybody other questions? Yes. In the orange shirt.

[15:02] Woman’s voice: Hi, thank you for speaking, In which ways are you supporting the people who are contributing and administrators and editors for coming with you with concerns about being harassed in life?

[15:15] Katherine: Sure. So we have a support and safety team that works with individuals who experience issues of harassment, and those individuals are deeply involved in the communities, they work alongside community members, and what our goals are over… right now…what we’re working to do, and what we’re anticipating doing in the future, is actually building resources for community leaders, so that they can identify some of these issues from the beginning. One of the ways that Wikipedia works is that community members actually identify issues often before they ever become issues that the Wikimedia Foundation engages with. A great example of this is actually the issue of open licensing. So everything on Wikipedia is openly licensed. We very rarely find for example violations of that because community members are very good at identifying issues when they arise and addressing them right away. One of the things that we’d like to move towards is a community culture where there’s this same attention to toxic behavior and harassment in the communities, as there is, for example, to licensing violations. And so in addition to resourcing, I mentioned, the half a million dollars of resources that have gone into training, allies skills workshops, and the like, we’re working to support community groups who want to organize to become leaders in this issue and advocates internally on improving community culture.

Moderator: Right, let’s thank Katherine, oh, we have one more, you look very keen.

Katherine: Hello, Stuart. (laughing)

[16:36] Male voice: Hello Katherine. It’s interesting what you said about Wikimedia being one of the only organizations that surveys its users about harassment and it occurred to me that Wikimedia’s had three women as executive directors consecutively. Now, is this something Twitter’s missing maybe, or Face, because… missing having no people at the top with any direct experience of this, or do you think they could make changes despite this.

Katherine: Sorry, I…what was the question? (laughs)

Male voice: Why do you think Twits doesn’t take it seriously?

[18:18] Katherine: I think that, I mean, that was a bit of a leading question, but I actually think that this is an issue, right, that people who don’t have any direct experience of what it means to be vulnerable or to be marginalized have a very difficult time understanding what it means to be vulnerable or be marginalized and then actually investing in those issues. I recognize that by standing up here and telling these stories and even mentioning Gamergate on a stage, it increases my likelihood of being harassed, doxed, or otherwise targeted. That’s kind of a scary thing, but I think it’s a responsibility that I have within the Wikimedia Foundation and all of us as leaders within these communities have, is to be able to name this and address it and sort of confront it head on. At the same time, I would never demand that someone does that. I think it is a personal choice, but I feel it’s a responsibility. As to why Twitter or Facebook make bad decisions or don’t seem to have invested in these issues to the same extent (shrugs, long pause) good question.

Moderator: Should we leave it as a question then.

Katherine. Yeah.

Moderator: Okay, let’s thank Katherine.

Katherine: Thank you. (applause)

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