Software engineer, Free/Open Source Software Innovator, Debian Developer



Free/Open Source Software activities



10 March 2020

Debian, Harassment, Abuse and Expulsions


In February 2019, the world woke up to the news that Cardinal George Pell, treasurer of the Vatican, had been convicted of abuse in my home town, Melbourne, Australia.

I grew up in Victoria, Australia, when Cardinal Pell was our Arch-Bishop. I matriculated from a Catholic boy's school just around the corner from St Kevin's, the school that supplied boys for the cathedral choir. We rowed past St Kevin's every morning. What would I know about the case?

The newspapers displayed pictures of the choir, faces of the boys obscured. If you know one or more of these people, the photoshopping does little to obscure the horror.

At the same time that Pell was mulling over his new status as a convict, false accusations of abuse were being distributed to hundreds of developers through the debian-private mailing list. The people behind that were Enrico Zini, Joerg Jaspert and Jonathan Wiltshire, the Debian Account Managers (DAMs). On Christmas Eve 2018, they stole the word abuse from boys like those at St Kevin's and used it for some internal politics. In this distorted reality, a volunteer who asks Why? can now be accused of harassment and abuse.

Of course this is not real abuse. These are tone police.

When another organization received a bequest of €150,000, the most senior staff went on long periods of paternity leave. When volunteers asked questions, the organization did not give direct answers: they also referred the questions to the tone police. I chose to resign from my voluntary role in that organization.

Back to Debian: it is not a great way to treat a volunteer at Christmas.

When I read the misleading things written by Zini, Jaspert and Wiltshire, knowing them to be completely untrue and out of touch with society's normal understanding of abuse, it was particularly painful.

It is not surprising that volunteers confront them, demanding that they withdraw or justify using words like that. Yet when people ask those questions in Debian, they are banned from mailing lists and they become the next target of gossip and unpleasant accusations from tone police.

What is worse: the organization that misappropriates words like abuse? Or the organization that messes with people's heads, pushing people, questioning their competence, making them feel they need to work more and telling them they are being demoted or expelled when they lose a family member?

Rogue elements of the Debian community have done all of the above. Any victims expelled from such a group with such distorted values, at a time of acute personal tragedy, would be entitled to use the word harassment.

But for the tone police, their quest to have a safe space where everybody is submissive justifies these violations of human dignity just as it seems to justify their misappropriation of words like abuse.

On Sunday night, a message was circulated airing the gossip from DebConf18 and DebConf19. As one of Debian's Google Summer of Code (GSoC) admins and Outreachy mentors in 2018, I had heard things about this, yet I wasn't at DebConf18 (Taiwan) or DebConf19 (Brazil). I resigned from my role immediately after DebConf18 and wasn't planning to say any more. Given my formal role in the program, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to confirm anything in the leaked emails. It is obvious that somebody has impersonated Mark Shuttleworth to forward the message but making accusations about who forged the headers is rather vindictive. With the Debian Project Leader (DPL), Sam Hartman, now telling me that he'll ban me from commenting, I feel compelled to comment: I feel Debian and DebConf presents unique challenges for the safety of interns. During six years mentoring in Debian, I've received at least one personal report of harassment from a participant and they had identified somebody in the Debian leadership. This could happen in any organization, but as Debian is run as a hobbyist organization and given the conditions of the internships, it doesn't have the same culture as an office or company. This is not necessarily wrong, it is simply incompatible. Yet if the culture changed, it would not be Debian any more. I simply resigned without saying anything about this but other people have sustained hostility and forced it into the spotlight.

People can only wonder: why is Debian's leader making this an issue about personalities and egos? Is it to distract attention from the issues leaked in the controversial email? The email was sent on International Women's Day, when many women were marching in the streets. In jumping to conclusions about its origin, Hartman doesn't appear to consider the possibility that a woman could have written it.

My family and I asked for privacy at a very difficult time: could there be any more hideous example of harassment than the way in which these vendettas are still being pushed in private and in public, more than 18 months after I resigned?

As a Debian Developer, I've always made myself available to listen to peoples' experiences of abuse. One of them even wrote to the Debian Project Leader to express her gratitude for my efforts. I felt her words were lost on deaf ears and that is another reason I resigned from the GSoC admin role.

Thank you very much for being so supportive.

I read the comments on the thread and to be honest I am really sad that [REDACTED] said that. It is not true at all.

They ([REDACTED] & [REDACTED]) pretend to support women but on the other hand their behavior towards many of us shows the opposite.

Daniel I feel bad because you have encouraged and helped not only me, but so many other people, no matter if they are [REDACTED] members or not, and also all the attendees from [REDACTED] to learn new things, to work and improve their skills and knowledge. They are doubting your good intentions just to remove the attention from the shady things that they are doing.

The [REDACTED] comment is really offensive to me and i feel it should be offensive to every woman who is part of the community.
I have been contributing and supporting [REDACTED] since its early days, and I have put a lot of effort and time, I do this because I believe in what it is meant to stand for and without waiting something in exchange, but the situation lately has been not very positive. Daniel has been present by chance in few cases where situations have been very hard to go through.

I would definitely like to talk to any of you and tell you more about everything that is happening here, its fine to me whether it is a video call, call or just emails.
Please tell me what would be more convenient to you.