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SXSW plans Online Harassment Summit

Festival restores cancelled panels as part of day-long event, but key speaker says the show might not go on after all

Earlier this week, organizers at the South by Southwest festival cancelled a pair of GamerGate-inspired panels, citing safety concerns in the wake of violent threats. The decision came under plenty of criticism given that one of the panels was explicitly about "Overcoming Harassment in Games."

The festival wants a do-over, as today it announced plans to restore the two panels--"SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community" and "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games"--as part of an all-day Online Harassment Summit to take place on Saturday, March 12.

"Earlier this week we made a mistake. By cancelling two sessions we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry," SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest said in a post announcing the summit. "The resulting feedback from the individuals involved and the community-at-large resonated loud and clear. While we made the decision in the interest of safety for all of our attendees, cancelling sessions was not an appropriate response. We have been working with the authorities and security experts to determine the best way to proceed. It is clear that online harassment is a problem that requires more than two panel discussions to address."

However, original Level Up speaker and Online Abuse Prevention Initiative speaker Randi Lee Harper said on Twitter that the SXSW announcement misrepresented the situation. She said the panel as of yet is not confirmed to be part of the Online Harassment Summit, and took exception to the pro-GamerGate SavePoint panel's presence within the same track of programming.

"What SXSW did was equivalent to allowing a perpetrator of domestic violence to stand on a stage next to the woman he abused," Harper said in a series of tweets. "This shows a gross incompetence. They do not understand what they are doing, and I am not confident that they have our safety as a priority."

A cached version of the SXSW SavePoint panel description makes no explicit mention of online harassment as part of its subject matter. According to that write up, "The panel will focus heavily on discussions regarding the current social/political landscape in the gaming community, the journalistic integrity of gaming's journalists, and the ever-changing gaming community, video game development, and their future."

In addition to the two (possibly) restored panels, SXSW organizers have confirmed 20 more speakers to appear at the summit, including Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark, former White House digital media advisor Mark DeLoura, Giant Spackat head of development Brianna Wu, and Facebook head of product policy Monika Bickert.

"SXSW strives to bring a diverse range of voices together to facilitate meaningful dialogue in an atmosphere of civility and respect," Forrest said in his post. "Given the nature of online harassment, we will continue to work closely with the authorities and safety experts while planning for SXSW 2016."

A representative with SXSW had not returned a request for comment on Harper's statements as of press time.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.