Incinerated workers & Debian unhealthy culture

In June, a worker at the Caterpillar factory fell into a tank of molten iron and was instantly incinerated. Health and Safety inspectors were quick to determine that the lack of guard rails was an obvious factor in the death.

Earlier this year I explored the huge volumes of email experienced by Frans Pop before the Debian.Day suicide. Like the Caterpillar forge, debian-private and Debian in general lacks guard rails.

Thinking about the Shaya Potter incident in 1998, I decided to do the same thing that I did for Frans Pop and chart the email volumes on debian-private in the twelve months leading up to Potter's mistakes.

Potter appears to be quite a brilliant developer. Reading through his history, I could only empathize with his story. Potter was selected for an elite internship at the Naval Research Laboratory while still in the middle of high school. Back in 1995, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) had selected twenty high school students to spend a week at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in Canberra. They gave us nice certificates.

I wanted to know more about Potter's story: what really happened here? So I did the same thing that I did for Frans Pop. Here is the chart, it shows that email volumes on debian-private were already quite high, up to 800 messages per month and the average monthly quantity of emails was steadily growing at the time that Potter made these mistakes. There is a lack of guard rails.

debian-private, Shaya Potter, 1998, Debian

The chart shows us a gradually increasing burden on Potter and all the other volunteers. In September 1998, at the time Potter made these errors of judgment, he would have been returning to school for a new academic year.

Volunteers are placed under great pressure to keep the debian-private emails secret. Even the existance of debian-private is not supposed to be mentioned.

This created a bizarre contradiction: Shaya Potter's supervisor in the Navy would have been totally unaware of the debian-private workload, a burden on Potter and other volunteers that continues 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Yet there is a small group of employers, including Google and Mark Shuttleworth at Ubuntu, who have a full copy of all these emails. This is another case where the guard rails have been forgotten.

If these debian-private emails were hidden from Potter's employer then it implies that the employer, the US Navy, is a victim and Debian culture is the problem. How can any employer anticipate a healthy work/life balance when some of their workers are secretly participating in debian-private 7 days per week? This is another lack of guard rails.

At this time, Potter had sent 247 messages to debian-private. His employer was unlikely to know about this workload.

Looking more closely at the archives, I noticed many occasions where other volunteers CCd Potter on emails to debian-private. Potter was subscribed to the mailing list. Adding him on CC implies an extra sense of urgency. There are 216 messages on debian-private archive where Potter's personal name is included in the To or CC field. Yet Potter was a teenager on an internship. Was it appropriate for adults in other companies to escalate these discussions to an underage developer? Once again, there were no guard rails.

In some cases I see Shuttleworth's name on CC for the same emails. Shuttleworth walked away with a $US575 million payoff. Potter, one of the first underage developers, was subject to defamation, gossip and anti-semitism (evidence to follow). The debian-private archive, a cesspool of defamatory emails about Potter and other volunteers, has been made available to every new Debian Developer in the last twenty years, long after Potter was gone. Why?

Many of the discussions in the period from 1996 to 1998 concern the birth of the Debian Free Software Guidelines and alternative philosophies about intellectual property. Some of the emails advocate progressive and even radical alternatives to copyright. When underage developers are exposed to thousands of messages about these topics, before they have been fully educated about traditional copyright, how can we expect them to fully understand what is right and wrong? If these discussions were hidden on debian-private, how could Potter's employer know what he was exposed to?

In particular, 1998 was the year when Debian Developers were drafting a constitution that emphasized (s3.2(1)) that developers are volunteers without payment. Effectively, the constitution tells developers that our work is not worth paying for. In that case, if young developers entering our profession are made to feel they have to work for free, is it unusual to find they are both unwilling and unable to pay for software downloaded from third parties?