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Perl changes dev's permaban for 'unacceptable' behaviour to a year-long lockout after community response

'Discriminatory or harassing conduct will not be tolerated'

A permaban from Perl events over "unacceptable" behaviour has been reduced to a year for the developer concerned, named by several separate Perl sources as Matt Trout.

The first iteration of a Transparency Report by the computer language's Community Affairs Team (CAT) was published a week after the Perl Core developer known as Sawyer X announced his intention to leave the Perl Steering Council over alleged "community hostility" toward him.

The report dealt with poor "community conduct" in general and also went into some detail (although the language is very unclear) on two investigations into what the CAT described as "potentially unacceptable behavior over IRC and Twitter" and an incident at a 2019 Perl event.

"Unacceptable" behaviour and the hellscape of Twitter are bedfellows all too often. What the CAT found there and on other channels triggered a second investigation into what had happened at the Perl event in question. All things considered, the CAT decided a ban on Trout was in order. Another individual was to receive a warning.

"The CAT has informed the individual investigated as part [of] investigation #1 and #2 that they are banned from attending any Perl Foundation conferences or events in perpetuity," read the report.

Shortly after The Register asked it for comment, the CAT updated its report. As well as clarifying what the investigation was regarding behaviour over the years, it also made the sanction "more limited." The ban has now been set at a minimum of a year and could be extended if there was further "unacceptable" behaviour.

"The length of the ban is modified," the CAT went on, "because having a year-round Standards of Conduct is new, as is the CAT. Given all this, we felt it was fairer to start with a more limited sanction."

The CAT also said it "acknowledges it should have delayed the publication of the transparency report to give the Subject [Trout] more time to respond."

The Register spoke to Trout about the ban.

He noted Leon Timmermans' A year of strife in Perl post and said: "I believe that at this point the best thing for my friends and my community is to accept the one-year exclusion from certain spaces as currently proposed, such that we can focus our energies on the future of Perl instead of prolonging such divisive discourse after a year where we've had more than enough thereof."

Trout also expressed disappointment at not being informed of the penalty meted out by the first report ahead of its posting, something partially acknowledged by the CAT in its update. However, he went on: "Given the initial article about the CAT process was, frankly, extremely fair in that it was truthful without any attempt to exonerate me of my mistakes, I prefer to smash the 'co-operate' button in this particular iterated prisoner's dilemma, as it were."

Aaron Crane, formerly of The Register's tech team, took to Twitter last week to share his version of an incident described in the CAT report in a lengthy thread, which detailed what he described as "philosemitic antisemitism" at the 2019 event, although he would not be drawn on the identity of the person dishing out the abuse.

The issue was escalated to the organisers of the conference, who asked "the individual" to leave.

Crane told The Register: "For me, this is fundamentally about raising the standard of discourse in the Perl world," noting that "the Community Affairs Team has been looking at a wider, long-term pattern of toxic behaviour" rather than just the 2019 incident.

He continued: "I think the change in the Perl world that has led to this ruling is simply the existence of a central body that's able and willing to take action.

"The Community Affairs Team is prepared to examine these long-standing behavioural issues, which is welcome and overdue, and to read persistently unacceptable behaviour as a pattern. Their response has to be seen in the context of that long-term behaviour."

Permabans should be tools 'of last resort'

There was, however, disquiet within the Perl community over the initial severity of Trout's penalty. Posting on the perl.perl5.porters mailing list, Comprehensive Perl Archive Network (CPAN) contributor, and Perl Steering Council member, Neil Bowers noted that such behaviour "does need addressing" but worried if the approach taken was the right one.

He later posted thoughts on what the Perl community actually was and included a paragraph in which standards were discussed. "Larger communities," he said, "need a range of tools at their disposal, including a quiet chat, warnings, time-limited bans, and then ultimately a lifetime ban ('permaban')."

"In most cases, a permaban should be the tool of last resort, used only when all other avenues have been exhausted."

Perl is into its fourth decade, and the events over recent weeks and months encapsulate the dilemmas faced by many open-source communities. In the case of Perl, some wounds are self-inflicted – doling out a penalty and then rolling it back smacks a little of weakness. Or perhaps a willingness to engage. Trout's use of "my community" hints at the divisions that exist within the larger Perl world and few would argue that an environment regarded by some of its members as toxic is anything other than a bad thing.

Lines are clearly needed, but deciding where to draw them without alienating entire communities continues to prove a challenge. ®

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