Tech Freedom vs Feminism

photo credit: jgarber via photopin cc

[TW for mentions of harassment, sexual abuse charges, Julian Assange and literal nazis]

Ever since I was small I had an absolutely overwhelming sense of justice. This informs and influences my world at every level, permeating through everything. It makes sense to invest myself deeply in the things I care about, and to me that means fighting for justice where I perceive it lacking. Two such things are identifying as a woman and the internet.

For identifying as a woman it’s feminism, and for the internet it’s privacy, the open web and general internet and information freedom. In my heart I feel like fighting for feminism and fighting for Internet freedom should go together like the best of friends, but in truth these are two sides of my activism that constantly clash, and leave me a mess in the middle.

The tech industry and the open internet movement have a very pervasive and ever-present misogyny problem.

The tech industry and the open internet movement have a very pervasive and ever-present misogyny problem. This dominant rhetoric makes it increasingly difficult to interact with a movement that is supposed to be about freedom, privacy and security. It gets even more horrible when prominent members within these communities are known abusers, misogynists and outright hatemongers.

Several prominent tech freedom organisations choose to align themselves with and refuse to depose these kinds of men, no matter how horrible the shit against them is. The men themselves get away with harassing and abusing women because they are seen as being ‘valuable’ to the movement. Once you’re up on a tech freedom pedestal, it seems like it’s impossible for someone to bring you down.

Take Julian Assange – Editor in Chief of  Wikileaks. Wikileaks as an organisation is doing work for tech freedom and transparency in government that I’m desperate for. Their part in exposing the ever-looming TPPA is invaluable. However, I am absolutely not in any way desperate for information about an alleged rapist, or to hear from any of his apologists (if you say ‘honey trap’ to me I will kick you in your honey trap).

You can’t wish away the abuse here.

Assange comes across more as an embarrassment than anything else, and his presence at events creates active hostility towards rape survivors. Reminder: He lives in the Ecuadorian embassy hiding from sexual assault charges, not for anything related to being a Wikileaker. You could say that these charges have an unusual amount of weight behind them and are politically motivated, but that doesn’t stop them from being sexual assault charges. You can’t wish away the abuse here.

If anyone steps up to criticise Assange’s continued presence or airtime, there are many, many men willing to come out in active support of Assange, or at the very least wanting to ‘debate’, Sea-lioning the conversation. It makes it uncomfortable to be in tech freedom spaces and feel safe. Not only are people happy to defend Assange beyond all good reason, you are also expected to listen politely and not get annoyed about their derailing conversation. [Note, if you’re considering jumping in to try and tell a woman she is wrong to be suspicious/critical of an alleged rapist being in a position of honour, you should probably think about jumping into a skip bin instead, because you are behaving like trash.]

And this doesn’t just happen in one organisation, it’s a prominent and consistent problem throughout tech and tech freedom. The Electronic Freedom Foundation do good work combating unfair copyright laws and have a comprehensive campaign dissecting the TPPA. But they also support Weev, the man who has harassed Kathy Sierra off the internet.

How shit a person does someone have to be before it outweighs their ‘value’ to the tech community?

Kathy Sierra, for those who didn’t get the chance to see her on twitter, is one of those fantastic minds that helps people to reinterpret the world in a way that makes better sense. She brought better ways of thinking, learning, and engaging with tech. She also took the most fantastic photographs of her Icelandic ponies. Weev is a Literal Nazi, known troll and destroyer of lives. While he did spend time in jail when he shouldn’t have, he is a trash human who delights in manipulating and gaslighting women. Despite his known status as the owner of a swastika tattoo, he still gets a pass from EFF. He just gets called ‘controversial’ before he’s mentioned. How shit a person does someone have to be before it outweighs their ‘value’ to the tech community? It seems like we haven’t reached that limit yet, and I honestly doubt we ever will.

(If you want to read in Kathy’s own words what being a victim of harassment is like, her farewell essay Trouble at Koolaid Point is the place to go to get some understanding and to get angry.)

I struggle to support EFF and their ‘free speech’ mantra.

I struggle to support EFF and their ‘free speech’ mantra. Yes, freedom of expression is important and necessary element of a free society. The right to be critical and speak out against oppressive organisations needs to be safe from prosecution and censorship. However, EFF push the freedom of speech line too far and take it to mean freedom of any speech on any platform. Recently The Verge published an article about twitter possibly trialling anti-harassment filters. EFF came out swinging against these policies, decrying censorship, or possible future use of censorship. This, at a tool that is being used to stop anti-semitic abuse. Last time I checked, hate speech and free speech were different things.

Abused and harassed people shouldn’t have to endure suffering for your ideology.

Funny how EFF stay bone silent when women are driven from platforms like twitter by harassing behaviour, but take steps to try and curb that harassment and they begin speaking about some kind of bizarre case of trickledown censorship. If you take that kind of line it means that we can’t ever do anything about neonazis or misogynists, and their victims get to continue to be victims for some imaginary ‘greater good’ reason. C’mon, people. I’m pretty sure we can have anti-harassment policies and still be firmly in support of freedom of speech. Abused and harassed people shouldn’t have to endure suffering for your ideology. If they do, your ideology is harmful and toxic.

It seems the mere mention of tools that support and encourage marginalised people to be a part of the tech industry incites a frothing flame war from the privileged. Mention a Code of Conduct or Anti Harassment policy or any kind of diverse speaker or employment strategy, and you will be met with a bunch of people angry that they don’t get to run around the net like naughty children anymore. Yes, there are consequences to your words. Yes, the internet is real life, it always has been.

Yes, there are consequences to your words. Yes, the internet is real life, it always has been.

It seems like these tech freedom organisations aren’t so much about liberty or freedom but are designed to support the status quo. When you support the stories of men who abuse and hate to the point of idolisation, you are doing so at the expense of the people they have hurt and will continue to hurt if unchecked. This apparently seems to be secondary to the all-important ‘freedom of information’ or ‘freedom to privacy’ or ‘freedom of speech’ that these organisations champion. As long as they have the right to say and do anything without any repercussions, they’re happy.

The organisations who are doing internet freedom work are also the ones who are idolising and absolving the various hateful actions of men.

Unfortunately I don’t have any answers. The organisations who are doing internet freedom work are also the ones who are idolising and absolving the various hateful actions of men. It all adds up to build a pattern of anti-women rhetoric and it’s certainly one that makes me feel absolutely unwelcome. It stops feeling like it’s very much about freedom or privacy. It’s certainly not about the freedom and privacy of those who a typically and historically stripped of it (minorities, women, LGBTI or people living with disability).

This was a difficult piece to write. Not because of the subject matter, but because there is so much subject matter that it’s difficult to know where to stop. I have watched women be driven from tech and driven from their homes this year thanks to the harassment they have received, and I see organisations like EFF and Wikileaks being complicit or outright wooing their harassers. If you’re a woman in tech, you soak in this environment every day. It’s not special and over time it stops being particularly outrageous. But it never stops being disappointing, angering or horrible.

Why stay? Because despite all of this stuff. Despite the misogyny, the threats, the abuse and the torrents of shit, there’s some truly wonderful and amazing things that can be done with tech. It has such a beautiful and unlimited potential and it can and does bring so much good to people’s lives. Misogynists don’t and never will deserve to win. So I look to stay here and dig my feet in and be loud and fight while I can.

About Jem Yoshioka (5 Articles)
Jem Yoshioka is an illustrator and storyteller based in Wellington, New Zealand. A geek who loves video games and science fiction, Jem spends a lot of time engaged in geek culture, commenting and critiquing through a feminist lens. Once nicknamed ‘The Internet’, she can google for cat gifs better than you can. You can find her drawing, knitting or playing video games (sometimes attempting to do all three at once).

12 Comments on Tech Freedom vs Feminism

  1. I thoroughly recommend reading Yellow Peril archive on Public Address – Tze Ming Mok hasn’t posted there for a while, but when she did, we had a few discussions about misogyny on the Net, along with other women who posted there. Russ Brown always ran (and still does) a moderation policy that allowed firm moderation for sexist and other hate speech or trolling; Emma Hart, Jolisa Gracewood and others benefited from this upfront policy.

    ‘Teh Interwebz’, as I like to call them on my most unco days, are full of the most entrenched patriarchal structures, which go right back to the inception of the Arpa and Darpa nets, a linkage of IT projects connecting universities and military installations in the USA.
    This is why all the worst trolls began in the States, and why ‘tech liberty’ issues are all about ‘as it is seen from US constitutional law’.
    Scratch any tech libertarian, and you’ll find an unreconstructed member of the gun rights lobby, who likes his women naked & panting, when found on the internet. Hence the instant misogyny when a women deigns to be intelligent, focussed, and employed in IT, not stripping.

    Fwiw, women in IT were a rarity before the mid-80’s, as most development initially came as spin-offs from Defense contracts in the USA or UK, and then spread through intelligence networks. There was a huge push in tertiary education (here and overseas) in the early 80’s to get more tech grad’s; and along the way, they discovered to their surprise that there were a lot of women getting qualified, and they were pretty good workers, too.

    The internet in NZ began as a project of University of Waikato, who brought in the first cable to that campus. It’s just been a low-key feature of their 50th Anniversary celebrations, part of a story-board of significant events over the past five decades. Hilariously, this article about the foundation of the NZ internet connection also hails the beginning of Women’s Studies as a field of study, at around the same time.
    Irony, much?
    The South Pacific Cable that lands on the North Shore in Auckland was a business initiative a few years later, so that MNC’s could have the same access to their Head Offices in NZ that they enjoyed in the USA/Europe. The first connections were expensive, slow and limited to CBD Wellington and Auckland, but were rolled out to Government Ministries and Departments by the end of the 90’s.

    My sister was one of those early IT geeks, and she was constantly overlooked in promotions in her twenties. She got more skilled, and more militant, as time went by, and has been a force to reckon with in the Wellington IT scene. Most of her female classmates quietly gave up & quit working in the profession. She is now an independent consultant, working contracts here and overseas, from a semi-rural provincial location, and loving it. Time will tell how much longer she keeps doing that.

    Jem, your generation stands on our shoulders. We wish you well, but several decades of Aspie guys who ran the show is not easy to counter; don’t burn out while you dig in! The women who survive working into their 40’s and 50’s in the IT industry are usually exceptional. If you meet one, ask her to mentor you, it will be well worth it. Networking with women who have strategies to survive is a very useful thing to do, and you’d be surprised how many women do it informally within IT, without calling it such.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jem Yoshioka // November 20, 2014 at 11:15 am //

      Thank you so much for your post! I know a bit about the history of the internet, but it’s always interesting to have more info around how New Zealand fits into that scheme.

      Thanks for taking the time to write. I’m certainly not going to go anywhere and I’m always interested in connecting with more women within IT.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Freedom of speech on the internet means that you’re free to go and start your own website and say whatever you want there. But, same as in the real world, no-one is free to walk into someone else’s house and force people to listen to whatever they want to say.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t followed the Assange case, I always assumed HE was a victim of harrasment. It’s easy to fall into the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ assumption, and I’ve never heard any evidence against him. It’s grating to see the assumption that he’s guilty and should be ostracized based solely on allegations – allegations that may be exagerated, coerced, or even fabricated for political motives.

    What I never considered, until this blog post, was the potential harrasment and misinformation regarding his accusers – and that he should stop being a coward and face them in a court of law.

    As for the concept of innocent until proven guilty, I’m going to have to rethink my blind belief in it.


    • It’s interesting your own comment basically reinforces many of the myths about Julian Assange. Why didn’t you seek out information at the time instead of taking it on blind faith that it was “just” allegations?

      This isn’t about “rethinking” the concept of innocent until proven guilty. It’s about deciding whose security you prioritise. And in the case of techy/geeky circles, that decision almost always comes down on the side of the abusers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • One Anonymous Bloke // November 20, 2014 at 7:32 pm //

        The problem is self-evident – the solution, not so much. The People’s Central Committee, for example, has banned references to the events in Tiananmen Square twenty-five years ago. Too successfully, as it turned out, when small ads praising the bravery of the mothers of the dead failed to alert censors who had no idea what was being said.

        See also: the provenance of Grass Mud Horse Covering The Centre by Ai Weiwei.

        Suppression of vile hate speech is likely to be just as effective as stamping out dissent or exterminating rats. What’s needed is better ethics and education, as usual, and in particular for men to set better examples.


    • From what I read of the Swedish police report years ago, Assange behaved like an entitled prick, was a ticket to bad sex, and crossed lines he shouldn’t have. (Eg not wearing a condom when the explicit agreement was that he would, penetration when his partner was asleep, that kind of thing.) As far as I know, he doesn’t even contest this. He just thinks it’s okay, which only makes it worse.

      Yes, that should get you ostracized from ordinary society. Does it usually? Unfortunately, no. So there’s the added wrinkle that somehow, in his specific case, this is worth pursuing with the combined power of several nations and Interpol.

      And, post-Snowden, I no longer sneer at the idea that the Swedes would extradite him to the US. Even pre-Snowden, it’s been clear for a long time what the US does to dissidents. So I think he does have a point about not wanting to return to Sweden.

      None of which changes the fact that conference organizers should not be putting anyone with his type of history on any kind of pedestal. One can acknowledge the contribution of Wikileaks without that.


    • I did a thing about it two years back,

      “Julian places himself on a pedestal, or balcony, or court steps and preaches freedom of information, freedom from persecution and freedom to continue his work. But in doing so, and by attacking the alleged victims and the prosecutor, and doing so on no other basis than they are women, or they seek equality, blows a huge hole in the side of his personal and professional conduct and morality. You can’t be for freedom, without being for equality. You can’t be for accountability of Government, unless you hold yourself accountable for your actions. You can’t run away from answering questions, and maintain your integrity as an arbiter for truth.

      What you certainly shouldn’t do, when you are on such suspicious ground as denying a charge of rape simply because you do not consider your actions to be rape, is begin to produce a series of external reasons relating to your professional life, the situation of others who have suffered as a result of the Wikileaks releases or even those who have faced down an unspeakably corrupt justice system by standing trial and being convicted.

      All of which Assange. By shifting the attention to the U.S, to [Chelsea] Manning and to the tragically heroic Pussy Riot he has further pushed the issue of rape away from his personal and professional image. He has provoked a wave of misogyny and ill-informed comment about what constitutes rape. And he has damaged the progress, the painfully slow progress, which has been made in bringing the issue of under-reporting of rape forward. And I really don’t need to tell you but this is a, capitals for emphasis, BAD THING.

      If Assange is so much for freedom of information, revelation of embarrassing or criminal acts and accountability he could do with starting with his own actions. Because if he doesn’t, the hard work of Wikileaks is tainted by a stain that darkens with each dismissal, avoidance and attack on the questions that he must answer.”

      The fact it’s over two years later and he’s still there, I mean for fucks sake man, give it up.


  4. Julian Assange has two main detractions in his position on rape: he’s an Aussie, and he’s my generation.
    Both of these factors lead to a bunch of assumptions about sexual privilege; he’s got away with behaving like an arsehole for thirty years, and suddenly he gets called on it by two womenin Sweden, who admit to having pursued him for some recreational fun – but he didn’t respect the boundaries of consent that *most* young men and women take for granted in these exceptionally well-intentioned days.

    I have nothing but contempt for Assange’s actions in this case; he does no good to the cause of Wikileaks by refusing to respond to charges.
    There’s a grey area around whether the two young women were put up to making their complaint; there’s a darker grey area around the input CIA and NSA have made into the whole scenario, and I agree there’s real risk of USA retaliating in an escalating and out-of-order manner if they succeed in extraditing him.
    But some acknowledgment of harm done and some attempt at attitudinal correction would go a long way towards making Assange’s case look better.
    All he comes off as atm is looking like an arrogant, entitled prick.
    Lefty liberal political women totally don’t follow that kind of leader, which is what killed InternetMana’s vote base dead a week before the elections, imho.


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