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SXSW adds day-long anti-harassment summit after backlash

A week after canceling two panels because of violent threats, SXSW has reinvited the panels' guests — along with many other big names — to speak at a day-long anti-harassment summit.

"Earlier this week we made a mistake," SXSW Interactive organizer Hugh Forrest wrote in a blog post. "By canceling two sessions, we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry." Now, he says, "it is clear that online harassment is a problem that requires more than two panel discussions to address." Instead of reinstating the panels as they were, SXSW is "working with both groups to develop the most productive focus for their appearances."

The summit, held on Saturday, March 12th, has nearly 20 other confirmed speakers. US Representative Katherine Clark (D-MA) and former Texas state senator Wendy Davis, both of whom expressed disappointment with SXSW online, are on the list, along with Facebook's head of product policy Monika Bickert, Anti-Defamation League director CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, ACLU senior staff member Lee Rowland, and game developer Brianna Wu, who has advocated against harassment during the past year's Gamergate controversy.

"It is clear that online harassment is a problem that requires more than two panel discussions to address."

None of this solves the violent threats that SXSW described, but Forrest says the conference is trying to fix that, too. "Given the nature of online harassment, we will continue to work closely with the authorities and safety experts while planning for SXSW 2016." More details are supposed to be forthcoming.

Only one of the canceled panels explicitly discussed anti-harassment. The other, developed with input from supporters of the Gamergate movement, was meant to be a larger discussion of the gaming community, including ethics in games journalism. The panel's organizers said that they would balance a combination of "old and new ideas" for the summit. "We especially plan to tackle the media’s coverage of harassment and the hostile climate that some see as a direct result of poor research and ethical practices. We also plan to delve into [the] social-political climate of the gaming community / industry and how it has been reported on by the media," it said in a news post. "We want to invite everyone from all sides of this discussion to come together and and engage in what we hope will be a positive and constructive discussion about our vibrant and rapidly growing community."

"I have no confidence in their ability to run this summit while keeping panelists safe."

But members of the original anti-harassment panel, which they had called Level Up, have said that the move has made them reconsider their decision to participate. Panelist and IBM Watson interaction designer Caroline Sinders said that SXSW had not told them that the other panel would be part of the anti-harassment panel, and co-panelist Randi Harper said that Level Up was "not confirmed" to be returning to the event.

"We worked closely with SXSW over the past few days, but we were very surprised to find SXSW making GamerGate a part of the discussion about online harassment," said Harper in a statement published on Recode. "While we fully support GamerGate being a part of SXSW Gaming, adding them to the summit creates a safety concern for many of the people who are currently scheduled to be participating. It is unfortunate that SXSW still lacks an understanding of online harassment, and I have no confidence in their ability to run this summit while keeping panelists safe and providing for a productive conversation."

Update October 30th, 3:45PM ET: Updated with statements from the Open Gaming Society and Level Up panelists.