Last week, open-source software developer FreeBSD Project updated its code of conduct to address non-consensual "simulated physical contact" as a form of harassment. That means that sending someone descriptions of physical contact like a "hug" or a "backrub" without their consent, or after they have asked you to stop, are violations of the guidelines governing the company's community spaces.
As you might expect, people freaked out.
"I am all for equal rights, but feminism is something else entirely," one commenter wrote. Others argue that not being able to send *hugs* whenever they want is a censorship issue. But by necessitating consent for contact like *hugs* and *backrubs* and not, for instance, thumbs-up or high-fives, it's evident FreeBSD is attempting to create consent around more intimate actions. Actions that, in physical manifestations, would warrant consent.
Benno Rice, a core team member at FreeBSD, told Gizmodo that people who oppose the new rules have gone so far as to spread false rumours about the organisation in response to the changes.
"A lot of the noise around this is coming from groups of people who seem to be traditionally opposed to codes of conduct and are trying to portray us in as negative light as possible," Rice said in an email. "For example there's a claim doing the rounds that the implementation of this Code of Conduct delayed our response to [major security vulnerabilities] Meltdown and Spectre which is utterly false. Personally I'm finding the backlash highly disappointing."
Rice made clear that the code of conduct does not ban virtual hugs or other simulated physical contact, but is instead meant to alert the community to "potential problem areas and set up a system based on reports of inappropriate behaviour which we can investigate and act on as needed."
The changes to rules around simulated physical contact weren't the only update to FreeBSD's code of conduct. In fact, the iteration before last week's update was pretty thin in comparison. The more robust code of conduct — which was based on Geek Feminism's anti-harassment policy — indicates that the company is tackling issues of harassment online more seriously and with more nuance.
"The core idea of the new code of conduct is that the onus is on someone doing their best not to offend, abuse or harass people rather than placing any requirement on people to not get offended," Rice said. "In addition to that we acknowledge that these incidents can be highly subjective, especially when things cross cultural boundaries or the like. To that end we included a list of things that people should be aware of as being potential problem areas and set up a system based on reports of inappropriate behaviour which we can investigate and act on as needed."
The inclusion of unwanted artificial physical contact is certainly emblematic of the growing entanglement of our real-world and digital experiences. The harmful consequences of virtual abuse, namely nonconsensual physical contact, have been explored since as far back as 1993, in which journalist Julian Dibbell penned an essay about sadistic behaviour in multi-user dimensions, or MUDs.
To now enforce that all contact, simulated or not, must include consent feels like a natural evolution in anti-harassment policies.
As Rice explains, applying the offline standards to online interactions is simply common sense. "[O]ffering someone a hug is fine. Actually hugging them is different and you should know whether they're going to appreciate it first. Offering them hugs over and over may not be fine," he said. "These three statements are true no matter whether you're doing it in person or over Twitter."