Careful with the 'virtual hugs' says new FreeBSD Code of Conduct

Cue virtual outrage and actual culture wars skirmishes

By Richard Chirgwin


The FreeBSD project completely updated its code-of-conduct in early February, complete with a definition of "harassment" that included "Physical contact and simulated physical contact (e.g., textual descriptions like "*hug*" or "*backrub*") without consent or after a request to stop." And as will happen these days, considerable controversy and vivid online debate has been the result.

FreeBSD core team member Benno Rice told The Reg the new code, available here, was adopted because feedback suggested the old one could be improved.

"While it wasn't the best, it certainly wasn't the worst," he said. The project therefore sought outside help to draft the new document.

The result is mostly straightforward, but the virtual hugs section has proven controversial.

OpenSUSE board member and YouTuber Bryan Lunduke has used his YouTube channel to ask if FreeBSD also wants to regulate virtual high fives or fist bumps. Lunduke's video is a rather more polite expression of comments found in corners of the Internet where gender politics is derided and debate is sometimes infamously uncivil.

FreeBSD's Rice told us the intent of virtual hugs clause is “make sure it's okay before you do it”.

The point, he said, is that FreeBSD is acknowledging that harassment is subjective: what's acceptable between friends or with permission may or may not be acceptable from a stranger – or if it's repeated after someone's asked that it stop.

“We're not banning things, per se,” Rice said. “You have to put the onus on people not to offend.”

Rice agreed that there was criticism of the code within the project, but said “the most egregious stuff has come from outside”.

“Some people didn't like it, because it's based on an example of an anti-harassment policy at the Geek Feminism wiki,” he said.

Complicating matters further is that the code is report-driven, so a review team within the FreeBSD team will tackle every report, even if the result is no action.

Rice said criticism of the code from within the FreeBSD community often asks why it used the Geek Feminism Wiki as its base, while other discussion in threads could be filed under either “Oh, God, not another code of conduct” or “Did we really have to do this?”

It would probably have been easier “if we just copy-pasted someone else's [code]”, he added. ®

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