05 1 / 2013

I’m back from 29C3, with a couple days now between me and the CCH to think about what really happened there.

Mainly I feel disappointed. As I wrote in my last post, the event was dominated by two topics: an overcurrent about secret monitoring, wiretapping and circumvention, and  an undercurrent about sexual harassment.

There was no coup de grace this year, like Julian Assange up on stage introducing WikiLeaks. We’re mostly biding our time, attending to our work, shorting out our Arduinos, fighting the skirmishes but not the headline battles about information security within the US and Europe. 

Among the people I would like to think of as my crowd, though, the sexual harassment topic was the main story. On Christmas morning, I was delighted to see that they’d posted an anti-harassment policy. The CCC’s attention going into the event was beyond reproach.

This is my third Congress where I’ve volunteered — been an “angel”, they call us. Mostly I do crowd control, speaker introductions, and teardown work. This year they trained us on harassment intervention and gave us a special DECT phone number to call if anyone should come to us with a harassment issue. They printed a version of the policy on thousands of paper maps and schedules. They called it out during the opening session. I can’t think of something the organization did not do, at the outset, to say “Hey, we know this is an issue, and we are going to lead the community through it.”

It helps that the core volunteer staff are some intensely thoughtful and socially-aware individuals. It’s not just PR. It is my bias to believe that more of the volunteer staff are women and/or genderqueer than the CCC-going population, although there seemed to be about 10-15% more women overall than I recalled at 27C3. Women everywhere. You know, like the rest of the world.

When I turned up at CCH for angel orientation, I felt optimistic. Safe. Among friends. Over the next couple days, I think a few things happened that wore down those good intentions and desensitized the community.

If you’re reading this, you’ve heard of the creeper cards. You probably have an opinion about them. Hold onto it for a moment.

Edit, because I totally missed the point of this one: Within the first day of Congress, a bizarrely specific phenomenon that I can only describe as the German-sexual-harassment version of Something Awful showed up: popcccorn.de, which proudly featured the outline of a headless (and legless, hmm) naked woman done in the red cards. Ragni told me what popcccorn.de was actually about. I missed the point that its purpose was to document incidents, not to cheer them on. I really need to understand German better. Mea culpa. Thanks, Ragni. 

Personally, the parody red cards and the body outline offend me about as much as penis graffiti on a bathroom stall. It reveals that there is some stratum of male conference attendees whose egos are just too delicate to weather a discussion of other people’s basic rights.

I am seriously conflicted right now. As a queer female software engineer: harassment at that level has been a background fixture for my entire life. I am not intimidated, more just embarrassed for humanity. But as a feminist, I must acknowledge the environment that creates, and the degree to which it alienates people so badly that they walk away. As someone who tries to contribute to the Congress, I expressly do not want that in the world we’re trying to build.

I hoped for better, but it got worse:

1. My Twitter stream became an echo chamber. 140 characters (or down to 20, after you @-reply four people) is actually not much better for talking about Feminism 101 than it is for discussing revolutionary protest in Tunisia. Certain prolific Twitter users did a lot to fan the flames before much of anything had even happened. I really, really cannot overstate how much I wish that people would think about their public contribution to the zeitgeist of an issue (as I am doing right now!), and whether they are describing events as they are, or tossing off timely one-liners about an issue that’s barely gotten off the ground. Maybe someday we’ll wise up about this 140-character breakdown of coherent thought. 

2. Hacker Jeopardy went off the rails. I wasn’t there. I was working elsewhere in the building. So I don’t actually know what was said, but hearsay tells me that many specifically sexist and baiting jokes were included in the late-night game show that takes place in the biggest conference room. That was the first time oppressive behavior made the leap from the anonymous, locker-room sidelines to something dished out by someone with a microphone. I’m really disappointed in that, but don’t fully understand what came of it, what the conference did about it, and so on.

3. Asher Wolf’s breakup with Cryptoparty came at a particular point when the event was hyper-sensitized to any discussion of sexism or feminism. Without blaming Asher for timing her exit when she did, I think the fallout — especially after her site got owned and defaced, which is a failed political statement if ever there was one — transformed the discussion into an object lesson in victimization.

While this was all happening, at the event and in its shadow, other things were happening in the world. The Senate Intelligence Committee rammed through an extension to FISA, the act that authorizes basically limitless wiretapping and data collection on everyone who is or communicates with a US citizen. The SIC pretty much has Obama backed into a corner on that one, unless he magically does a 180˚ and refuses to sign it. That law has been on the books for four years, with no easy forms of public resistance, and we may get four more. It is precisely the kind of outrage that CCC is about. But we didn’t talk much about it, and we didn’t talk about the new Chinese policy on anonymous Internet access, because we were grappling with the novelty of women attending a tech conference without being shamed into silence.

By the end of the fourth day, I was quite fed up with the Congress. I’m one person, one woman in the crowd. I wanted the air to clear. I wanted us to lay our weapons down and remember why we came.

I got up on the stage to herald the closing event and said, tremulously, with a German translator, “Ladies — gentlemen — human beings. People of all genders, beliefs, ideas, and operating instructions. Thank you for coming to the twenty-ninth Chaos Communication Congress.” 

It wasn’t much, almost nothing at all, really. We weren’t supposed to mention any gender or sex-related issue at all. I took that at face value, so you can imagine my surprise when the man I was introducing, Frank Rieger, followed up with denouncing the creeper cards as part of the closing talk. So I, a random volunteer, got the message that the stage was the wrong place to speak up, but if one is sufficiently placed, that message goes in another direction entirely.

This is what I saw. Philip Steffan, who was also there, did an amazing job breaking down some of the symptoms

I will be at 30C3. Work here isn’t done. Part of it is just showing up.

  1. tensory posted this