What happened to Predator Alert Tool for FetLife?

This post is a brief update in Q&A form to address the most common questions I’m getting about the Predator Alert Tool for FetLife service disruption.

Why can’t I share information about a sexual assault that a FetLife user committed?

Due to a deliberate and sustained denial-of-service attack by a FetLife user, the PAT-FetLife reporting mechanism is unavailable. Please see my prior post for more details about this attack.

Who is behind this attack?

The attacker is not shy. She boasts about her actions on the BDSM/leather/kink dating website FetLife.com, where she goes by the username CarolyneTiler. Her legal identity is Caroline Tyler, a resident of Bradford, West Yorkshire in the UK.

Caroline Tyler’s contact information is collated on Pastie.

Whom does this attack harm?

The people whom Caroline Tyler is harming with her denial-of-service attack against Predator Alert Tool for FetLife are the people relying on PAT-FetLife as a way of communicating about dangerous people inside the kink/BDSM community.

Caroline Tyler’s motivations to attack PAT-Fetlife seem, at least in part, to be personally directed at me. However, attacking PAT-FetLife doesn’t harm me in any way. (I don’t use FetLife.) It harms people who want to remain involved in FetLife but who also want to have access to uncensored information about potential play partners. This kind of peer-to-peer reputation system (like “Yelp for BDSMers”), is something FetLife users have been requesting for years and that FetLife still refuses to provide.

If you’re worried about these attacks against PAT-FetLife hurting someone, it’s not me; it’s ethical kinksters on FetLife you should be worried about.

What can we do to deal with this attack?

In response to this attack against Predator Alert Tool, a number of people have expressed interest in helping to support sexual violence survivors by assisting the Predator Alert Tool project in both the short and the long term, with respect to this specific attack and to attacks in general.

For the short term, with respect to this specific attack

As stated in my prior post, there are a number of things we have done and can still do:

The obvious thing to do in a case like this is to document what happened and then write reports about the people responsible linking to said documentation in the very tools they attacked. I’ve already done that for CarolyneTiler and everyone who metaphorically high-fived her effort. You can view the reports in PAT-FetLife just as you would any other report. And I’ve taken the additional step of writing a statement in Predator Alert Tool for Facebook about Anna Brecht, as well, linking to this post, since she was kind enough to give me her Facebook account, too.

Of course, feel free to follow any of the links in this post to the attackers’ conversations [and contact information] and chime in, yourself. In fact, I’d strongly encourage that. Remind these attackers that trying to take down what is still the only warning tool for rape survivors on FetLife is a shitty way for supposed advocates of a “Safe, Sane, and Consensual” so-called “lifestyle” to behave.

Additionally, as a user on Facebook said:

Hey, EMIS [Caroline Tyler’s employer] is a company that does stuff with computers related to health, and rape is a public health issue, so having an employee using their computer skills to attempt to destroy an anti-rape program is the exact opposite of what they say they stand for.

I responded:

That’s very true. Probably worth bringing up with their HR department. You can probably find out who their HR employees are by searching LinkedIn for that information.

For the long term, with respect to attacks in general

A technological response is needed, too. PAT-FetLife was a prototype I created in 6 hours one night a couple years ago. Since then, I’ve built numerous additional versions of Predator Alert Tool (for OkCupid, for Facebook, etc.) that work differently in order to try out new models and technologies. Ultimately, the goal is for it to function as an Internet-scale reputation system that resists rape culture. That’s a hard problem because rape culture can’t be solved with code alone; we need a sociocultural response (see above, “with respect to this specific attack”) and we need a sociotechnical response.

Thanks to this latest attack, several extremely capable technologists have contacted me expressing interest in Predator Alert Tool and have suggested several promising design alternatives built on decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO). You can follow the conversation on Twitter.

Since I am only one person (who lives in a car and whose primary income is donations), I do not have the financial, emotional, or social resources to do all of the above on my own. As I mentioned on Facebook:

I’ll follow up any leads I have, but my time is much better spent devising a more resilient technological response to this [general issue, rather than this specific attack], because empirically speaking that’s the one thing I have been doing that [most] other people describe being unable to do. However, I am still just one person. My time and energy is limited. Your participation and collaboration is appreciated and needed.

Again, a number of people have already begun collaborating on that work. I will be happy to put anyone who contacts me directly in touch with one another so that you can coordinate those tasks and work more effectively together.

When will the PAT-FetLife reporting mechanism be available again?

After Caroline Tyler’s first attack, I re-enabled PAT-FetLife. The next day, she again attacked the reporting form. This shows a deliberate intent to keep sexual violence survivors from accessing tools they use to communicate.

Unfortunately, also as discussed in my prior post, there is currently no technological way to prevent Caroline Tyler from continuing to make the PAT-FetLife reporting service unavailable. That’s why people are currently composing complaint letters to her employer and why I’ve asked for legal representation.

Adding new information to PAT-FetLife will therefore only be possible when at least one of the following happens:

  • Google Forms updates the PAT-FetLife back-end to their “new” Google Spreadsheets system. The timeline they provided for this is “in 2014,” so that could be a few months yet.
  • Caroline Tyler stops launching her denial-of-service attack on PAT-FetLife, either by her own choice or by being compelled to stop through social, legal, or other pressure.
  • A new version of Predator Alert Tool for FetLife based on the DAO technology I am currently exploring (mentioned above) is ready.
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Why attacking Predator Alert Tools backfire on attackers

One of the most contested features of the Predator Alert Tools is that the report forms are unmoderated. This means anyone can add any information they want to the databases without oversight. If you’re used to using Internet tools that are tightly controlled by corporations (and you are), Predator Alert Tool’s lack of admin oversight may intuitively make them feel incomplete. But the unmoderated nature of Predator Alert Tool databases is intentional, and definitely a feature, not a bug.

Letting the PAT databases get spammed is a feature? Yes. It’s not hard to understand why. You have to remember that the whole point of Predator Alert Tool is to support survivors of sexual violence. One of the best ways to support survivors and others who might be vulnerable is to identify people who are unsupportive of tools that help users report rape. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that if someone is trying to destroy a tool that supports rape survivors, that person probably doesn’t prioritize supporting rape survivors very much.

People who try to break tools designed to support rape survivors are extremely likely not to support those who have had their consent violated. And it just so happens that identifying people who are likely to be unsupportive of those who have had their consent violated is what Predator Alert Tool is designed to do. Letting people attack PAT and then identifying who launched those attacks turns out to be an exceptionally reliable indicator—undeniable, even—that those attackers should be included in the database itself.

If someone violates your consent, you can report it. Likewise, if someone writes hateful reports about you (like “this person is a whiny drama queen”), and you can guess who did it, report that too. If you see spam reports (like “violated my consent by being hot as hell”) in the database and you think you know who’s doing it, report that too. The more someone tries to misuse Predator Alert Tool, the more information about their misuse is available. In other words, Predator Alert Tool is antifragile; damage and chaos don’t break the system, they help it grow.

Since the Internet is fundamentally a record-keeping archive, the “attack spam” itself is conclusive evidence of an attack. When the source can be identified, the people behind the attack have effectively provided us with all the documentation we need to prove that, at a minimum, those people cannot be relied on to support others struggling with a consent violation. Identifying the source of attacks against Predator Alert Tool is relatively easy, as I will demonstrate below. And people who attack Predator Alert Tool effectively self-incriminate by providing extremely compelling evidence that they belong in Predator Alert Tool databases, themselves.

Predator Alert Tool has already been the target of several useful spam attacks. I wrote up a detailed analysis of one instance in a prior post titled “Tracking rape culture’s social license to operate online.” If you haven’t yet read it, I suggest that you do. It provides a step-by-step case study of how Predator Alert Tool can be used to smoke out people who are generally unsupportive of rape survivors’ needs, above and beyond its more straightforward use of warning others in your community about potentially dangerous people.

Predator Alert Tool has a cultural purpose beyond simple communication. It is designed to facilitate conversations between and among rape survivors, exposing rapists and rape apologists in the process. And, empirically speaking, Predator Alert Tool has been extremely good at that.

The remainder of this post provides details on this week’s denial-of-service attack against Predator Alert Tool for FetLife, a profile of the attackers in question, some information about mitigation strategies, and asks for input from you, the survivor support community, about how to best respond to such attacks in the future.

What a denial-of-service attack against Predator Alert Tool for FetLife looks like

Starting on July 16th, at 3:51 PM Pacific time and continuing until the following day at 11:57 PM, Predator Alert Tool for FetLife was subjected to a sustained denial-of-service attack that filled the database with large blobs of spam data. The attack ultimately prevented people from adding new reports of consent violations they experienced at the hands of FetLife users. Since PAT-FetLife regularly receives legitimate non-spam submissions on a daily-to-weekly basis, this means it is likely that multiple people who were brave enough to come forward with their stories of sexual violence were prevented from sharing them by FetLife’s cadre of rape apologists.

Instead, their attempts to post new information resulted in an error that looked like this:

When a Google Form is subjected to a denial-of-service attack that fills it with large blobs of spam data, the form can no longer be successfully submitted, as shown in this "Oops, something went wrong" error screenshot.

When a Google Form is subjected to a denial-of-service attack that fills it with large blobs of spam data, the form can no longer be successfully submitted, as shown in this “Oops, something went wrong” error screenshot.

Currently, PAT-FetLife uses an “old style” Google Spreadsheet as its datastore. There are limits imposed by Google on the size of such spreadsheets, and by filling the spreadsheet with huge amounts of meaningless data, the attackers were able to forcibly prevent any other users from adding information to it. (These limits have been lifted in the “new” version of Google Spreadsheets, which Google says it will automatically migrate PAT-FetLife to sometime before the start of the year 2015. When this happens, attacks of this nature should be much more difficult to accomplish.)1

Due to the way that the Predator Alert Tool for FetLife browser tool works, most if not all of this spam was never even visible to end users. This is because the client will display an entry in the database only if the person to whom that entry is linked has interacted with the page that the user is currently viewing. Therefore, the attack only prevented people from adding information to the database. It did not disrupt anyone already using the tool, nor did it block any information already provided in the tool from being viewed.

Earlier today, I was assisted in identifying the attackers as a group of FetLife users who were boasting about breaking the tool on their FetLife pages (more on that in just a bit). After doing so, I published an archive of the database’s spammed and inoperative state so that you can take a look at it in its entirety. I then restored the database from a prior revision, which also returned its functionality.

Update (July 20th, 2014, 1 PM Pacific): On July 20th, 2014 at 3:53 AM Pacific time, a renewed attack of the exact same type described above resumed. Once again, CarolyneTiler, whose legal name is Caroline Tyler and who currently works for EMIS, a medical software company, as an “IT Systems Support Consultant” in the United Kingdom according to her LinkedIn profile (public version), admitted to doing this on FetLife:

Screenshot of CarolyneTiler's comments in a FetLife status thread reading: "I have done NOTHING more than use the public access available to all. I consider that this so called reporting tool is mainly used to harass and abuse other members of this site by those too cowardly to publicly state their issues."

Screenshot of CarolyneTiler’s comments in a FetLife status thread reading: “I have done NOTHING more than use the public access available to all. I consider that this so called reporting tool is mainly used to harass and abuse other members of this site by those too cowardly to publicly state their issues.”

As of this writing, I’ve temporarily disabled the Predator Alert Tool for FetLife’s Google form submission (here’s an archive of that state) while I compose complaint letters to Caroline’s employer and Internet Service Provider. I am also looking for pro-bono legal representation from attorneys who have a record supporting sexual assault survivor’s rights. Please contact me directly if you know or can refer me to any such legal professionals.

I’ll re-enable the PAT-FetLife reporting mechanism after I’ve finished getting in touch with Caroline Tyler’s employer, etc., and I’ll post another update once I’ve done that. If I can get in touch with a lawyer, I’ll also do my best to contact England’s law enforcement agencies that oversee Internet crimes, so ideally this lawyer would also be at least familiar with “hacking” cases.

Thank you.

Just a brief update to show Caroline’s admission of guilt:

A screenshot from FetLife showing Caroline Tyler's update: "Seems that MayMay is getting a bit ruffled about me filling his silly database with rubbish. shame!!!"

A screenshot from FetLife showing Caroline Tyler’s update: “Seems that MayMay is getting a bit ruffled about me filling his silly database with rubbish. shame!!!”

I will also note that I use gender neutral pronouns.

I’ve posted another update as a new blog post.

Profile of a FetLife rape apologist and Predator Alert Tool attacker

It’s illustrative to know more about who attacked Predator Alert Tool for FetLife.

As soon as the spam/DOS attack began, I suspected someone who was already listed in the PAT-FetLife database. So the simplest thing to do would have been to look at the recent activity of the users already reported. Sure enough, yet again, that’s all it took to find people bragging about having broken the tool:

A screenshot showing that a FetLife user named CarolynesRose (user ID 2940118) posted a status update about PAT-FetLife (formerly known as FAADE) being broken.

A screenshot showing that a FetLife user named CarolynesRose (user ID 2940118) posted a status update about PAT-FetLife (formerly known as FAADE) being broken.

This user’s FetLife user ID is 2940118. That’s one of the FetLife users reported (numerous times) in the PAT-FetLife database. The first report about this person was filed on December 3rd, 2013, and the most recent one was July 15, 2014, the day before the spam attack happened. This user account is literally the second from the last report before the spam attack began; hatred for PAT-FetLife from kinkshit rape apologists is almost as reliable as clockwork.

This particular user is actually someone who’s interacted with me before, on Facebook. On April 16th, 2014, a Facebook user using the name Anna Dawn Brecht, born June 11, 1980 (and who listed her phone number as +44 7983 971104) messaged me:

Hello

I believe you are behind the FADDE application. I am nicely asking that you go to it and either remove the entry under MarmiteGirl…or at the very least remove my REAL name from it. A person in our area has beein using your data base not to report genuine threats..but to vent at people they have an issue with. Either way I am sure you do not want peoples real names being used on your database.

Anna

As you can imagine, I’ve gotten requests like these on occasion, and if I respond at all the answer is always the same. My response to Anna Brecht was similar to all others:

I have no problem with people’s legal names being used. I’m sorry that you have to deal with a person in your area abusing the system. If you do not already know who that person is, you may want to read the following articles that describe why I do not moderate nor will I ever edit, modify, or delete information that is posted to it: http://maybemaimed.com/2012/12/21/tracking-rape-cultures-social-license-to-operate-online/ and http://days.maybemaimed.com/post/62691251191/many-people-with-concerns-about-the-predator-alert Please do not contact me with this request again. If you do, I will block you. Take care.

After that, Anna Brecht blocked me on Facebook and I thought no more of it until I saw the following entry posted to PAT-FetLife on May 22nd, 2014:

This is the person behind the FADDE application.This claims to be there to protect people against abuse and non consensual activity..and name and shame people. The fact is this individual created this as hates the BDSM community and all we stand for. When nicely asked to remove names and leave comments his reply was

“I have no problem with people’s legal names being used. I’m sorry that you have to deal with a person in your area abusing the system. If you do not already know who that person is, you may want to read the following articles that describe why I do not moderate nor will I ever edit, modify, or delete information that is posted to it:Please do not contact me with this request again. If you do, I will block you. Take care.

Lets see how he feels having his personal name and details on his FADDE database. As he is the Abuser and the BDSM community is becoming the victim.People are using this site to vent grudges and make malicious statements with no accountability.Yes some arseholes may get mentioned but on the whole good people are having their real names and business posted on here and labelled abusers over personality clashes etc. Lets see if he sticks by his rule of not censoring posts when he is names a long with his facebook link.

https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=633290004

I think I might have literally laughed out loud but, again, thought no more of it. I am not exactly embarrassed about my position: I prioritize the ability of rape survivors to communicate over protecting people from having their reputations harmed by that communication. Period.

Anyway, it was a simple matter of following links from CarolyneRose’s (aka “MarmiteGirl”) profile to find the following gem posted by CarolyneTiler, CarolyneRose’s “Dominant,” according to their FetLife profiles:

A screenshot showing a FetLife user called CarolynesTiler boasting about being the person who "broke" the Predator Alert Tool for FetLife (formerly known as FAADE) consent violation reporting system.

A screenshot showing a FetLife user called CarolynesTiler boasting about being the person who “broke” the Predator Alert Tool for FetLife (formerly known as FAADE) consent violation reporting system.

As you can see, a user with FetLife ID number 13350 going by CarolyneTiler, boasts, Oh dear, I appear to have broken fadde a bit and then later, Well, it’s not dead but at least you can’t add any more :)

Chalk another one up for “Dear rape apologists, please try harder, it is far too easy for me to find you.”

What I find so telling about this example is that what appears at first to be a somewhat understandable request to be removed from the PAT database has obviously turned into a desire to shut the system down for everyone, regardless of its benefits for others. Anna Brecht and her cohort prioritize their reputations and, as the Streisand effect shows yet again, their attempts to remove information they don’t want publicized results in the publicizing of that very same information.

Only in this case, because of the cultural nature of Predator Alert Tool, it also tells a compelling story about how much (or little) they prioritize supporting people who experience sexual violence.

There’s plenty more dirt on these kinkshit rape apologists in FetLife, all easily exportable and then searchable. Here’s a thread on FetLife called “lowest form of scum” in which CarolyneRose and several others complain about being included in the Predator Alert Tool for FetLife database. There’s your usual flailing about “outing” kinksters (which is not even a thing) and the classic dose of grandiose language that you’d expect from BDSM’ers. It’s amusing to read, if you’re into that sort of thing.

A few simple reverse image searches also turned up a trove of identifying details outside of FetLife. For instance, on Twitter, CarolyneTiler goes by @CarolineT1961. Could the “1961″ be a birthyear? According to CarolyneTiler’s FetLife profile she is 52 years old, so it does indeed appear to be so:

A screenshot of CarolyneTyler's Fetlife profile showing the ease  of correlating information provided, in this case an age, to other social media accounts.

A screenshot of CarolyneTyler’s Fetlife profile showing the ease of correlating information provided, in this case an age, to other social media accounts.

Caroline Tiler’s Google Plus avatar is also a picture she shared on FetLife. From that profile, we also learn that Anna Brecht has a Google Plus account, and that Caroline Tyler attended Elmhurst Primary School in Newham, followed by the Stratford School (also in Newham), and finally the Redbridge Technical College in Essex.

If she wished her employment history to remain more private, then she should probably not also have made the same mistake of sharing her LinkedIn profile photo on FetLife, too. (Here’s the photo link directly, so you can view it without logging in to FetLife.) I wrote up a bunch of privacy tips for FetLife users some time ago, consider reading them if you’re concerned about the ease with which information about you on the Internet can be correlated by someone with access to a search engine (like, y’know, everyone on the Internet).

CarolyneTiler, or, more accurately, Caroline Tiler, was also active on message boards, including GingerBeer.co.uk as well as contributing a post to TransgenderZone.com:

A screeshot from TransgenderZone.com showing Caroline Tyler's post. Her profile avatar is the same as a picture she shared on FetLife, the BDSM dating website.

While it may not always be obvious by listening to what they say, these people—like most BDSM’ers—don’t really care about consent. And by watching what they do, which we can now all do in an unprecedented way thanks to the Internet, it becomes very obvious that the BDSM community, dramatically more than other communities, hosts the absolute worst of the worst when it comes to people who will actually prioritize consent—that is, they don’t.

Even the attacker herself, CarolyneRose says on FetLife:

In my view it was a good idea ruined by poor implementation and no moderation. It is used as a tool of abuse now sadly.

Caroline Tyler chose to use her information technology education to launch a denial-of-service attack against a tool that gives voice to rape survivors on a website that actively censors and silences them. She didn’t choose to contribute to it, or to copy it and make her own better version or “forking” in the lingo of open source programmers—the Predator Alert Tool for FetLife is an open source project, as are all the other implementations. I rest my case.

This is not a surprise to anyone who understands that, despite all their bluster, the kink/BDSM community isn’t trying to end rape culture. They’re trying to eroticize it.

What to do about attackers

The obvious thing to do in a case like this is to document what happened and then write reports about the people responsible linking to said documentation in the very tools they attacked. I’ve already done that for CarolyneTiler and everyone who metaphorically high-fived her effort. You can view the reports in PAT-FetLife just as you would any other report. And I’ve taken the additional step of writing a statement in Predator Alert Tool for Facebook about Anna Brecht, as well, linking to this post, since she was kind enough to give me her Facebook account, too.

Of course, feel free to follow any of the links in this post to the attackers’ conversations and chime in, yourself. In fact, I’d strongly encourage that. Remind these attackers that trying to take down what is still the only warning tool for rape survivors on FetLife is a shitty way for supposed advocates of a “Safe, Sane, and Consensual” so-called “lifestyle” to behave.

Beyond this individual case, it seems obvious that, in the future, it should be possible for people who use Predator Alert Tool for Facebook to view reports filed in Predator Alert Tool for FetLife and vice versa. Predator Alert Tools already span the majority of mainstream social networks; it should be feasible to link them all up across social networks. This might sound scary, but it’s something that your government (the NSA, GCHQ, and the rest of the spooks) already do. Only they’re not using that capability for exposing rape culture and its apologists, because the military-intelligence-industrial complex’s entire operational motive is rooted in rape culture, obviously.

But there are other, not so obvious enhancements that could be made to the Predator Alert Tool suite. I have been very vocal in soliciting ideas and support for these tools ever since their inception. Since then, some folks have contributed publicly, and a slew more in private.

What the tools need more than anything else right now is more people who are willing to speak up publicly—pseudonymously or not—in support of them, and against people like Anna Brecht who would attack them. Predator Alert Tool is a code hacking project, yes, but it’s also a culture hacking project. Even if you don’t code, using Predator Alert Tool to change the conversation about rape in our culture is something everyone—namely you—can do.

  1. Not impossible, just harder. There are other methods of mitigation that the new Google Spreadsheets backend supports that will raise the bar, too. []
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Introducing a new meme: “Douchey Dom” starring Kink, Inc. CEO Peter Acworth

I present the world with a new meme: Douchey Dom!

CELEBRATES GAY RIGHTS … BY HOSTING ORGY THAT LOOKS LIKE GAY PEOPLE BEING PUT IN PRISON

Celebrating gay rights by hosting an orgy that depicted gay people being put in prison is actually a real thing this real man (Peter Acworth, CEO of Kink.com), did this LGBT Pride Month: Kink.com Prison-Themed Pride Party Ends With Arrests. And so I could think of no better image for the Douchey Dom meme than a real photograph of a real portrait of him.

Here’s another example:

'Sexually Diverse' … Porn stash filled with skiny white women.

Turn on CAPS LOCK and fly, my pretties, fly!

See also:

http://i.imgur.com/UpJsxCE.jpg

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Remember all those FetLife privacy problems? They’re still problems.

Anaiis Flox has a new feature over on the Slantist today titled, “You Can Browse FetLife Profiles Without Logging In.” I’ll suggest an alternate title: “Everything maymay said about FetLife years ago is still true.”

The article also has a brief summary of some history only long-time readers of mine are likely to remember:

This is a replay of an incident that occurred two years ago when a FetLife user created a PHP proxy to illustrate the issues with FetLife’s insufficient concern for user privacy. The user, known online as maymay, had been a long-time critic of FetLife’s inconsistent approach to user safety, and was one of the loudest voices rallying for the use of cryptographic protocols at login (which FetLife finally adopted in 2011).

The proxy maymay created in the summer of 2012 accessed FetLife and made the profiles of public individuals in the BDSM community available to people outside the network. It took no time for this proxy to be coded, and even less for it to get to work, illustrating how false people’s sense of security really is on the kinky network. Because this was an activism project, maymay widely publicized what they were doing; unfortunately, FetLife refused to face the underlying issue, choosing instead to launch a campaign accusing maymay of hacking the site and endangering its users.

Since “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and “any sufficiently technical expert is indistinguishable from a witch,” FetLife chose to address their piss-poor security by pointing at me and shouting, “WITCH! WITCH!” And since the BDSM community has the social and technological competence of a Monty Python movie, most people reflexively shouted “BURN HIM!”

By the way, the PHP proxy still works.

So then I created Predator Alert Tool for FetLife, and when I presented it at a conference, the typical response from these “feminist sex-positive consent activists” was to point at me and shout “RAPIST! RAPIST!”

This should be one of those “pay attention to what they do, not what they say moments.” You don’t even need to look that closely to notice that the kink/BDSM community isn’t trying to end rape culture; they’re trying to eroticize it.

See also:

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“The kink/BDSM community isn’t trying to end rape culture. They’re trying to eroticize it.”

The kink/BDSM community isn’t trying to end rape culture. They’re trying to eroticize it. We already have a society in which relationship role models are so thoroughly intoxicated with abuser dynamics that most people don’t even know what consenting feels like. By celebrating this state of affairs and attempting to normalize the explicit eroticization of abuse with their endless protestations that they’re “just like everyone else,” what BDSM’ers are doing is in fact worse, not better, than at least feeling conflicted about it.

maymay, who self-identified as a Submissive in the BDSM community for almost a decade, was a subject (and is on the cover of) Dr. Newmahr’s ethnographic research book about the BDSM subculture, and who lead BDSM workshops and presentations at national BDSM conferences, and has one of the most visible blogs about the BDSM subculture on the Internet.

This perspective isn’t coming from “some outsider who doesn’t understand” what’s going on there. Check out these posts on their blog:

Kind of throws a wrench in the whole “kink shamers just don’t understand!!!111!!eleventy” argument, don’t it?

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Revisiting why “no moderation” is a feature, not a bug, in Predator Alert Tool

Among the most common criticisms of the Predator Alert Tool project, which is a suite of browser apps and social network add-ins aiming to “build sexual violence prevention mechanisms into every social network on the Internet,” is the claim that, since the tools are unmoderated, they “put you in a worse position” than you were in before they existed. As the Bitter BDSM’er Brigade of whingers tell it:

But these tools (at least the Fetlife tool) is pretty much rendered useless because *surprise* it was flooded with all sorts of stuff, legit and not, which just puts you in a worse position because you can’t tell if someone is actually dangerous or if someone wanted to play a joke or if someone wanted to act maliciously against another.

Beyond the fact that this claim is ridiculous on its face (how does accessing a tool that gives you more information put you in a worse position than not having access to it in the first place?), my collaborators and I have already addressed this criticism several times.

  1. In a post about the Predator Alert Tool for FetLife called “Tracking rape culture’s social license to operate,” we empirically showed that people who tend to “flood” that tool “with all sorts of ['illegitimate'] stuff” are also people who are not supportive of sexual assault survivors having access to information with which to keep themselves physically safe from abuse. Moreover, we showed that these floods are actually easy to collate, and we showed how relatively simple it is to reveal the identity of users who flood/misuse the system, even in the tool’s deliberately anonymous context. Since knowing who the unsupportive people are is important information for a survivor to have in order to avoid abusive behavior, and since it is only possible for users (as opposed to just a small set of privileged moderators) to know who these unsupportive people are if their “joke” postings are not moderated, moderating their comments functionally hinders survivors and protects users who behave abusively.
  2. Then, in a post called, “About Predator Alert Tool for Facebook’s ‘no deletions’ policy,” we explained why and how providing only mechanisms to add new information to Predator Alert Tool databases, as opposed to removing historical information, mitigates the effectiveness with which cyberbullies can appropriate the Predator Alert Tools in order to behave abusively towards their targets. By never implementing “delete” functionality into the code base, we make it technologically infeasible for cyberbullies to use one of their most common abuse tactics: sending abusive messages to a target and then removing those messages before a moderator gets to see them.
  3. Finally, in the same post, we also explained that moderation systems are costly to run and maintain, both in terms of computing power and in terms of human resources. Since “the people behind” Predator Alert Tool is a rag-tag group of individuals in loose collaboration with one another, making relatively arbitrary decisions about strangers lives seems both impractical and unethical. We can’t even do traditional moderation because we simply don’t have the resources; Predator Alert Tool for Facebook, for example, is accessible to all Facebook users and there are more than one BILLION of them.

But even if we did have the resources to moderate statements related to sexual abuse from a community of one billion people, I would not support doing that because “moderation,” especially in this context, is bluntly a terrible idea.

Francis Tseng recently published a remarkably succinct and clear overview of “moderation” techniques to curb abusive behavior in online communities. It’s particularly noteworthy because it acknowledges the potential of moderation itself to be an enabler of abusive behavior:

[Traditional moderation] is typically realized through a small group of appointed moderators (or even a singular moderator) who scans for “inappropriate” content or responds to content flagged as such by users. She then makes a decision to punish the user or not to, and executes that decision – with or without discussion with fellow moderators.

Naturally, a justice process which does not directly involve members of its community raises suspicion. Nor does it function particularly well. There is a legacy of moderator abuse, favoritism, and corruption where the very system meant to maintain the quality of a group leads to its own demise. Users feel persecuted or unfairly judged, and there is seldom ever a formal process for appeal. In large communities – Reddit’s r/technology has over 5 million users, which has had its share of mod drama – an appeal process may seem impractical to implement. The assurance of the success of such systems is about the same as it is in any where authority is concentrated in one or a few–it’s the same as hoping for a kind despot or benevolent dictator, one that happens to have your interests at heart.

[…]

When designing infrastructure for any community, whether it be a multiplayer video game or an internet forum, the power of moderation must be distributed amongst the users, so that they themselves are able to dictate how the community evolves and grows. In this way, judgements of abusive behavior reflect the actual sentiment of the community as a whole, as opposed to the idiosyncrasies of a stranger, as it often is in far-flung and large digital communities.

Put less diplomatically, the Internet has been doing “Report Abuse” wrong because its admins are corrupt.

The explicitly stated purpose of Predator Alert Tool is:

to change the way people think about bullying, violence, and abuse. Rather than creating an opaque appeal to authority that silences people (such as current “Report Abuse” forms), it sends a radically transparent and contextualized signal boost to friends and supporters of the person who bullies and abusers target. Using Predator Alert Tool [for Twitter, Facebook, et. al.,], the targeted user can ask for help and support at the same time as they are alerting the rest of the [social network's] user community about behavior they have experienced as abusive.

“Moderation” is a governance tool that may make sense in the context of online communities with a relatively homogenous populace, such as multiplayer video games or topically-oriented forums. But moderation is inherently in conflict with the goal of dissolving authority and dispersing power amongst a heterogenous populace already prone to conflict. There is no system of moderation that is not also a system of social control. And in the context of a project explicitly designed to overcome the iniquities introduced to human experience by traditional mechanisms of social control, adding a traditional mechanism of social control is shortsighted at best and active sabotage at worst.

We realize this is difficult to understand at first. After all, there is currently no physical-world social context wherein we are free from the power of authorities we did not choose and also do not agree with. Everyone has a parent, a teacher, or a boss—even the fucking police. As one PAT collaborator wrote:

We’re all so accustomed to having our spaces monitored and moderated and overseen “for our own safety” that sometimes, when we take the well-being of our communities into our own hands, we appear to be doing more harm than good. That’s only because we’re comparing our efforts to the imaginary “safe” world we’ve been told that we live in, not to the dangerous realities that survivors actually face online and off.

Put another way, from the perspective of a vulnerable populace, namely people who are the targets of rape and physical abuse, a system that erodes the power of central authorities (such as website admins, or the cops) is a move towards safety, not away from it.

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