Technical Code of Conduct

By Avery Jensen

In March, the Wikimedia Foundation adopted a Technical Code of Conduct for technical spaces.  A basic code of conduct will state what kind of conduct is expected, how it will be enforced, how to report a problem, and provide training for those who will respond to incident reports. This Technical Code of Conduct includes a list of examples of unacceptable behavior, a description of how to report problems, and a five-member committee for responding to reports. The TCoC will apply to Wikimedia technical spaces, both virtual and at in-person events, including MediaWiki.org, wikitech.wikimedia.org, Phabricator, Gerrit, technical mailing lists, technical IRC channels, and Etherpad.

So, what is the Technical Code of Conduct and why do we need it?

The development of the Wikimedia Technical Code of Conduct is the end result of 2,718 edits by 140 editors over the course of 19 months. In October 2016, I was at WikiConference North America in San Diego, and had a chance to see the presentation.  At that time it was about half finished–it had started the year before at Wikimania in July 2015.  The TCoC had been preceded by other Wikimedia policies: Wikipedia civility, friendly space policy, event ban policy, Wikimedia Foundation code of conduct for WMF staff and board, and phabricator etiquette. Other organizations had already gotten a jump on Wikimedia with codes for technical spaces, in particular, the Contributor Covenant’s Code of Conduct was already widely popular, and other codes were also available to consult, such as the Ada Initiative, and templates from the Citizen Code of Conduct and the Electron project (Open Code of Conduct).

There was some controversy surrounding the implementation of the TCoC.  Initially, people expected the code to be developed quickly and voted on as a whole, in the same way that a typical RfC is concluded after 30 days, but when it became evident the discussions were becoming lengthy and the timing of the project would be measured in years rather than months, the decision was taken to approve each section of the code as it was completed. If changes were necessary later, the code could always be amended.

Code of conduct at conferences started being an issue several years ago, around 2014. Author John Scalzistarte, of science fiction fame, started a thread on his blog asking people to pledge not to speak at or attend a conference that did not have an anti-harassment policy. It garnered over a thousand signatures.  There was a similar pledge thread, on Twitter. Cartoonist Rachel Nabors laid out some of the issues in her widely circulated blog post, “You literally cannot pay me to speak without a Code of Conduct“, explaining in simple terms what this was and why it was needed.  Programmer Ashe Dryden also posted an FAQ and collection of resources on the subject that was shared widely.

A code of conduct is necessary because, quite simply, people will no longer participate in projects without one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Comments

  1. Rogol Domedonfors July 17, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    You write “the decision was taken to approve each section of the code as it was completed”. That decision was taken by a minority of participants, who all happened to be WMF staff, unilaterally overturning the consensus among the earlier non-staff participants (of whom I was one). You don’t what for me is one of the most egregious aspects of this Code, which is that it accords a privileged position to WMF employees as against volunteers. You can see my blog post at Wikipediocracy for my take on this sorry episode.

  2. The decision was made by WMF Legal. There has always been a revolving door between volunteer and staff positions, but in the past the staff has been little listened to, and in the case of the events surrounding the knowledge engine issue, the staff actually had to go to a member of the board of trustees to have their concerns heard. The staff has a stake in this, they should also have a voice.

  3. Rogol Domedonfors July 23, 2017 at 7:50 pm

    So what was the purpose of the decision by WMF Legal to create a two-tier structure; why did Legal feel it was their place to override the community consenus on this issue; and why did a WMF blog post on 8 June falsely state that “the Wikimedia technical community has approved” this Code?

    I am not suggesting that staff should not have a voice: what I do say is that the staff voice overrode the rest of the community on certain key points, and there is a pretence that this was not the case, of which this posting is part.

  4. “Two-tier”, no, it applies to everyone equally, although I would anticipate uneven enforcement, that the staff would be held to the code more rigidly than other members of the community.

    But what difference whether it is approved section by section or all at once – the other policies have never been voted on as a block, and no one seems to have any reason to take issue with that. The point you are making is so artificial, it seems you must have some other unspoken objection, whether to this particular code or to codes in general. What is it you want to do that you cannot do under this code? Is there something special we should be aware of if we want to adopt this code for our own events?

  5. Rogol Domedonfors July 29, 2017 at 7:08 am

    I meant what I said and said what I meant — the process of developing this code was effectively taken out of the hands of the community by staff members, and to claim that it has community support — when the individual sections were, in practice, approved by staff members, when one section was mandated by staff and not open for discussion at all, and when the code as a whole, was not submitted to, let alone approved by, the community — is misleading. My position is not some quibble about it having been approved by the community in one mode rather than another, it is that it was not approved by the community at all. To suggest that the difference between a truthful and a misleading public description is “artificial” is strange to say the least.

    The code is two-tier, because complaints involving staff are handled differently from complaints not involving staff. In the case of complaints involving staff, the code mandates that details of the complaint are to be sent to the WMF, whereas all other complaints are to be kept strictly confidential. So while it is true that the code applies to everyone, it does not prescribe the same treatment for everyone. In the case of a complaint against a member of staff, the requirement on the complainant to have the confidential, even intimate, details of their complaint forwarded to the lawyers for the employer of the person complained about creates a chilling effect which must be completely obvious. And yet it was mandated by those very same lawyers. Why? No explanation was ever forthcoming — we were simpky told that it was not open for discussion by the community. Do you know of those reasons? Do you have a guess? Or do you prefer to continue to ignore the question?

  6. How do you know they are sent to a lawyer? Do you have any proof? I’m not sure I understand who would be chilled by this. I have heard of conventions where any complaints are sent to the attendee’s employer, I’m not sure if this is what you are proposing for volunteers, assuming they are employed by someone.

    I’m still not seeing any reason that voting on each section as it is hammered out would be less legitimate than voting on an entire block of statements a the end of two years. If they vote yes then it passes, and the result is no different from the current result, but what if they vote no? Do you then ask the same people to spend another two years hammering out another document that would be subject to the same refusal? How many people would have been willing to devote any time at all to the endeavor if they did not have some assurance the process would lead to a finished CoC in the end?

  7. Rogol Domedonfors July 30, 2017 at 7:39 pm

    The Code subpage Confidentiality states “If a WMF employee or contractor is accused of wrongdoing, or a WMF employee or contractor is reported as being subjected to wrongdoing, the Committee will forward the report to the employee’s or contractor’s manager, and to WMF HR in writing.” This applies only to complaints involving WMF staff, no others. I am not proposing or guessing anything, I am pointing out as a historical fact that this clause was inserted by J.Rogers of WMF Legal with the words “Requirement from WMF Legal”. If you did not know this, then perhaps you have not studied the history of the development of this Code in as much detail as I have.

    If you really do not understand why this would be chilling, let me explain. After a drunken evening and a little flirtation at a WMF workshop things go wrong and you accuse a member of WMF staff of sexual assault. You are required to allow all the details of your complaint, including your conduct leading up to the alleged assault, to be passed to the alleged assailant’s employer, which has an eight-figure income, a team of in-house lawyers, and an annual expenditure of over a million dollars on other lawyers. The employer’s legal team has an explicit mandate “we only represent the Wikimedia Foundation”. The employer organised the workshop, it employs the majority of the members of the committee handling your complaint and employs all the members of the appeal committee. It has a good name to protect in order to keep the donations rolling in. Now it has a lot of embarrassing personal information about you and your conduct. You cannot afford a lawyer at all. Do you really believe that there is a level playing field as between you and your assailant, and are you more or less likely to proceed with your complaint when you realise all of this?

  8. Did you read the thread before commenting? My very first statement was “The decision was made by WMF Legal”.

    As you yourself point out, the report goes to HR, not some lawyer.

    If I was staff, I would be a bit nervous right about now. I have gone through a couple of preliminary investigations, fortunately in a situation that required the presence of my union rep, who knew how to ask the right questions, like “Have you ever seen this person before”, so nothing ever came of it, but in the case of the TCoC there is no one person who is representing the staff as such. Volunteers have even less representation, as everything is handled by a probably non-diverse volunteer committee that has no training in discrimination or harassment. Plus, AFAIK volunteers do not have the same legal basis for protection against harassment as paid staff. But these are all generic issues, and not unique to the WMF situation. The TCoC document is probably more useful as a deterrent, as it provides a working definition of harassment.

  9. Rogol Domedonfors August 4, 2017 at 6:34 pm

    “Did you read the thread before commenting?” Yes.

    It seems we agree that the Code is deeply unsatisfactory, although curiously for very different reasons.

  10. Not at all, in fact I may have been the first person to use it for an actual event, a small local editathon in late July. It was used on a large scale a week later for the Hackathon preceding Wikimania 2017. https://wikimania2017.wikimedia.org/wiki/Hackathon

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