Recently, Linus Torvalds announced he was taking a temporary leave of absence to “take a break to get help on how to behave differently.” Many people lauded the Linux kernel “benevolent dictator for life” for finally taking steps to address his verbally abusive behavior. However, it turns out Linus stepped down because he knew this article was about to be published about sexism in Linux:
Torvalds’s decision to step aside came after The New Yorker asked him a series of questions about his conduct for a story on complaints about his abusive behavior discouraging women from working as Linux-kernel programmers.
The reporter contacting Linus gave him and his employer, the Linux Foundation (who paid him $1.6 million in 2016) time to plan a response. On Saturday, Greg Kroah-Hartman, acting as a representative of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board, pushed through a hasty commit to change the Linux kernel “Code of Conflict” over to the standard Contributor’s Covenant. On Sunday, Linus announced he was stepping down temporarily, and handed control over to Greg Kroah-Hartman. On Wednesday, the New Yorker article on sexism and verbal abuse in the Linux kernel was published.
It’s interesting to note that the Linux kernel community’s change from the “Code of Conflict” to a standard Code of Conduct was only signed off by 6 out of 10 members of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board. That’s a huge change from the first Code of Conflict, which had over 60 community members sign off on it. This is a big change that wasn’t signed off by the other Linux kernel leaders. There’s now a process for Linux kernel developers to pledge to follow the new Code of Conduct, but it’s an afterthought.
The most important question is whether the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board will promptly and appropriately respond to a Code of Conduct violation report under this new Code of Conduct. The board is currently comprised of 8 white men, one Asian American man, and one African American man. Does a board with no women on have enough understanding of diversity and inclusion to respond to someone who is being harassed because they’re a minority in the community?
To answer that question, it’s important to look at the history of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board. Board members are voted by the Linux kernel developers who can attend a particular Linux Foundation event. In previous years, the voting was held at the event after party, usually when people were distracted with conversation or alcohol. People who have been nominated to the board would need to give a short speech. People who can’t attend the event could send in a written speech, but those were usually read in a monotone voice and remote nominees received few votes.
Because of the way the voting for the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board works, it screws towards a particular demographic. Someone has to be financially well off enough to go to the conference, which skews towards people being paid to work on the Linux kernel. The voting is held at an after party, which might be hard to attend for parents, people who don’t want to be around alcohol, and Deaf people who find noisy environments too hard to participate in. It’s really unsurprising that the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board is mostly white men.[Content warning: rape apology]
It’s also important to note that four of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board members did not sign off on the new Code of Conduct. One of them is Ted Tso, who was banned from Linux Conf Australia for questioning rape statistics on the conference mailing list. Ted expressed doubt that rape victims experienced real harm because in the majority of cases “the perpetrator did not threaten to harm or kill the victim”. He called into question whether rape victims actually gave consent for sex while they were “plied with alcohol.” Based on Ted’s view that rape is over-reported, I believe he is unfit to review Code of Conduct cases involving sexual harassment with a person of any gender, cases that involve sexism, or cases that involve a woman reporter or reported person.[/Content warning]
While it’s good the the Linux kernel community is adopting the standard Contributor Covanent, copy-and-pasting a Code of Conduct does have some downsides. Unless a community customizing the Code of Conduct by adding reporter guidelines, it’s unclear how the committee will handle conflicts of interest.
If someone wants to make a Linux kernel Code of Conduct report, but doesn’t trust one member of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board members, it’s unclear what to do. The new Code of Conduct points to the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board members page, which doesn’t include any individual contact information. Additionally, since not all Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board members signed off on the new Code of Conduct, it’s unclear which of them are open to receiving reports. That means a person who wants to make a Code of Conduct violation report would find it difficult to contact a subset of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board who didn’t have a conflict of interest.
It’s telling that the new Code of Conduct doesn’t include reporting guidelines that detail how the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board will handle a conflict of interest. I believe that means the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board hasn’t put any thought into how to handle a report that involves a board member’s friend, employee, manager, or family member. The Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board is comprised of leaders in the community who have been involved in Linux for decades. A conflict of interest is bound to happen sometime.
Another thing that’s missing from the new Code of Conduct is any guarantee of reporter privacy. Reporting guidelines typically discuss how the community stores reports about a Code of Conduct and who has access to the reports.
The Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board put no such thought into reporter privacy. They ask people who need to report a Code of Conduct violation to email the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board mailing list. That mailing list includes members of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board. Several key Linux Foundation staff members also have access to it. The Code of Conduct does not mention which Linux Foundation staff have access to the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board mailing list.
Further, the mailing list has a private archive stretching back to the creation of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board. When a new board member joins, they have access to years of archives. That means they have access to any reports made against them. People who need to make a report against leaders who might someday in the future be elected to the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board might be concerned about future retaliation. Thus reports against Linux kernel leaders are likely to be few and far between.
I have no faith that the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board will respond to a Code of Conduct violation promptly or with a well-thought out response. We should call on them to release anonymized Code of Conduct transparency reports.
A few communities like the PyCon U.S. conference have been using anonymized transparency reports. A transparency report anonymizes away the personal information of the reporter, but gives enough detail for people to understand what kind of report was made. The report includes how long it took the community to respond to the report, and what action was taken. This shows the community that the leaders do take action against discrimination and harassment. Without a transparency report from the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board, we can’t be sure they have promptly and properly handled any Code of Conduct reports.
My ask to you is to push the Linux Foundation and the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board to release an anonymized transparency report for all the Code of Conduct violations they’ve handled since their “Code of Conflict” was put into place. You can contact the Linux Foundation on Twitter or via email. The email addresses of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board members who signed off on the new Code of Conduct can easily be found in the original patch.
We need to push the Linux Foundation to be open and transparent as Linus Torvalds and the Linux kernel community attempts to live up to their new Code of Conduct.