Censorship, IRC and the Ubuntu Code of Conduct v.1.0

Preface: Some people seem to very much like to think that I'm claiming here that the users of the Ubuntu IRC channels are somehow entitled to something, or that IRC is a democracy, or that this is a free speech issue, or that the operators aren't within their privileges to do whatever they damn well please.

The real point is, of course, none of the above, as you could well see from careful reading of the actual text. The actual point is the plain and simple double standards and hypocrisy of the practices when looked at from the perspective of the Code of Conduct, which is what the operators themselves use to justify their actions. (Hypocrisy means saying one thing and doing another.)

Now that that's cleared up, let's get on to the text:

It has become evident to me from long participation on the Ubuntu IRC channels, that the Ubuntu IRC Council's practice as to the interpretation of the Ubuntu Code of Conduct (CoC) is best described as petty, arrogant and disrespectful – all qualities not endorsed by the CoC itself.

I do not have high hopes for this essay to change the situation outright, or to provoke changes in the CoC to discourage petty interpretations. The first would require the people involved to be able to acknowledge their current practice as arbitrary micromanagement, and as for the latter, the CoC itself is not really at fault, the root cause of the problem rather being the common human trait of being predisposed to imposing one's values on others.

I do hope that this essay will provoke some introspection in at least some community members, so that in the long run we might have a more tolerant Ubuntu community. Also, the arguments may apply to other situations as well where a perhaps well-meaning but misguided elite try and enforce their ways on others.

I will discuss two forms of active censorship and how they exhibit the qualities mentioned above. Let's start with the less egregious one.

Censorship by topic

Censorship by topic is something to be tolerated to some extent — I am not advocating allowing personal attacks, for instance, or to reintroduce offtopic material to support channels, or any such thing. However, the IRC Guidelines take this further, even for miscellaneous chatter channels such as #ubuntu-offtopic:

"[T]ake touchy subject choices such as war, race, religion, politics (unless related to software licencing), gender, sexuality, drugs, questionable legal activities, removing of ones [sic] self from the planet are taken [sic] to other channels such as #off-topic or ##politics."

Basically, the guidelines state, and the operators enforce, a precrime approach. You might have not insulted or provoked anyone. You might not have done anything that is wrong according to most anyone's common sense (the use of which is otherwise generally encouraged by the ops). Nevertheless, you will be discouraged, and eventually removed, for having an unapproved topic of conversation. On a conversation channel.

So, how can regulating these subjects be bad? Well, for instance, there are the issues of sexuality and gender. Now, Ubuntu channels certainly are no netsex channels, but making the entire subjects taboo does not speak well for their tolerance. I am reminded of "Don't ask, don't tell" policies of the US Army, for instance; "If you're gay, just don't ever mention it and we'll be cool". While I am not of that persuasion, and my sexuality is not a strong part of my identity, there are those to whom it's highly integral. I find the policy extremely disrespectful towards these people. And how about the feminine side of geekdom? Verboten to discuss in spesific, whether it's to speculate on some differences to the more prevalent male geekdom, or if there are any at all. Relevantly, it seems that for instance any discussion on how to get more women interested in our causes is, well, off-topic.

Before one jumps up to say that the ops use common sense in enforcement, the situation is actually made worse its arbitrary nature. Many of these subjects, especially politics, are often broached on spesifically #ubuntu-offtopic. Sometimes the operators react, sometimes they don't, and the conversations continue for a long time. Sometimes the operators clearly choose not to interfere (even when clear personal insults are involved), sometimes it may be just that nobody's watching. Regardless, the visible result on the channel is highly arbitrary enforcement of rules. One cannot help but wonder if for instance politics is more easily let slide if the operators present agree with what's being said.

The usual counter to the arbitrariness is that these are "guidelines", not rules. I counter that a guideline in this case is a rule that an enforcer can ignore or enforce at his or her personal convenience (also called "whim"). This is not conducive to a mutually respectful, collaborative environment.

In short, you should not have this sort of blanket rules that give operators full discretion in whether to impose their opinions on suitable topics of conversation on people.

As a humorous side note, apparently in the pursuit of "family-friendliness" the guidelines are formulated sufficiently unclearly to require people to once in a while ask what's "removing of ones self from the planet". Thus somebody will explain it means suicide, and so the rules themselves bring up the subject occasionally, even if it is not generally discussed as such after that. Also other taboos are often metaconversed about in passing, and double standards abound (for instance the usual American one; kidding about killing someone seems to be mostly okay, while if you, all in good fun, even hint at sexuality, you're pretty sure to be reprimanded).

Censorship by vocabulary

Then there is censorship by vocabulary. This I find more offensive of the two forms of censorship because of the sheer pettiness and arrogance of it.

To be perfectly clear, I'm not advocating that people shouldn't be admonished for making personal insults or discouraged from spouting profanities every other word (as that makes the text hard to follow). I am, however, firmly against fussing over every gosh-darn swear word that people happen to mention as emphasis, embellishment, or simply in the course of their natural use of their language.

Ubuntu claims multiculturality. Swearing is an extremely cultural thing. And I'm not talking about large cultures either. In the modern world, subcultures abound. There are no objective measures here, and while one form of "being considerate" is indeed trying to a reasonable degree not to offend people, it is likewise "considerate" not to freak out at someone every single time you happen to see some "alarming" combination of glyphs on the screen. Even if it's not a one-time slip. It's just words, for crying out loud.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who extols his or her own definition of "proper" vocabulary above all others and is willing to enforce this view by forcible removal of dissenters from the community is not "being respectful", quite the opposite. It is disrespectful of all those people to whom this is a natural part of their daily language.

This arrogance goes even deeper than the individual level. Referring to the subcultural issues, this degree of meddling in peoples' choice of words is cultural discrimination. Qualitatively, it's no different from saying that if you grew up in a proper white Republican upper middle class home with good Christian values (though don't say that last part, that's taboo), you're fine and welcome to our midst. If you grew up on the streets of the local nigger ghetto, you're filthy and not fit to be in our company if you don't learn to talk like proper white folk, pronto. (Yes, that's slightly exaggarated, though still even in itself a valid example of what kind of communities are more or less likely than others to pass the Ubuntu requirements. I trust reasonable people are intellectually honest enough to see the point behind the exaggaration and not use it as an excuse to carry on discriminating.)

"Family friendliness" is often cited as an excuse for policing every last punctuating utterance of chatters. This is a misnomer. Families are not threatened by words, and neither are children damaged by these random four-letters sprinkled in conversation. If anything, they may be slightly traumatized if the adults make a huge screaming deal about it — or they may just use it as a way of ticking said adults off. Finally, this excuse is rendered rather hollow by the fact that technical terms such as "brainfuck" are explicitly allowed (which in itself is very sane, of course, merely a massive double standard). Are we to believe that children are not damaged if we add "brain" to the Bad Word? Or if they still are damaged, why isn't "brainfuck" banned as well? Is an obscure joke of a language more important? Oh, won't somebody please think of the children!

Then, of course, there is the same arbitrariness of measure as with subject-based censorship. Gosh-darn, what is one allowed to say? "F*ck", "duck", "freck" or "frell"? "WTF"? If not, how about "OMG"? If yes, why? This is all up to the whims of the presiding operators. An easy solution is of course to submit completely to the cultural superiority of the IRC Council's idealized image of a white upper middle class American, and never use any strong emphasis at all. This would, however, take away from the expressiveness of the language, as well as amount to bowing down to an injust policy all too easily.

Finally, there is the problem that the rule has become a sort of a joke. Spesifically on #ubuntu-offtopic, again, the regulars often !ohmy each other. Then there might be some pondering if what was said was actually !ohmy-worthy. It's hard to take it seriously anymore. Rules that are used as running gags are not worthy of their label.


The Ubuntu IRC Council's practice of censorship on the IRC channels is not conducive to creating a mutually respectful, collaborative, multicultural environment. It's based largely on the idea of the supremacy of some idealized, cleaned-up (and non-existing) form of American mainstream culture, as witnessed by for instance the categorical dismissal of swear words and preference of violence over sexuality. The IRC Council seems to have forgotten that respect and considerateness are two-way streets.

The rules (or guidelines) are enforced very arbitrarily, many of them being regularly broken and/or used as running gags. A regular user can easily get the impression that operators bend the guidelines when the they agree with what's being said, and start being more strict if they disagree.

In closing, I hope this essay will prove the tiniest bit useful, at least in the long run, in pushing away some of the censorship, double standards, arbitrary rules, and excess presumptions of cultural supremacy around the Ubuntu community and elsewhere. This would truly be in the spirit of the CoC, and not mere lip service.

© 2007 Mikko Rauhala <mjr@iki.fi>, CC Attribution.