Tyranny of Structurelessness?

The recent sexual assault and bullying allegations against Jacob Applebaum, formerly of Tor, have caused the digital security community to re-examine itself in the quest to prevent similar situations from arising in the future. In this guest post from McGill professor Gabriella Coleman, we examine how the structure of the Tor project itself led to the current resolution. 

Gabriella Coleman via YouTube

Gabriella Coleman via YouTube

So for those who are not in the hacker world, there has been a series of bombshell accusations of sexual assault made against a prominent hacker. I am writing this post as I have seen others here (here being Facebook but I have also taken my response off Facebook) blaming the tyranny of structureless for the assaults, and/or for the fact that action was not taken immediately.

From my vantage point, it was precisely because an organization, Tor, did something about it that laudable action was taken, leading to a host of other groups and organizations in the hacker world to take a stand. While there are, to be sure, major and rather particular issues with gender and diversity in the hacker world, this case, in my estimation is worth learning a bit about because the outcome has been thus far admirable. The swift outcome sits in contrast with many universities who refuse to take any action with their serial harassers. I am posting a longish response (which has many links to the case/and victim stories) which offers some thoughts on what has happened in the last few weeks:
I am going to start this post with two quotes from the victims:

“Lastly, I would like to say that I’ve never been prouder to work for The Tor Project, as their recent actions to stand against abuse have set nothing short of an exemplary model for other organisations.” Isis Agora Lovecruft

“Shari’s response, and the response of other leaders and members of our community, has been fair and appropriate. I am proud that our community confronted a difficult problem honestly and with strength.” Alison Macrina

I’ve opened with just to emphasize that Tor did deal with it. Tor is an organization, so I am not sure how the tyranny of structureless applies. There are so many hacker organizations from the Chaos Computer Club to conferences, to free and open source software projects that—despite the entrenched stereotypes to the contrary, which I can’t seem to dislodge no matter how hard I try—are structured.

And it is precisely because they are stable organizations that action was taken in this case and in fact, many projects in the last five years have (finally) issued long overdue strongly worded codes of conduct with zero tolerance for this sort of bull shit, awful behavior.

Sadly some of the most salient aspects of this case don’t strike me as unique to hackers but have to do with the toxicity and power of celebrity figures and the cowardice of institutions to take a stand against them.

Let’s take the very disturbing case, that of Jian Ghomeshi–a famous radio personality well known to every Canadian because he was CBC’s star host. Now, it was well known there was a problem with harassment and assault. There was a CBC employee who complained and CBC did JACK FUCKING SHIT. It took a major story in the Toronto Star for the CBC to give him the boot.

The minor point here I am trying to make is that many (perhaps not all but many) of these dynamics are in no way unique to hackers. It is fucking hard to take a stand against a powerful, manipulative, and celebrity figure whether he is a journalist, a hacker, politician, or an academic.

What I find fascinating about this case is how, once the complaints were finally levied in Tor, action was taken relatively swiftly by Shari Steele, Tor’s current executive director. Obviously the most important decision was for the women speak up and share their stories. I can only imagine how hard it was to take that first step.

But let’s not discount the role of Tor acting: This decision was pivotal as well. It is well known that various universities refuse to do anything with professors who are serial harasses. Administrators quietly reprimand the accused professor and life goes on to the detriment of all. One of the most prominent feminist professors, Sara Ahmed, recently resigned from her post at Goldsmith’s to protest her universities cowardly refusal to act in the face of countless credible accusations.

Just when I finished writing this, I stumbled on this article Hundreds Of Professors Sign Letter Condemning Yale Philosopher, which is a good example of Yale’s refusal to do much of anything against an ethics (yes . . . ethics) philosophy professor who preyed on young undergraduates, most of them minority students. But at least the philosophy profs refused to stay silent on this matter and perhaps issuing this denouncement just might force the university to do something.

In contrast we have a case where the action was relatively swift and decisive once it became widely known.

It is why the victims, Isis and Alison, quoted above, praised Tor and stood by what Tor did for them, links to their stories below.

Once he was forced to resign, it signaled to people less familiar with the situation that unacceptable infractions had transpired and this sort of behavior would not be tolerated. This came in conjunction with powerful, first hand anonymous accounts also published at the same time.

And then what happened?

Well there were all sorts of responses, as you would expect. There were accusations of character smearing. Some people on Twitter bemoaned the “lack” of due process and sadly were unable to stand by the anonymous accounts. Conspiracy theories mushroomed (please read Alison’s and Isis accounts as they address this fallacy of due process really, really well).

But rather swiftly numerous organizations and groups, notably the Cult of the Dead Cow and not long after the hacker spaceNoisebridge kicked Jacob out. CDC took action when the accusations were still largely anonymous. Two of the most important hacker groups acted very very quickly.

Then Leigh Honeywell wrote a powerful piece with her name. It was followed by Alison’s and then Isis’ powerful first person accounts.

These accounts were also game changers. After these pieces were published the CCC tweeted that Jacob had been dis-invited to their events.Not long after, And Debian also gave him the boot. Another vivid, first person account was published by Violet Blue.

Sure, I was not thrilled that people had to de-anonymize themselves to be believed and said so but I am still proud that these groups took a stand and they should be commended for it.

Just to circle back to my earlier point, I don’t see this as a issue of the tyranny of structureless (and again there were, thankfully structured projects that booted him out, which relayed to the wider community that something was amiss) but a deep and entrenched problem with sexual assault and predators and manipulation. If anything, I think the larger issue may have to do with a toxic combination of tolerating celebrity/asshole behavior, along with perhaps personality disorder issues and manipulation (but I am not going to speak to this now, especially since I am not a medical professional but I do know something about them and they are awfully destructive).

It is not easy and was not easy for the women to speak up. I have known Jacob for 10 + years and it was only when the woman came forward in the Tor project that I had ever heard these specific sexual assault accusations. The problem of how to speak up against your assailant is as tough as it comes. Many were intimidated. From the sounds it there were a small circle of people who had shared stories for years but by and large, it was contained.

Once the specific stories were published—I was heartened that many people and groups chose to support the victims.

I also want to make clear that I am not writing to put the hacker community on some pedestal. My understanding is that when the very first revelations were made to Tor, there were many bumps and bruises and some collateral damage. Tor’s first blog post on JA’s resignation was anemic and tepid and they were forced, thankfully, to write something more substantial. I am not privy to everything that happened behind the scenes. Most glaringly problematic behavior was tolerated for way too long. I am sure things could have been handled differently, earlier, and better. And perhaps those closest to these events might eventually offer us some valuable insights about what could have been done differently.

Still, in the aftermath it has been great to all the support and see posts like this amazingly detailed and insightful piece, No more rock stars: how to stop abuse in tech communities, by Leigh Honeywell, Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora, which provides a pragmatic guide for how to empower communities so as to help prevent this scenario from manifesting in the future.

Honestly when the news broke, I braced myself for the worst. But by and large the community has responded in ways that I am quite proud of. The hacker scene is a far flung, diverse, international network composed of stable groups, projects, and ad hoc and informal associations and many many countless individuals. Of course, there is going to be some degree of structureless because it is a movement, a scene. There is no center of gravity. Not everything can be solved via an institutional process. But what this case has shown is that when people dare speak up, when people dare to support the victims, and when institutions dare take a stand, some degree of positive change can be catalyzed.

I hope others will learn from what this case (and the many responses/reflection to the case) have to offer.

Categories: Activism, Bureaucracy, Chaos Computer Club, Conferences, Crypto-Anarchism, Cyber, Enforced Transparency, Essays, Hackers, Hacktivism, Leaks, News, Philosophy, Politics, Privacy, Security, Sexism, TOR

10 replies

  1. It does not seem to me that tor dealt with anything swiftly. Tor started to deal with it once accusations were numerous, public and included rape accusation. First time a women complained about him, she was punished by tor.

    Assuming accounts are true, the harassment, bullying and stealing other peoples work were pattern of behavior. Not only sexual but also “just” to get what he wanted or destroy opponents. Judging from multiple confirmations “I have seen that” coming from respected people, bulk of that was done in public, on meetings and during conferences. Tor leadership must have known about all of that for years. It was open secret among fairly large group of people.

    If you have any ambition to have non-toxic workplace where people don’t steal each other credit and don’t harass their competitors/opponents away, you will get rid of someone like Jake on his non-sexual behavior only. Long before he rise into prominence, long before he amas so much power that everyone is afraid of him.

    Institutions should have prevent his rise or get rid of him on the non-sexual bullying behavior done against men alone. Repeated events where he non-sexually humiliated men/women or lied about them in public should make institution get rid of him or at least put him in place where he does not have power over people nor influence.

    The repeated events when he bullied women by sexually humiliating them in public and on meetings should make institution get rid of him without rape or other nonconsensual physical contact acccusations in them mix. Again, juding from acccounts, no one present (including people close to tor leadership) could possibly mistake Jake behavior with harmless joke of sexual nature nor with consequence of asperberg/nerdiness. It is just not same thing.

    Yes, the sexual harassment accusations are the worst and most juicy accusations in the mix.

    However, the fact that both Tor project and hacker community see no issue with general toxicity, stealing other peoples work or destroying careers by lying, bullying speaks very badly about that community and Tor project in particular. The exactly same sociopath who could manage to keep pants and hand on would be tolerated, celebrated, defended and untouchable for way more years. He would damaged careers or way more people, men and women alike.

    His behavior is not an issue of someone being overly direct (as Torwalds tend to be) nor not being politically correct enough. I bet he would be defended on same grounds through (making difference between two men muddled).

    Overall, I believe these communities are currently being bullied by equally dangerous radical feminists groups in it for blood and control. As sad as it is, it seems to me, that fear of these groups and bad public relations they can generate is the only reason Tor and hackers community reacted and did anything. That does not mean I want to praise them, but that means nothing will change overall.

    The community will tolerate sociopaths and punish his/her victims until equally powerful sociopath comes around and make them scared. In which case, sociopath at the top changes, but overall situation not so much.


  2. It’s telling that Professor Coleman identifies two of the victims—Isis Agora Lovecruft and Alison Macrina—but omits the surname of their alleged abuser. Instead she refers to him familiarly as Jacob, whom she has known “for 10 + years.” For the record, the publicly accused harasser, who has been fully named in more than 100 news reports published worldwide, is Jacob Appelbaum.

    It’s also telling that Coleman applies the words “swift” or “swiftly” four times in describing Tor’s action, despite acknowledging, “Most glaringly problematic behavior was tolerated for way too long. I am sure things could have been handled differently, earlier, and better.”

    Coleman is correct in arguing that the Tor Project is not structureless. However, Tor’s organization is rudimentary at best. And therein lies the rub.

    As Coleman herself observes, many of the victims of Appelbaum’s alleged longstanding harassment “were intimidated. From the sounds it [appears] there were a small circle of people who had shared stories for years but by and large, it was contained.”

    Exactly. Far from acting swiftly, the Tor Project ignored this problem for years—a cover-up made possible and perhaps even inevitable by Tor’s institutional incoherence.

    Because Tor derives, according to a November 2015 story by The Verge, 80–90 % of its annual funding from the U.S. Government, some people assume the Tor Project is a mature bureaucracy. In fact, as Bloomberg reported in January 2014, “Tor’s world headquarters occupies one room of a YWCA in Cambridge, Mass. Of 33 ‘core people’ listed on Tor’s website, nine are full-time employees, and the majority work remotely.” As Tor’s press person explained, “The Tor team is primarily virtual (and spread around the world), so our office is made up of only a few members of the team working there on a regular basis.”

    Having employees and contractors remotely distributed made it easy for the Tor Project to turn a blind eye to harassment in its virtual workplace. On June 9, 2016, BuzzFeed revealed that the Tor Project’s “leading lights” knew of such allegations for more than a year before acting. In March 2015, Tor’s development director Karen Reilly (responsible for fundraising, advocacy, general marketing, policy outreach programs) reported serial sexual and professional harassment by Jacob Appelbaum to Tor’s project leader and cofounder Roger Dingledine, vice president and cofounder Nick Mathewson, executive director & CEO Andrew Lewman, board member Wendy Seltzer (a lawyer), and organizational strategist Sue Gardner (former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation). Amazingly, this resulted in the resignation not of Appelbaum—who was merely suspended for 10 days—but of his accuser Karen Reilly, who BuzzFeed said was threatened with suspension “for spreading rumors about the Tor Project.” This is presumably what Gabriella Coleman alludes to as “bumps and bruises and some collateral damage” after the first revelations were made to Tor.

    In light of this unseemly background, it’s absurd to now congratulate the Tor Project for “swift” action. Shari Steele, Tor’s executive director since December 2015, admitted on June 4, 2016, “These types of allegations were not entirely new to everybody at Tor; they were consistent with rumors some of us had been hearing for some time.” Tor’s failure to take those rumors seriously for fifteen months is an indictment of Tor’s leadership, then and now, and proof of its organizational dysfunction.


  3. I, personally, couldn’t have written the Jacob Applebaum allegations story, since it’s pretty well-known we dislike one another. I’m glad that Professor Coleman stepped up here and wrote it as someone acquainted with both the accused and the accusers.


  4. Still waiting for anything resembling criminal or civil charges.

    To rewrite a recently popular phrase.

    “Charges or it didn’t happen.”


    • I doubt there will be charges. Not informing the police is more common post-assault behavior than going to the police is. And if you go to the police, the likelihood of charges is low anyway, even if the accused isn’t on a different continent by trial time.


  5. Don’t you mean ‘alleged victims’?


    • I know Jacob personally. I’ve only met some of his accusers, but most, if not all, are in intersecting social circles with mine, and their reputations are unimpeachable. Among those that know them there is zero doubt about the charges against Applebaum. They are victims, and he is a criminal.


  6. Shari was set up for this unwise action by previous director, having a list of “complaints over a long period of time”. I think what triggered it was Jake’s spoof of what it takes to get hired as a dev on torproject. He saw the project as compromised, and took a dim view of how the “community” was assembled – certainly not by merit. What is criminal here is the campaign to destroy Appelbaum’s life outside of TOR by a determined Mediocrity who made their own rules as they reeled headlong into a future based on their own private pleasures.

    I personally believe they dumped him simply to retain their own privileges granted by the USG intelligence and foreign policy community: their zeal increased rapidly as he continued to challenge and out intel agents during his tours promoting TOR, spending more time on Snowden than TOR itself. Of course, they were not going to directly attack him but used instead the modus of their own little snake pit.


    • So, you’re saying that the women involved are lying? I know their reputations. I’m friends with their friends. Some have shown up to dinners with me. Not a single person who knows them doubts their stories.

      It’s sad that Applebaum is such a flawed vessel for the message he was carrying. I know him, and I can really see how the same personality traits that made him such a successful advocate also led to him being a rapist. He’s a dick, but that’s part of what made him successful at being such a good publicist.

      Some people who do good things in one sphere of life are horrible human beings in another. Welcome to humanity.


      • I think Biella is reserving judgement. Me, I heard these things for years and have no doubts. I’m particularly offended by his oft-asserted Queer identity while it’s clear a pattern of sexual abuse exclusively of women has emerged.


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