I'm writing this as a concerned volunteer and member of the Higher Education Web Professionals Association (HighEdWeb). All opinions are my own and do not represent my status as a non-voting member of the WPCampus Board of Directors.
I've been an active volunteer and supporter of the HighEdWeb organization since 2012, so it is with a heavy heart that I withdraw my "Dive into the details of front-end web development" workshop from the HighEdWeb 2023 conference. This is my response to recent decisions made by the HighEdWeb board.
- Why I am withdrawing from the HighEdWeb 2023 conference
- Why Pantheon's policies are harmful
- Why HighEdWeb's decision is wrong
- What you can do to help
Why I am withdrawing from the HighEdWeb 2023 conference
It has come to my attention that HighEdWeb has signed Pantheon (a web hosting service) as a sponsor for its 2023 conference. As part of the sponsor package, Pantheon has been given a session in the event program to discuss its policies and values as an open platform.
I believe Pantheon's policies and HighEdWeb's decision to allow Pantheon to participate in its event are harmful to the HighEdWeb community and against HighEdWeb's values.
Why Pantheon's policies are harmful
On April 20, 2023, a LinkedIn post revealed that Pantheon was hosting websites for hugely influential anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigration organizations designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
When asked why Pantheon hosts websites for hate groups, Pantheon co-founders Josh Koenig and Zack Rosen said, "Pantheon... made a decision at the very beginning to be an open platform. That's our roots: open source, open web, etc." and they would not be changing their decision. You can read a summary of the post (as well as information about the hate groups) in this post written by Ars Technica.
In response to the LinkedIn discussion, Pantheon created a document called Pantheon's Position on Content on our Platform and housed the document in Pantheon's “Client Legal Center.” In its new policy, Pantheon declares its commitment to “protect the founding intent of the Open Web” and its lack of corporate responsibility for how other organizations use its technology.
So why is this policy harmful?
Simply put, Pantheon provides a platform that enables hate groups to advocate for the erasure of protected groups and remove their civil and human rights. Because these hate groups have a website, they can spread their message, fundraise, and recruit others to help them take action.
The SPLC describes one of the groups as “a legal advocacy and training group that has supported the recriminalization of sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ adults in the U.S. and criminalization abroad; has defended state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad; has contended that LGBTQ people are more likely to engage in pedophilia; and claims that a “homosexual agenda” will destroy Christianity and society.”
By hosting these groups, Pantheon is a willing participant in their work. Pantheon accepts their money and, in turn, gives these groups the tools to carry out their mission.
The irony is that the open web and open source, terms used heavily in Pantheon's position, have nothing to do with the situation. These terms are more focused on web infrastructure, not content moderation. For example, supporting an "open web" means supporting the idea that web technology should run on standardized, open-source technology. The “open web” is not a philosophy that businesses should manage web hosting services for anyone who wants to publish a website.
The argument that Pantheon is actually trying to make is for free speech. Pantheon is trying to argue they support free speech (under the umbrella of the "open web") because they provide hosting for anyone (who pays them lots of money) and are therefore working to ensure everyone (who pays them lots of money) has the freedom to say whatever they want on the web. But we're not even talking about censorship. Pantheon doesn't have the power to censor someone on the web.
You're not required to give money to a web hosting service to share information on the web. We're not even talking about net neutrality, a principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all Internet traffic equally. All you need to publish on the web is a computer and an Internet connection. No one is denying these hate groups access to the Internet. No one is denying these hate groups access to Pantheon's open-source code.
If Pantheon rejected hosting websites for hate groups, the hate groups would find someone else to host their website. But that's the point. Pantheon wouldn't be providing the platform or contributing to the erasure of civil and human rights.
What about terms of service? Terms of service are legal documents between a service provider and a person who wants to use that service. These terms set the boundaries for how a customer can use Pantheon's service as well as the rights Pantheon has in governing their service. I do not believe Pantheon has addressed how their terms of service relate to their decision. They have only focused on their “decision to be an open platform.” Pantheon's terms of service state that Pantheon reserves the right to remove any subscriber content at any time. Furthermore, Pantheon has the right to change its terms of service.
The only refreshing aspect of this learning experience is how clear and unwavering Pantheon has been in its stance. It made choosing to no longer do business with them very easy. I refuse to partner with organizations that do not take corporate responsibility for their impact on society.
When it came to the attention of WPCampus that Pantheon was hosting hate groups, the WPCampus Board of Directors reached out, hoping to use its longstanding relationship to get more context from them and urge them to reconsider their stance. Pantheon's communication was responsive and cordial, but they reiterated their official statements and confirmed their hosting decision was final. WPCampus rejected the Pantheon sponsorship for its 2023 conference and removed Pantheon's official status as a WPCampus partner. You can read more about that decision on the WPCampus website.
Why HighEdWeb's decision is wrong
Not only has HighEdWeb accepted Pantheon's money and granted Pantheon the status of a top-level sponsorship, but HighEdWeb has given Pantheon a stage at its event, where Pantheon will lead a roundtable in an attempt to rationalize their decision. In other words, HighEdWeb will provide a platform for an organization to express its harmful point of view.
Accepting a sponsor may not imply an agreement with the sponsor, but it does create a partnership. It says that HighEdWeb is OK with taking money from an organization that knowingly takes money from hate groups that wish to eradicate LGBTQ people. It says that HighEdWeb is OK endorsing the organization to its attendees.
How do I know what Pantheon will do with its roundtable? Because DrupalCon 2023 allowed Pantheon to host the same roundtable. There's a video of the roundtable on YouTube. Andy Blum and a few other Drupal community members posted a response to the roundtable. I highly recommend reading Andy's response. Pantheon has held firm on its stance, giving zero indication of change. Furthermore, Pantheon is leading the HighEdWeb roundtable, which means Pantheon controls the conversation. If HighEdWeb truly wanted to create a constructive discussion, they would have someone from the HighEdWeb community lead the conversation.
When the Pantheon sponsorship came to my attention, I emailed the HighEdWeb Board of Directors on Tuesday, September 26, telling them I was disheartened and concerned about Pantheon's involvement at HighEdWeb 2023. I also requested the HighEdWeb board explain its decision to allow Pantheon to participate in this year's event.
As a fellow event organizer, I expressed my understanding that such a decision can be complex. As a volunteer for HighEdWeb, I aim to ensure my values and principles align with the organizations I support.
On Thursday, September 28, I received a response from HighEdWeb board president Aaron Knight. Since the email was not a public communication, I will only share that Aaron clarified in his email that HighEdWeb could have made a different choice. But they made a harmful choice. So now I have to choose between my participation in the conference or my principles to stand against those who sit idly by while they enable those who wish to erase the rights of others.
On Tuesday, October 3, I made a statement on LinkedIn in support of fellow presenter Reed Piernock removing their presentation from the HighEdWeb program, where I declared that I would also withdraw my workshop from the event. On Wednesday, October 4, I officially withdrew my workshop from the HighEdWeb 2023 conference via email with the event's workshop coordinator.
On Thursday, October 5, Aaron Knight released HighEdWeb's first public statement on the matter titled On Values, Sponsor Guidelines and Open Communication. Aaron describes how the board had discussions with Pantheon but does not directly point to why HighEdWeb did not reject Pantheon as a sponsor. Aaron states that “Pantheon had committed to our 2023 conference before this issue came to light,” but that doesn't mean HighEdWeb had to keep Pantheon on as a sponsor. Aaron shares how the board recently adopted new sponsor guidelines “to solidify a framework of clearer standards for working with sponsors going forward.” However, these guidelines do not address the current problem. The guidelines are extremely broad and seem only to set standards of communication, not standards of acceptable behavior. What's most concerning about Aaron's statement is he offloads the burden of choice from HighEdWeb and places that burden on the attendee: “You have a choice of how (or if) you engage with our sponsors.” Aaron encourages attendees to attend Pantheon's roundtable discussion to “share and listen.” The responsibility to do the work needed to fight against Pantheon's content policy now lies with attendees, not the board.
Why did HighEdWeb tacitly approve Patheon's choice and behavior? Why did HighEdWeb avoid making that choice by deferring that burden to the conference attendees? HighEdWeb could have terminated this sponsorship and chose not to. Having principles is not always easy. But values without action are just words. Whether or not the HighEdWeb board realizes it, they are telling us [insert reason HighEdWeb chose not to reject Pantheon's sponsorship] is more important than the safety and inclusion of its members.
What you can do to help
If you agree that Pantheon's content policy is harmful or that HighEdWeb made the wrong choice, the following are just a few of the numerous ways you can take action to drive change.
1. Email the HighEdWeb Board of Directors
If you disagree with the decision made by the HighEdWeb board to accept Pantheon as a sponsor, contact HighEdWeb to voice your opinion.
2. Talk to your university about not doing business with Pantheon
If your university does business with Pantheon, and you disagree with Pantheon's content policy, talk to university leadership about the situation. Send me a message if you want help assembling a list of other web hosting services to recommend.
3. Spread awareness and share what's happening with others
If you're attending HighEdWeb 2023, talk about what's happening with other attendees. Create your own blog post or share this blog post with others in the industry. Post about what's happening on social media. Help others be informed to make the best decision for themselves and their organizations.
4. Withdraw your HighEdWeb presentation
If you are presenting at HighEdWeb 2023, withdraw your presentation from the event. This is a hard stance. It means no longer attending the event. With only a few days until the event, this may be challenging. I'm not passing judgment if you choose to go through with your presentation. There are other ways to drive change.
I am not the only presenter to withdraw from the conference. Reed Piernock also withdrew their presentation. You can read their statement on LinkedIn.
5. Use your HighEdWeb presentation to spread awareness
If you choose not to withdraw your presentation from the event, there are other ways you can help. As a presenter, you have a platform to spread awareness at the event. Take a minute as part of your session and make sure folks in the audience know about Pantheon's choices and those made by the HighEdWeb board. Add a slide to the beginning of your presentation stating you support LGBTQ+ people and stand opposed to anyone who enables those who wish to eradicate them. Encourage attendees to contact the HighEdWeb board if they disagree with their decision to accept Pantheon as a sponsor.
Another option to remember is that you can revoke your permission for HighEdWeb to further profit from your session. When you signed your presenter agreement, you authorized HighEdWeb to record and distribute your session. HighEdWeb uses these recordings for marketing purposes and to make money by charging individuals and institutions membership fees to access the recordings in their professional development library. As part of your agreement, you can revoke that authorization at any time upon written notification. Let HighEdWeb know why you are revoking your authorization.
6. Boycott the Pantheon roundtable at HighEdWeb 2023
I go back and forth on whether I actually recommend attending Pantheon's roundtable at HighEdWeb. On the one hand, we should push back. On the other hand, they've provided evidence they're not actually at the roundtable to actively listen to feedback.
I feel like the best option at this point is to boycott Pantheon's roundtable. What a statement that would make if no one showed up and the community came together and told Pantheon that no one here wants to hear about your so-called values.
Pantheon will not change its stance, so it's time to move on and support other web hosting services that don't enable hate groups.
There are multiple ways to support an organization. Most support HighEdWeb through financial contributions (tickets to events). I support them through volunteering. I donate my time, energy, and skills to this organization to support its mission because I believe our values align.
So what happens when organizations you support make decisions that don't align with its values? You lose trust. I no longer trust that HighEdWeb will make decisions informed by its values. I don't trust that HighEdWeb will continue providing a safe space for its members. Why would I support and donate my time to an organization I don't trust?
All businesses and organizations have values. Creating a list of values and displaying them on your website is easy. Creating a "Code of Conduct" is easy. It's just words. Action is the hard part. Using your values to guide and enforce decisions is the hard part. Pay attention when organizations make decisions that disregard their values.
Some members of the HighEdWeb community are truly hurting due to this decision and are still volunteering at the event. My heart goes out to all of you. I'm here if you need someone to talk to.
I have made many friends through HighEdWeb. I met my partner through HighEdWeb. For many, an organization like HighEdWeb can feel part of your identity. But HighEdWeb is an organization that is bigger than any individual. HighEdWeb is an organization that wields power and influence. I know my actions will hurt and confuse some community members and friends. When you care about a friend, you hold them accountable for their actions. We must do the same when we care about an organization.