Modern field guide to security and privacy

SXSW summit wades into volatile online harassment debate

Participants in Saturday's Harassment Summit at the South by Southwest Interactive festival hope to find solutions to the problem of digital harassment.

Sachi Jenkins/Reuters
Former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis (l.) and Soraya Chemaly, a writer and activist, appeared at the online harassment summit at South by Southwest in Austin on March 12.

The Harassment Summit at this year's South by Southwest Interactive festival is meant to explore solutions to combat online abuse. And if the digital intimidation that has trailed participants ahead of Saturday's event is an indication, the problem is more pressing than ever.

"I'm not actively tweeting where I’m going, and I dyed my hair before I left. So far I’m just trying to keep a low radar," said Caroline Sinders, an interaction designer and a panelist on the Harassment Summit's "Level Up, Overcoming Harassment in Games" session. 

Ms. Sinders said she's recently noticed an uptick in trolling on Twitter with users posting information about her employer, which she tries to keep private to minimize exposure to would-be harassers.

SXSW initially cancelled the panel Sinders and two of her colleagues were scheduled to speak on after receiving violent threats in October. The festival also nixed another gaming session titled "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community."

But after significant public pushback, the conference reinstated "Level Up" as part of a larger harassment summit. The day-long event includes 15 panels addressing various aspects of Internet harassment and abuse.

"By canceling two sessions we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry," Hugh Forrest, director of the SXSW Interactive festival, wrote in a blog post following the controversy.

The fact that the discussion about online harassment has generated harsh comments on Twitter and elsewhere online demonstrates the volatility of the issue, and why many people pressed SXSW to create a forum to address the problem.

Massachusetts state Rep. Katherine Clark (D) was among the most vocal proponents for the tech festival to create a forum to talk about Internet abuse. She'll be speaking at one of the sessions on Saturday, and herself has been the victim of harassment. 

In January, after she made news for championing an antiharassment bill, she was a victim of so-called "swatting" attack. (Swatting is when someone calls the police with a fake emergency to get the police SWAT team dispatched to the victim's home.) Representative Clark's bill would make swatting a federal crime. 

Saturday's lineup for the Harassment Summit includes many other speakers who have been on the receiving end of Internet attacks.

Brianna Wu, a video game developer who founded Giant Spacekat, was targeted heavily in the so-called "GamerGate" controversy, will speak on a panel tackling the question of whether a "safer, saner, and civil Internet" is even possible.

The GamerGate controversy was an online movement targeting female gamers and video game developers. Ms. Wu was forced to leave her house after she received a significant amount of rape and death threats following her tweets about the controversy.

Other panels will focus on how the online environment specifically fosters harassment and hate, how online bile can affect media companies' economics, and how tech and compassion could be used to reduce online harassment.

The summit begins at 9:30 a.m. at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.


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