In March, a leading technology conference has to figure out how to deal with the real-world fall-out of a nasty battle over online harassment.
In the fall, South by Southwest canceled two planned panels on the gaming industry and harassment after conference organizers threats of violence. But it quickly reinstated them after an outcry over caving to online bullies, and then announced that it would dedicate a whole day to an “Online Harassment Summit."
So rather than being censored by trolls, SXSW is proceeding, but in the backs of organizers' minds are those hopefully-empty threats of violence. So now the question is, how does SXSW plan to keep attendees of the summit in Austin, Texas, safe? Those attending a discussion about how to make the internet safer will obviously need to feel safe in the real world.
Questioned via e-mail, festival director Hugh Forest said that the conference has implemented a “very strong” safety plan. Panelists have been told that there will be "intense security," including bomb sweeps.
Panelists were also told that the event would be held offsite, at the Hyatt Regency rather than the Austin Convention Center, in part because of security concerns. Anyone can participate, including "Gamergaters," unless they violate the summit's rules, such as the ban on filming the event. Here are other rules, from the summit's official code of conduct:
SXSW defines inappropriate behavior as any form of verbal or physical abuse, the use of derogatory or discriminatory language, gestures or actions, any form of harassment, racism, sexism, or any other targeted comments which are intended to cause personal offense to another.
SXSW will take action against any individual(s) it believes to be failing to uphold these standards. Disruptive and/or abusive attendees will be asked to leave the premises.
The code does not specify how an attendee should signal that they consider someone's behavior inappropriate.
Forest said that the safety plan "is patterned after similar plans we have used for other high-profiles events at SXSW over the last few years."
"Protecting the safety of attendees is always our number one concern at SXSW," he said by email. After repeated additional inquiries, Forest told me that for security reasons he could not share further details with the press. But questions like whether the harassment summit will have a metal detector are pertinent. There is a balance to be struck between making people feel safe and making sure they don't feel policed.
When I asked the Austin Police Department whether they would have an increased presence at the conference due to the threats, they told me that SXSW had not asked for an investigation into the original threats or responded to a police request for more details about them. Generally, SXSW has a private security firm handle safety inside conference events, while police handle issues like city traffic.
In the past, female gamers have been forced out of their homes by Gamergate threats and bomb threats have forced the evacuation of Gamergate gatherings. The threat of violence alone could be enough to stop some people from speaking out or attending, so it's important to know what precautions are planned.
It might be impossible to create truly "safe" places online, but in the physical world, it's much less difficult. And those places are necessary to foster the kinds of conversations that will ultimately make the internet a safer place, too.