An Open Letter to Everyone Involved in the Tor Fight

And a Few People Who Aren’t

Quinn Norton
Dec 16, 2014 · 7 min read

The backstory of the Tor Fight: Yasha Levin of Pando Daily published an article some months ago detailing the preponderance of federal funding the project enjoys. The Tor developers replied angrily, largely on Twitter. Much fighting and trolling went on afterwards, largely between third parties not directly connected to but supportive of each side. One Tor developer, Andrea Shepard, was subjected to enough abuse that she chose to hunt down and reveal the real-life information of her abusive troll. This “doxxing” sparked more debate, and blame going back and forth between Pando (and supporters) and the Tor Project (and supporters.) I stepped in last week and explained why Tor (the software) wasn’t actually sullied by any of this, based on math and code review. My article was rolled over like roadkill by the combatants. Pando continued to post new yelly posts at Tor supporters. The official Tor blog put out an anti-harassment statement. Everyone on Twitter continued to scream at each other.

This is my reply to all of that.

Everyone, calm down. We’ve reached the point where no one is behaving well or even working in their own best interest.

Paul Carr — you’re not being productive with pieces like this. I know you are human and like the rest of us, you get angry, but this is continuing a conflict we can all agree isn’t making the world a better place. What Tor does is important, positive or negative, and it stands apart from the conflicts that mar the lives of those in the community it comes from. This conflict, on both sides, continues to trivialize one of the great questions of the age. This age has put a group of maladjusted geeks, of which I would happily count myself one, into an historical role of giving input into what human agency will mean long after we’re all dead. The question of whether encryption/anonymity for the masses is inherently good or bad is an interesting one, and one that no one here is asking. Paul, your kind of journalism works best when you are punching up at power and wealth. You are not punching up at Tor. There has been no defense or counter moves from the halls of power on this one, just an unorganized and often inappropriate response to criticisms both fair and not. I don’t know that you’re punching down, but at best you’re punching sideways, and the people who really deserve your brand of investigative criticism are getting away with their usual shenanigans every day you spend criticizing this struggling and underfunded software project.

And then there’s the response. Say, as some have alleged, Pando’s coverage is opportunistic, attacking Tor as an easy way to drum up traffic. If this were the case, the Tor community’s response to this has been squarely on the side of doing all of Pando’s work for it. Fundamentally, Pando is, for Tor, the best kind of problem to have — the kind that goes away when you ignore it. In fact, none of this would still be a problem if people had ignored it from the start, and just sought to tell a better story. The answer to this was always to tell Tor’s story better.

As Yasha adroitly pointed out, Tor’s funding is not going to go away because of Pando. Much of it is federal, and rarely does the US government suddenly get upset to find it’s funding a tiny software project and stop. Not that the federal support is substantial. As the Tor project has inadvertently pointed out, they are certainly getting no coherent or competent PR help from the federal government.

Tor people, signatories to the anti-harassment blog post, I am happy to say we all shouldn’t harass people. It will be a surprise to no one that I’ve dealt with a fairly awful amount of it myself. Death threats, rape threats, attempted doxxing, the internet standards. I’ve also faced nastiness about my work and my love life, suggestions that I don’t deserve a family or home, suggestions that I harm or kill myself, long hateful posts about some of the more difficult moments in my life. But I’ve come to believe that we must reject harassing behavior without responding in kind. What’s bad to do to fellow human beings remains bad to do, regardless of arguments about who started the chain of terrible events.

This should stand against all harassment, not just the harassment of Andrea Shepard. Plenty of people on the list of signatories to the anti-harassment blog post, including Tor developers, have participated in campaigns of online cruelty, or stood by while others did. They have driven long-time volunteers out of the scene, brought developers (and users!) to tears, and even insulted women and people of color near the point of quitting tech, and in at least one case, near to the point of suicide.

I would love to see this as a moment when we turn over a new leaf, but there has to be a process of truth to go with it. If we are to condemn abuse, we must stop abusing, we must be truthful and make amends where necessary for our past abuses.

I like the idea of all of us standing up together and saying we need to behave better on the net, myself included. I have whipped out the carefully calculated slams, nasty references, and tried to get my followers to jump in. But I decided a while ago to stop that. I’ve spent a time thinking and writing notes on how we should behave towards each other in this space, and how it’s all gone wrong. I have concluded this: Every single person is worthy of human rights in a legal context, and worthy of basic decency in a social context. Most of all, what we do makes who we are, and we should want to be better than this. That goes for me, that goes for reporters at Pando, developers and supporters of Tor, and random people on Twitter with opinions. My behavior makes me who I am. I don’t want to be called a cunt, but being called one doesn’t make me a worse person somehow. Calling someone a cunt does make me something, and I intend to think carefully about whether I want to be that something. I am upset right now at how the internet is behaving, and this little corner of it that is so important to me, but there’s no reason to direct that into attempts to harm anyone. I want to put my anger to a constructive use, to call for people to behave better and put aside the no-holds-barred verbal attacks and careful recording of everything they find transgressive. This isn’t just about kindness and tolerance to each other, it’s about choosing what kind of internet we want to live on, and what kind of people we want to be.

On the point of doxxing trolls, I’ve probably studied this phenomenon for longer and more in-depth than most people alive right now, and I don’t know if it’s right or not. That’s the problem with living in now instead of history. Everybody knows that the Inquisition and the Crusades were wrong, and that the Enlightenment and the progress of Democracy were pretty good, but nobody is ever really sure at the time about these things. I can see why people think doxxing is cruel and wrong, and why people think doxxing is a fundamental point of accountability, and the nuances of that are going to be complicated and possibly take generations to work out. So if you’ve got a hard set opinion, you probably shouldn’t. Yes lives get ruined on both sides, that’s how big shifts in social history work. The best we can do in such liminal times is to reach for what we know works: to treat each other with such decency as we can muster.

As far as how we treat trolls, I don’t believe we have to acquiesce to people who are cruel to us. But a person cannot do anything, and certainly not anything on Twitter, that can invalidate their human rights and entitlement to basic human decency, that’s what rights and basic decency mean. These ideas don’t describe the limits of what people will do, they describe the limits of what we, who respect decency and human rights, should ever be willing to do to other people.

Paul, and Yasha, there are so many people doing truly terrible things in this world. In general if a journalist begins an article with “I don’t have time for this,” they’re probably right. You don’t have time for this. Our country is run by torturers, our banks are raping the legislative process, our corporations are using contract law to strip away our human rights. We all need your sharp eyes and sarcastic wit pointed at them, not at a bunch of poorly socialized geeks who got up your nose. Stop going after an easy target and get back to your vital work.

Andrew Lewman, Tor’s Executive Director, it’s far past time for you to break your silence and show leadership in a situation which threatens your people and the reputation of the software project you direct. Trying to step in and make peace isn’t my job, it’s yours. I appreciate that might be hard, but it would have been easier several months ago. It’s not going to get easier the longer you remain silent.

Tor supporters, everyone on that list of support for Andrea Shepard, take a moment to call each other and yourselves to account for how you’ve behaved online. Let this be a moment you choose to fulfill the promise you’ve made there not just for your side in a debate, but about how we all have behaved online. Some of you have behaved atrociously, and others of you have remained silent while that went on. Stop being that maladjusted geek kid, the world can’t afford that anymore. You’re not powerless outsiders, you’re some of the privileged engineers of human expression. What you do can hurt people, and you need to take responsibility for what you say and how you act. Learn how to take care of yourself so that you can take care of your projects and your users. Hacker drama is not OK anymore. Screaming at strangers is not OK anymore.

These times call for wisdom and discernment.

The Message

A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.

Thanks to Jessamyn West, Clive Thompson, and Evan Hansen.

    Quinn Norton

    Written by

    A journalist of Hackers, Bodies, Technologies, and Internets. ‘’Useless in terms of… tactical details’’ -Stratfor Contact me here:

    The Message

    A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.