The (Overdue) Need for Community Conduct Standards at Mozilla

Next week marks my sixth-month anniversary as a Mozilla employee. I have been planning to write a post to mark the occasion and to share with everyone what an awesome (albeit challenging) experience it is working at such an innovative, mission-driven organization.

However, recent events on Plant Mozilla (see Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech and Concerns with Planet Content for context) compel me to speak to another issue first: The urgent need for the Mozilla community to work together to develop, implement and be held accountable to standards for participation.

The syndication on Planet Mozilla of discriminatory content and ensuing discussion is just one symptom of a larger, systemic problem. The greater issue is that we have failed to set forth guidelines about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior within our community. We have operated far too long under the false assumption that individuals can do this entirely on their own.

Frequently, this failure to put forth standards manifests as slightly less than civil interactions. I’ve also seen it displayed in the offhand dismissal of other’s ideas or needs. Most recently, on Planet Mozilla, I’ve seen it threaten and alienate those contributors who are queer.

As Mozilla grows in scope and size and we facilitate more and more in-person events, the harm incurred due to the absence of community standards will increase. No one should have to endure an assault or harassment at an event we host before we take action on this matter. Already, there are a number of us who question whether or not we are safe at Mozilla and if our contributions are valued.

Setting and enforcing norms is a usual and necessary function of community. Our community managers and long-time contributors have abdicated their responsibility to us by not ensuring such norms are set, and in some cases by actively blocking progress on this matter. It’s time for that to change.

Will it be easy? No, of course not. Some will be unhappy at any implied restrictions on speech or behavior. The point is not to make everyone happy. The point is to provide clear guidelines so that everyone can operate within a common context and to provide a support structure to those who need it.

To be absolutely clear: the heart of this recent issue is not what type of content should be syndicated on Planet Mozilla, and it is not about differences of opinion. Focusing our discussion solely on Planet Mozilla is a distraction.

The issue is that Mozilla resources (the server and bandwidth that provides Planet) were utilized to attack a vulnerable group. This group includes Mozilla employees and contributors and it made it harder for them to do their jobs. That they were attacked using Mozilla resources is what is unacceptable and needs to be addressed directly through the implementation of community standards. Indeed, part of the process of developing these standards will be to make it clear that attacking vulnerable groups is unacceptable.

Community standards are not about limiting anybody’s free speech, but about limiting people’s ability to make their coworkers feel unsafe and unwelcome without consequence or accountability.

Fortunately, we have a lot of resources to draw upon in developing our community standards. Several groups not unlike our own have already done so: Ubuntu Code of Conduct, Citizen Code of Conduct, Drupal Code of Conduct, Wikimedia Foundation Friendly Space Policy.

Let’s get to work.


1) I’m not going to publish any more comments related only to Tim’s comments and whether or not they would violate a Code of Conduct. I’m also not going to facilitate any more conversation about whether or not Gerv’s recent post on Planet Mozilla was discriminatory.  There’s been plenty of back and forth on those topics in other forums and I’d like to have a more productive conversation here. If you want to talk about how we can work together to develop a code of conduct for Mozilla, then that’s fine.

2) To whomever submitted the anonymous comment (from a Mozilla IP): calling someone here an asshole is never going to be acceptable, so don’t even try.


  1. morgamic says:

    Good post. I’d be okay with using The No Asshole Rule as a code of conduct.

    Two tests are specified for recognition of the asshole:
    After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?
    Does the person target people who are less powerful than he?

    I imagine we’ll need something more Mozilla-centric but the concepts in the book are pretty universal.

    • Lukas Blakk says:

      Hey Mike, I appreciate the well-intentioned sentiment behind things like “no assholes” or “don’t be that guy” but they tend to fall short when something serious happens because they are sort of in-jokey and based on a bit of loose premise of dismissing the obvious “assholes” and not the occasional ones who are generally good people, who make mistakes and need to be accountable – not 100% shunned for all time.

    • Steve says:

      I find the whole irony of this to be that in America/UK the LGBTQ community is the less powerful group but in Mozilla religious Christians are marginalized. Incidentally, it’s my preference that Gerv’s political view should be marginalized but that doesn’t change the power dynamic within this community.

      As for calling out privilege I think it’s necessary to realize not everyone has the same conception of privilege that you do nor do they believe that their privilege limits their ability to express their opinion. I’m a religious minority but I can’t imagine going around showing societal norms produced Saturday/Sunday weekends that mean I have to take time from work to go to the masjid. Call that a trivial issue and I’ll show you privilege. Or should we talk about the Middle Class privilege that is Mozilla. (The answer is no.)

      So when it comes to community standards we aren’t going to be able to address issues of privilege on which community members strongly disagree. There is room in this community for Gerv’s traditional privileged views, for Tim’s views, and for my views that sexual identity shouldn’t be.

  2. The no-asshole rule is perhaps a good place to start, but it needs to be made more specific, because the social norms of the underlying society we’re in say that it’s okay to be more and more of an asshole to somebody the lower on the social totem pole they are. The norms also often say that calling someone out for being an asshole to a low-status person is as bad as being an asshole. Within Mozilla, we need to do better and say explicitly that being an asshole to trans people, queer people, disabled people, women, people of color, and other people in specific vulnerable groups is not allowed. We need to say that because we need the contributions that people in those groups have to offer.

    • I don’t think it’s OK to be any more of an asshole to a straight white man than to a gay black woman.

      I’d rather get to a place where people don’t think about someone’s sex, sexuality, skin color, or otherwise before deciding how to behave; we should be equally decent to each other.

      (Corollary: people shouldn’t feel afraid to be blunt or honest to someone for fear of being called racist or sexist. That just reinforces a focus on differences.)

        • I appreciate your sentiment.

          If you’re disagreeing with me, please be specific.

          Do you think it’s OK to be more or less of an asshole to someone because of their sex, sexuality, or skin color?

          I don’t think “he’s privileged, therefore it’s OK for him to be subject to more vicious attacks than someone less so” is constructive. Minimum standards of behavior — and I include “don’t be an asshole” in those — should apply to everyone.

          • White guys and their sympathizers always think they’re being really original when they say this sort of thing, but it’s actually quite banal. Expanding your mind and learning more might result in you having more interesting things to say. If you can’t do that, consider listening instead of talking.

          • Christie Koehler says:

            Richard, I’ve deleted your most recent comment because you’re derailing the conversation. Please keep your comments to the topic at hand — developing a code of conduct for Mozilla — or take your conversation elsewhere.

          • nc says:

            Hi Christie,

            In your opinion, would Tim’s comment above violate your proposed code of conduct? Tim replied to Richard, “Expanding your mind and learning more might result in you having more interesting things to say. If you can’t do that, consider listening instead of talking.” To me, these sentences convey an attack on Richard’s intellect and is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. They might very well have made Richard feel unwelcome. Would this constitute a violation of your proposed code of conduct? Why or why not?

            Thanks for clarifying.

          • dan says:

            I believe the anti-oppression worldview is generally pro-equality (specifically of outcomes).

            If you take this reasoning on a certain path I guess you could sanction the abuse of privileged individuals by unprivileged individuals as that may serve to balance out the equality of outcomes somehow.

            If a standards of conduct were to be made I personally would much rather it be drafted from a equal rights viewpoint.

  3. Nigel says:

    Coming from the Ubuntu community, I know personally how much the CoC makes a difference. When I compare even the IRC channels in the #ubuntu namespace with other distributions, I can feel how much I like what happens in #ubuntu-* channels. I feel much safer there with lesser rude comments and remarks; and I’m sure so does everyone else. If someone feels threatened or harassed, we know we can talk about it as fellow signatories to the Code of Conduct or bring it up to the Community Council (This has been done in the past).

    I fully support the idea of having something similar at Mozilla and very glad to read about this discussion in mozilla.governance :-)

  4. Strafe says:

    Community standards documents are a good idea. It’d be good to be able to avoid comments like Tim’s “White guys and their sympathizers always think they’re being really original when they say this sort of thing”. Bullying behavior like that, instead of actually participating in a conversation, should be unacceptable imho.

    • Christie Koehler says:

      I don’t really see Tim’s comments as bullying behavior. What else do you say in response to a comment that’s rather off topic and one that you hear with great frequency when these issues arise?

      • Strafe says:

        The bullying comes from targeting the comment at a specific group “White guys and their sympathizers”. Many “White guys” don’t think like this. A response that doesn’t pick on and generalize to a group would be something like “Some people think…”.

        • Christie Koehler says:

          Tim didn’t say all white guys say things like that.

          In my experience, most of the comments of the nature Richard made come from from straight, white, hetero, cis males. And they (the comments) don’t really add anything to the conversation.

          It’s okay for that to be called out.

          • Strafe says:

            We’ll have to agree to disagree on whether the comment was bullying or not. My main point was that they would be not appropriate under any reasonable code of conduct. Such comments make a particular class of people unwelcome and not willing to comment.

            • Strafe: indeed, those comments did make me feel unwelcome and less willing to comment; if that’s the reception I get, I am disinclined to care about the community as a whole, let alone standards of conduct.

              That brief exchange completely killed this aspie’s desire to have any non-technical dealings with the wider Mozilla community; instead I plan to just do what I’m paid to do, and socialize with the people I already socialize with. I simply don’t have the inter-personal energy to wrestle with other people’s issues, and if I need to figure out how to make Tim happy in order to contribute to this aspect of the community, I will simply not contribute at all.

              (I’m sure this comment will get flagged as “derailing”, too. It remains just as honest as my previous comments.)

              • I have a number of friends who have Asperger’s are or on the autism spectrum. They’re perfectly capable of thinking about systematic oppression and of checking their privilege. By using your neurodiversity status as an excuse for being oppressive, you’re insulting all other neuroatypical people by suggesting that only neurotypical people are capable of reasoning about social structures of domination.

              • Wrong chain.

                That’s my explanation for not having the energy or patience to interact, not my justification for somehow oppressing you.

                You’re assuming that because I don’t agree with you, I must not think about things. Your hubris is tiring.

              • Then we’re on the same page. Having to interact in a group of people who are likely to question one’s humanity — and where those people will not be censured for doing so — is also extremely tiring and draining of one’s energy.

          • Steve Fink says:

            I call bullshit.

            Tim’s reply was a straightforward ad hominem attack. It did not directly address the comment. It addressed the commenter. “White guys and their sympathizers” pertains to the commenter, and is defining someone by his membership in a group. “…always think they’re being really original when they say this sort of thing” is implying “your argument is not only wrong, but can be ignored because of who says it”.

            I’m not saying you *have* to directly address the argument. You can ignore it. You can say it’s common/naive/hateful/evil/babykilling. You can claim that it’s irrelevant.

            I totally understand why someone could be frustrated with hearing that argument yet another time. And there’s nothing wrong with pointing out that the argument is oft repeated, though identifying the people who commonly say it by their race and gender is not ok and sabotages your own objectives. “White males and their sympathizers”? Really? You’ve given up on ever convincing any white male to sympathize with *your* point of view, by identifying the “other” point of view as “white male”? Saying that most white males think X or white males typically think X is one thing. This is another. And I should also note that if there are people who grow up with one point of view and who you would like to come around to your point of view, then attacking them when they are in an intermediate stage is unlikely to be helpful to your cause.

            Anyway, partly because I also fear that this comment will be deleted as offtopic since this particular blog comment space is feeling a bit hostile to different points of view, I will hasten to say that my on-topic reason for responding is that this case is a good example of the difficulty in drafting a good Code of Conduct, when what to me is a clear violation of any reasonable CoC is not seen that way by others.

            Personally, I’m not sure what my preferred CoC would say. I disagree with the point of view expressed in Gerv’s original post, and think that such disagreement should be irrelevant to a CoC. The intent to offend should be relevant, but in this case I don’t believe there was an intent to offend. If I post (or chat, or whatever) something that I am not trying to offend anyone with, but rationally expect probably *will* offend some/many/most readers, should that be banned by the CoC? I’m not sure.

            In the end, I’m happy to not have posts like that show up on Planet or IRC or in meetings or whatever. But the “like that” part is tricky to pin down; I’m not comfortable with throwing out anything not provably directly related to the Mozilla mission. I’d want it to be something like contentious or inflammatory content is only ok if it is contentious for reasons related to the mission (eg “we should quit screwing around and just buy h.264 licenses” or “Vista/XP/Enterprise users suck and we shouldn’t coddle them any more”).

            Discrimination is easier to deal with, but only after figuring out whether an incident is discriminatory. And given that there is reasonable disagreement over Gerv’s post, figuring that out clearly isn’t easy.

              • njn says:

                Tim, I’ve seen you post a few links like that: one about tone policing, the “intent isn’t magic” one, the one about free speech lower down in the thread. I’ve found them quite helpful.

                I’ve also seen you say “check your privilege” to several people without further explanation. I had a rough idea of what you were getting at, and I googled the term and read a couple of descriptions and I think I have a basic understanding, though I’m sure I don’t appreciate the full subtleties of the idea.

                Anyway, I wonder if it’s worth thinking of privileged people like straight while males as being like newbies when it comes to this stuff. In which case, simply saying “check your privilege” to a straight white male is a bit like saying “RTFM” to a newbie Firefox user who makes a suggestion that has been made many times before — it’s a useful bit of advice but it’s so terse and cryptic that it’s just as likely to baffle or annoy the reader as it will help them.

                (As a straight white male, and thus, something of a newbie to this stuff, I thought carefully about what I’ve written above counts as tone-policing. I don’t think so… AIUI you are tone-policing if you say “your argument would be more persuasive if you expressed it more politely”, whereas I’m suggesting that “your argument would be more persuasive if you expressed it more clearly”. I’d be interested to hear if you disagree.)

              • dan says:

                Correct me if I am wrong but it seems that in your view that should someone be of privileged status he or she is then no longer entitled to an opinion on these matters (which is kinda oxymoronic as having an opinion is a nice privilege :).

                More broadly speaking, is a privileged person entitled to have input to a community conduct standards document?

              • dan: That would be an incorrect interpretation of what I said. The problem is when someone is speaking in a way that makes it clear they are unaware of their privilege and the ways in which it makes their life easier. Having privilege is not a problem — almost everyone is privileged along some axis or another.

              • dan says:

                Tim, thanks for that, if I could just ask for some more clarification

                In your view: if someone speaks and you judge they are unaware of their privilege then that persons viewpoint can be discounted?

              • dan: It means that they should stop and consider the effect that speaking as a privileged person is having, rather than assuming (possibly because of privilege) that they have the right to be heard.

                To pick an example from another domain, if a man and a woman are discussing street harassment aimed at women, and the man says “I don’t see what you’re upset about, I’d be happy if women complimented my appearance on the street”, the woman would be entirely within the bounds of social acceptability to say “check your privilege”, rather than expending her time and energy on debunking an argument which has been debunked over and over and which only continues to be repeated because men often don’t get called out on its lack of logic and its unreflective assumption that men and women occupy equal positions of power.

              • dan says:

                Tim: I kinda see what you are getting at but I think your example conflates two very different statements and uses one to invalidate the other

                > “I don’t see what you’re upset about”

                This is an inconsiderate remark

                >I’d be happy if women complimented my appearance on the street”

                It is ok to appreciate this kind of attention in my view

              • dan: Context is everything. A man who has always been perceived as a man (that is, a cis man) saying “I’d appreciate that kind of attention” is exhibiting willful disregard for the experiences of people who are or have ever been perceived as women, because he is drawing a false equivalence between the experience of being a cis man having his appearance commented on, and the experience of being a woman (or genderqueer person or trans man who’s sometimes perceived as female) and having such comments used to reduce one to a sexual object, with all the force of a patriarchal society behind those individual actions. The two are simply not comparable. To bring up one when the other is being discussed reveals lack of empathy and willful refusal to develop it.

  5. njn says:

    Good post. I agree a CoC is a good idea. And thanks for clearly separating the CoC issue from the “what content should be on Planet Mozilla” issue.

    (BTW, when I visited this site I got one of those big scary “this website is not secure” warnings. Do you have an expired cert or something?)

    • Christie Koehler says:

      Regarding the ssl/security warning: I only have a self-signed certificate for this blog. I didn’t mean to submit the https version to Planet, actually. But now that I have, I’m just going to buy an actual cert. The warning should go away within the next day or so as soon as it’s setup.

  6. flod says:

    We have operated far too long under the false assumption that individuals can do this entirely on their own.

    In the last six months you’ve been an employee at Mozilla and, I assume, you’ve been following p.m.o.
    How many times did you feel discriminated or offended by the content published there? I’ve been reading p.m.o. for years (BTW, not an employee), and the last discussion I remember was about Christian stuff ( Two episodes in more than 4 years sounds like a pretty good job to me in terms of “self-management”.

    Having said that, I honestly agree with those people who think this is the wrong time to discuss this. Making choices after such an episode is not going to produce better rules.

    P.S. please delete this comment if it’s duplicated, I ended up with a completely blank page after submission

  7. Christie,

    I noticed you cited the Ubuntu CoC as a example and that is great because it has worked very successfully in our Community. We treat everyone like a human being in all Community areas and events and hope that Mozilla might take on a CoC someday that takes some of the same criteria.