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June 16, 2019
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Sexual harassment

On the Internet of Women with Moira Weigel

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“Feminism,” the writer and editor Marie Shear famously said in an often-misattributed quote, “is the radical notion that women are people.” The genius of this line, of course, is that it appears to be entirely non-controversial, which reminds us all the more effectively of the past century of fierce debates surrounding women’s equality.

And what about in tech ethics? It would seem equally non-controversial that ethical tech is supposed to be good for “people,” but is the broader tech world and its culture good for the majority of humans who happen to be women? And to the extent it isn’t, what does that say about any of us, and about all of our technology?

I’ve known, since I began planning this TechCrunch series exploring the ethics of tech, that it would need to thoroughly cover issues of gender. Because as we enter an age of AI, with machines learning to be ever more like us, what could be more critical than addressing the issues of sex and sexism often at the heart of the hardest conflicts in human history thus far?

Meanwhile, several months before I began envisioning this series I stumbled across the fourth issue of a new magazine called Logic, a journal on technology, ethics, and culture. Logic publishes primarily on paper — yes, the actual, physical stuff, and a satisfyingly meaty stock of it, at that.

In it, I found a brief essay, “The Internet of Women,” that is a must-read, an instant classic in tech ethics. The piece is by Moira Weigel, one of Logic’s founders and currently a member of Harvard University’s “Society of Fellows” — one of the world’s most elite societies of young academics.

A fast-talking 30-something Brooklynite with a Ph.D. from Yale, Weigel’s work combines her interest in sex, gender, and feminism, with a critical and witty analysis of our technology culture.

In this first of a two-part interview, I speak with Moira in depth about some of the issues she covers in her essay and beyond: #MeToo; the internet as a “feminizing” influence on culture; digital media ethics around sexism; and women in political and tech leadership.

Greg E.: How would you summarize the piece in a sentence or so?

Moira W.: It’s an idiosyncratic piece with a couple of different layers. But if I had to summarize it in just a sentence or two I’d say that it’s taking a closer look at the role that platforms like Facebook and Twitter have played in the so-called “#MeToo moment.”

In late 2017 and early 2018, I became interested in the tensions that the moment was exposing between digital media and so-called “legacy media” — print newspapers and magazines like The New York Times and Harper’s and The Atlantic. Digital media were making it possible to see structural sexism in new ways, and for voices and stories to be heard that would have gotten buried, previously.

A lot of the conversation unfolding in legacy media seemed to concern who was allowed to say what where. For me, this subtext was important: The #MeToo moment was not just about the sexualized abuse of power but also about who had authority to talk about what in public — or the semi-public spaces of the Internet.

At the same time, it seemed to me that the ongoing collapse of print media as an industry, and really what people sometimes call the “feminization” of work in general, was an important part of the context.

When people talk about jobs getting “feminized” they can mean many things — jobs becoming lower paid, lower status, flexible or precarious, demanding more emotional management and the cultivation of an “image,” blurring the boundary between “work” and “life.”

The increasing instability or insecurity of media workplaces only make women more vulnerable to the kinds of sexualized abuses of power the #MeToo hashtag was being used to talk about.

Tall Poppy aims to make online harassment protection an employee benefit

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For the nearly 20 percent of Americans who experience severe online harassment, there’s a new company launching in the latest batch of Y Combinator called Tall Poppy that’s giving them the tools to fight back.

Co-founded by Leigh Honeywell and Logan Dean, Tall Poppy grew out of the work that Honeywell, a security specialist, had been doing to hunt down trolls in online communities since at least 2008.

That was the year that Honeywell first went after a particularly noxious specimen who spent his time sending death threats to women in various Linux communities. Honeywell cooperated with law enforcement to try and track down the troll and eventually pushed the commenter into hiding after he was visited by investigators.

That early success led Honeywell to assume a not-so-secret identity as a security expert by day for companies like Microsoft, Salesforce, and Slack, and a defender against online harassment when she wasn’t at work.

“It was an accidental thing that I got into this work,” says Honeywell. “It’s sort of an occupational hazard of being an internet feminist.”

Honeywell started working one-on-one with victims of online harassment that would be referred to her directly.

“As people were coming forward with #metoo… I was working with a number of high profile folks to essentially batten down the hatches,” says Honeywell. “It’s been satisfying work helping people get back a sense of safety when they feel like they have lost it.”

As those referrals began to climb (eventually numbering in the low hundreds of cases), Honeywell began to think about ways to systematize her approach so it could reach the widest number of people possible.

“The reason we’re doing it that way is to help scale up,” says Honeywell. “As with everything in computer security it’s an arms race… As you learn to combat abuse the abusive people adopt technologies and learn new tactics and ways to get around it.”

Primarily, Tall Poppy will provide an educational toolkit to help people lock down their own presence and do incident response properly, says Honeywell. The company will work with customers to gain an understanding of how to protect themselves, but also to be aware of the laws in each state that they can use to protect themselves and punish their attackers.

The scope of the problem

Based on research conducted by the Pew Foundation, there are millions of people in the U.S. alone, who could benefit from the type of service that Tall Poppy aims to provide.

According to a 2017 study, “nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) have been subjected to particularly severe forms of harassment online, such as physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment or stalking.”

The women and minorities that bear the brunt of these assaults (and, let’s be clear, it is primarily women and minorities who bear the brunt of these assaults), face very real consequences from these virtual assaults.

Take the case of the New York principal who lost her job when an ex-boyfriend sent stolen photographs of her to the New York Post and her boss. In a powerful piece for Jezebel she wrote about the consequences of her harassment.

As a result, city investigators escorted me out of my school pending an investigation. The subsequent investigation quickly showed that I was set up by my abuser. Still, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration demoted me from principal to teacher, slashed my pay in half, and sent me to a rubber room, the DOE’s notorious reassignment centers where hundreds of unwanted employees languish until they are fired or forgotten.

In 2016, I took a yearlong medical leave from the DOE to treat extreme post-traumatic stress and anxiety. Since the leave was almost entirely unpaid, I took loans against my pension to get by. I ran out of money in early 2017 and reported back to the department, where I was quickly sent to an administrative trial. There the city tried to terminate me. I was charged with eight counts of misconduct despite the conclusion by all parties that my ex-partner uploaded the photos to the computer and that there was no evidence to back up his salacious story. I was accused of bringing “widespread negative publicity, ridicule and notoriety” to the school system, as well as “failing to safeguard a Department of Education computer” from my abusive ex.

Her story isn’t unique. Victims of online harassment regularly face serious consequences from online harassment.

According to a  2013 Science Daily study, cyber stalking victims routinely need to take time off from work, or change or quit their job or school. And the stalking costs the victims $1200 on average to even attempt to address the harassment, the study said.

“It’s this widespread problem and the platforms have in many ways have dropped the ball on this,” Honeywell says.

Tall Poppy’s co-founders

Creating Tall Poppy

As Honeywell heard more and more stories of online intimidation and assault, she started laying the groundwork for the service that would eventually become Tall Poppy. Through a mutual friend she reached out to Dean, a talented coder who had been working at Ticketfly before its Eventbrite acquisition and was looking for a new opportunity.

That was in early 2015. But, afraid that striking out on her own would affect her citizenship status (Honeywell is Canadian), she and Dean waited before making the move to finally start the company.

What ultimately convinced them was the election of Donald Trump.

“After the election I had a heart-to-heart with myself… And I decided that I could move back to Canada, but I wanted to stay and fight,” Honeywell says.

Initially, Honeywell took on a year-long fellowship with the American Civil Liberties Union to pick up on work around privacy and security that had been handled by Chris Soghoian who had left to take a position with Senator Ron Wyden’s office.

But the idea for Tall Poppy remained, and once Honeywell received her green card, she was “chomping at the bit to start this company.”

A few months in the company already has businesses that have signed up for the services and tools it provides to help companies protect their employees.

Some platforms have taken small steps against online harassment. Facebook, for instance, launched an initiative to get people to upload their nude pictures  so that the social network can monitor when similar images are distributed online and contact a user to see if the distribution is consensual.

Meanwhile, Twitter has made a series of changes to its algorithm to combat online abuse.

“People were shocked and horrified that people were trying this,” Honeywell says. “[But] what is the way [harassers] can do the most damage? Sharing them to Facebook is one of the ways where they can do the most damage. It was a worthwhile experiment.”

To underscore how pervasive a problem online harassment is, out of the four companies where the company is doing business or could do business in the first month and a half there is already an issue that the company is addressing. 

“It is an important problem to work on,” says Honeywell. “My recurring realization is that the cavalry is not coming.”

Hootsworth helps you address sexual harassment and other workplace issues

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Harassment is clearly an issue everywhere. Hootsworth, founded by harassment legal expert Janine Yancey, is launching today to provide a resource and tool for employees and employers to address harassment and other workplace issues.

“For a long time now I’ve seen that the current structure is not designed to get great results on either side for employees or employers,” Janine Yancey told TechCrunch.

With Hootsworth, anyone can ask questions to human resource experts and employment lawyers. Within 24 hours, you can expect to get a personalized response from a neutral third party. In order to broadly provide this information to the masses, Hootsworth will anonymize your question and then post the answer for all to see. At launch, Hootsworth has more than 1,000 searchable questions and answers people can browse.

“The design and purpose is to provide people real guidance that is actionable in real time,” Yancey said. “Often times we’re suggesting language to use or emails to write because, as domain experts, we know what you need to do to get the results you need to get.”

Hootsworth is totally free to use, in part thanks to it being under the umbrella of Emtrain, a platform that sells compliance and learning platforms to employers like Pinterest, Netflix and BuzzFeed. In 2016, Emtrain launched an unconscious bias course in partnership with Paradigm, a diversity consulting company.

“We’re excited to bring a solution and the service to the marketplace that is really needed right now,” Yancey said. “We want to change the way people get information. Right now, a lot of times people kind of close their eyes and guess or feel stifled because they don’t feel comfortable going to HR.”

WTF is sexual harassment

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It pains me to have to write this, but write it I must as the past week’s events have shown there are surprisingly many people in Silicon Valley who wouldn’t know what sexual harassment was if it slapped them on the behind without permission.

There are many cases that could be useful as a launching point; let’s start with the recent and lengthy rebuttal of so-called tech evangelist Robert Scoble, following multiple allegations that he has sexually harassed and assaulted a number women in the industry where Scoble has made his name.

As Scoble wrote in his own defense, on his personal blog this week, “If I were guilty of all the things said about me, I would still not be in a position to have sexually harassed anyone. I don’t have employees, I don’t cut checks for investment. None of the women who came forward were ever in a position where I could make or break their careers. Sexual harassment requires that I have such power.”

Scores of supporters came to Scoble’s defense in the aftermath of the allegations. Scott Jordan, CEO of Scottevest, was one of the most outspoken, writing on Scoble’s original apology post (now made private) that because Scoble was inappropriately touchy with him in the past —  in a way that made him feel uncomfortable but didn’t emotionally scar him — it was not harassment.

That’s an alarming revelation on its own, obviously. But it’s also a false assumption, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which defines harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

Put another way, you also don’t have to be directly in charge of someone or cut their check to harass them. States the EEOC, “The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.”

Yet there are other wrong-headed assumptions — many of them.

Take the idea that if a perpetrator was drinking at the same time that he or she was harassing another person and thus impaired by alcohol, that person should not be held accountable for their actions. This one relates to Scoble, too, who posted about going sober in 2015 and who has routinely mentioned that his poor behavior can be traced to a time when he’d been drinking, as if that excuses anything.

It doesn’t, including from a legal standpoint. “Voluntary intoxication is not a defense to sexual harassment or assault,” says Chris Baker of Silicon Valley sexual harassment law firm Baker Curtis & Schwartz. “The law does not think much of the argument that people are free to break the law so long as they are drunk when they do it.”

How about the defense that’s most frequently used to normalize harassment — that it’s just a man being a man? This argument was used by JunoWallet exec Chris Sweis, who penned a Medium post in July, titled “I just watched the public neutering of a good man Dave McClure and cannot keep my mouth shut about it.” In his ode to McClure, Sweis writes, “That is what MEN do…We pursue women and women dress to be pursued, wear perfume to be pursued, and in Silicon Valley there are MANY WOMEN who dress to be pursued.” In other words, boys will be boys, and besides, the women were asking for it.

Sweis, rightly, took a lot of flack for that post. However, the idea that these are good guys just being men continues to pervade the tech landscape. We see it in the attitudes of many of Scoble’s Facebook commenters. It’s on Medium and Twitter. It’s there, in print, in the comments section of my TechCrunch post about Scoble allegedly carrying on after going sober.

To defenders of this brand of thinking, calling out bad behavior is akin to a “witch hunt” (a strange label, considering the historical context of witch hunts). These women’s stories of being groped and propositioned aren’t unnerving so much as they are “lame examples of harassment.”

In fairness, shades of gray do occasionally exist, and no one should be judged prematurely.

DFJ cofounder Steve Jurvetson’s is being investigated for misconduct, but for what precisely isn’t yet clear. One founder wrote on her Facebook page that there is rampant “predatory behavior” at the firm, yet this person has also said the two had a personal, not professional, relationship.

Meanwhile several women familiar with the inner workings at DFJ insist that it’s simply not true that the firm treats women poorly, and two of them have come to Jurvetson’s defense specifically.

There are many things that women might wish were against the law but are not, too.  I consider it harassment when I’m whistled at, told to smile, or offered sexually suggestive comments while walking down the street. Each makes me feel unsafe. Legally, however, I have no defense.

Similarly, when Scoble allegedly touched the knee of Michelle Greer, who worked with him at Rackspace for two years, she felt harassed and she says that feeling affected her work performance.

Yet what Scoble did isn’t necessarily against the law, according to Baker, who suggests that “quid pro quo” harassment is a step beyond what transpired between the two. Specifically, says Baker, it’s when “someone conditions an employment or commercial benefit on putting up with, or accepting, sexual advances or conduct,” he says.

“‘Hostile work environment’ harassment is just like it sounds,” he adds. It’s “when the work environment is so sexually charged that it becomes hostile to a reasonable man or woman.”

Of course, to victims of harassment, whether the harassment is technically legal or not  isn’t really the point. “Anyone who defends abusive and harassing behavior by claiming it doesn’t violate the law should consider why their bar is so low,” says Paradigm founder and CEO Joelle Emerson. “Harassing behavior, whether it fits within a context anticipated by employment law or not, is incredibly harmful. It threatens physical and mental health. It depletes cognitive energy. It stalls career growth. It reinforces stereotypes, and perpetuates social inequality. Anyone that wants to argue, ‘But hey, it’s technically legal!’ should know what it is they’re defending.”

So why the apparent confusion in the industry over what, exactly, constitutes sexual harassment? Emerson has a theory or three. “I think often people who defend harassing behavior do so because they have engaged in such behavior themselves. Or they defend individuals accused of this behavior because they believe them to be generally ‘good people.’ Or, as a rule, they just don’t believe women.”

Certainly, as we’re seeing — be it claims about Scoble or McClure or Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein —  not only are some people willing to defend the actions of the accused, but they’ll also question the women who come forward, even when there are scores of them.

Some have a financial incentive to question the people who come forward with stories about their harassment. Scoble, for example, sits on the advisory board for Scottevest. Others look to Scoble’s influence in tech, with the hope that he’ll plug their product. For others still, it may be as Emerson suggests — that, as a rule, they just don’t believe women, depressing though that prospect may be.

The one bright spot here is that after decades of repression, women — and even some men —  are coming forward in droves to out their perpetrators. They have suffered under the weight of this type of abuse, and they’re finally able to have their day.

Others are starting to wake up, to take action to protect those of us who wish for a safer, less hostile environment.

Unfortunately, it looks like we still need to spell out what constitutes a bad actor to some who either don’t know or don’t wish to know that someone who they admired might not be the “good guy” they thought all along.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Good Universe lands movie rights to ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s sexual harassment story

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Independent film production company Good Universe beat out three other bidders to land ‘Disruptors,’ the movie based on former Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s sexual harassment story.

Fowler likely had no idea her blog post about her “One very, very strange year” dealing with sexual harassment and discrimination at Uber would culminate in the ousting of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, a pledge of sweeping changes at the company and a movie deal.

In her original post, Fowler outlined repeated attempts to raise a flag about bad behavior at the hands of leadership and a culture that supported harassment and discrimination. Among many absurdities, Fowler wrote she reported a male supervisor who inappropriately propositioned her to H.R. but was told that noting would be done as this person was a “top performer.”

We don’t have many details about the movie or what will go into it just yet, though we’ve reached out to Fowler’s L.A.-based talent agency Verve for more.

What we do know is that the movie was being shopped around earlier this month and, according to Deadline, which first noted the movie rights were in play, will be written by Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures” screenwriter Allison Schroeder and produced by former Disney executive Kristin Burr.

Erin Westerman is credited with landing the project for Good Universe and will oversee it as it develops. She told Deadline, “This project is an anthem for women, and an important reminder of the power of one female voice.”

Fowler just held her first interview on the events that took place during her tenure at Uber with Maureen Dowd of the New York Times since penning her blog post. She has also sent out her book on the subject to publishers last week. We’re hearing competition is fierce for the publishing rights and the book is likely to get picked up soon as well.

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