i wrote a blog about building things that are then used by others for harassment even if you did not want them to do it

by jenn schiffer

here is a post i wrote on my now-deleted tumblr back in july of 2016 (3 years ago!!). i was thinking about it after learning about a well publicized new app that probably shouldn't exist. back then, i was a javascript consultant. today, i actively work on trying to make sure no one uses our platform to create harmful technology. life is a highway!

xoxo j$, 8/2019

let’s say you make an app that clones news articles and lets users change the headlines and photos. and you host the pages with a URL that is similar to the original URL. is it

i say the answer is d. now i’m not going to get into what art is or what constitutes an educational lesson, but the gist0 of it is that if you create something that is used other than your initial intentions, you are responsible to make it clear what your artist statement is or what the lesson you are trying to teach is. and that’s not even the absolute minimum of your responsibility, in my opinion.

we are living in the internet of garbage1 and so we need to work extra hard to make sure the things we are making are not being used for harm. i think it’s safe to say that every tool we create has the potential to be used as a vehicle for harrassment, so we as artists/creators/engineers/developers need to be proactive about not contributing to this existing sad scene.

anyway that’s my thesis and here is the context: i went to an event over the weekend where a speaker was introduced as having created a “very cool” thing. and that thing is what i described above. and i know, and other attendees knew, for a fact that it is actively used to harrass women. and when put to task about it (i had clearly stated to the speaker during q&a that they were “incredibly ethically irresponsible”) there was no accountability taken. they said there is a disclaimer on the tool - but selecting terms of service is for the creator of the cloned article, not the reader. there is nothing on the page that pops up and says “hey this is not real, learn more about tech literacy and how not to be fooled by this.” with their back against a wall, they said “well twitter is used for harrassment” and i said “well twitter isn’t here.”2

it’s incredibly infuriating as a computer scientist and former (salaried) educator to see the lack of ethics going into programming tools for art and education, mostly because i spend a lot of time defending some aspects of higher learning where its accredited institution students are exposed to ethics in their work3 (or supposed to be exposed to – whether they learn those lessons is an entirely other issue). these lessons are obviously not being taught to those who learn on their own or in different kinds of spaces.

now, i’ve made tools and written things i’m sure could be called out as inethical in that i write and program satirical stuff. in my defense, my satire is about people who take the tech industry as a lifestyle and not as an industry, and also my work has only been used to harrass me. these other tools that are actual tools for harrassment are usually built by people who are not targets of harrassment and therefore were not in the brainspace to be proactive about such occurrences (ie. white men4 ).

that was the context, here is my solution: if you are making a piece of art, educational tool, and/or software, ask yourself how it can be used in a way you did not intend and if that can harm someone. if you cannot think of a way, then ask people who do not look like you and do not come from your own socio/economic background (ie. have some diversity in the analysis pre-release) to confirm. if you are unable to do this for any reason, then move on to the next thing in your to-do list and give this idea a rest until you can be responsible about your work.

also, i’d like to say that there is a way to create things for a certain event or class and not release it out in the world without any plans to moderate or keep a handle on how it’s used. yes, i’m a huge proponent of open source development in both process and implementation of my art and software development. but sometimes it is best to keep things “in the classroom” because that’s how i can personally make sure my work isn’t used to harm others. part of our responsibility is taking on only the amount of work we can personally handle. open source is not an excuse to contribute to the internet of garbage, so please stop saying “don’t worry, i’ll open source it” when i critique your contributions. it trivializes the movement and it makes me write blogs. and i hate blogging.

[0] hard ‘g’

[1] I highly recommend sarah jeong’s short and to the point book, internet of garbage

[2] also yeah, twitter has a long history of dropping the ball more than times square to the nth degree. you cannot use other instances of irresponsibility to allow yours. people have gotten away with murder, doesn’t mean they shattered some glass ceiling for the rest of us to be able to do a murder and get away with it. fuck.

[3] ACM Code of Ethics, which I recommend even for non-members

[4] #notallmen lol