EchoEkhi's Blog

A Need For Structural Reform: OTW Needs to Treat Its Own People Better

You would have read – or at least known by now – the recent controversy about the OTW’s treatment of a Policy & Abuse Committee (PAC) volunteer during the 2022 CSEM email attacks. In case you didn’t, here’s a brief recap:

In 2022, a volunteer was suspected of being involved in an email attack against the OTW, in which Child Sexual Exploitation photographs were sent to OTW volunteers. It was suspected that the volunteer either conducted the attack themselves, or their internal accounts was compromised by hackers. It is worth noting that the volunteer in question was responsible for handling abuse reports involving child pornography in the PAC.

Based on these suspicions, and other evidence that are not publicly known, the Legal Committee decided to suspend the volunteer from the Org, without the Board of Director’s approval. Two months later, it was revealed that the suspicions were false, so the volunteer’s access to the Org was restored. Unfortunately, by that time, the volunteer’s motivation and morale has diminished significantly, causing them to resign from the Org. The volunteer accused Legal of bullying, and raised objections about how opaque and unaccountable the whole process was.

The volunteer further stated that the suspicions were unsubstantiated, and there were consistent patterns of bullying and retaliation in the Org and the wellbeing of front-line volunteers were being ignored.

Further Reading

There is now mounting allegations of the OTW’s poor treatment of volunteers, especially front-line volunteers who deal with abuse reports, in terms of the volunteers’ wellbeing and mental-health. It was also discussed that the Legal Committee (Legal) appears to hold too much power within the Org, as they apparently have the power to unilaterally kick a volunteer out of the Org, and a history of excessively exerting their influence on the Board. I was not able to find any factual evidence supporting the allegations against Legal.

In response, the Board and Legal published an internal statement on the matter several days ago.

A Comedy of Errors Coincidences

Before I discuss the contents of the statement, let’s just change the subject completely for a moment, and let me indulge in my own thoughts.

I’m a very big fan of this British sitcom from the 1980s called ‘Yes, Minister’. It’s a light-hearted comedy about a government minister’s struggles and conflicts with his department and the British Civil Service. Nostalgia is not the only reason why it’s my favourite TV show of all time; I also particularly appreciate the fact that even after 40 odd years, the problems explored in the show are still mostly true; The only major difference to today is the fact that the Soviet Union doesn’t exist any more. All the ploys, tricks and underhanded tactics used by politicians and government officials are still very much exactly the same.

I would like to quote from one of its episodes (S02E07), when the minister faces serious allegations of misconduct and incompetence:

We shall just choose from one of the five standard excuses to deal with each allegation:

  1. There’s a perfectly satisfactory explanation to everything, but security forbids its disclosure;
  2. It only went wrong due to heavy cuts in staff and budget, which stretched supervisory resources beyond their limits;
  3. It was a worthwhile experiment, now abandoned, but not before it provided much valuable data and considerable employment;
  4. It occurred before certain important facts were known, and couldn’t happen again;
  5. It was an unfortunate lapse by an individual, which is now being dealt with under internal disciplinary procedures.

With those five standard excuses in mind, let’s go through the internal statement from Legal together.
(Note: This statement was sourced from here. I was not able to verify the authenticity of the statement. I am not an OTW volunteer at the time of writing, and I have no access to private communication channels within the OTW.)

Hi everyone,

We write to address some questions surrounding the suspension of a volunteer’s access to certain OTW tools during and in the wake of the attacks on the OTW last May.

We apologize that there are still many things we cannot say. Some things we cannot say because we simply don’t know them. Other things we cannot say because they are (and must remain) protected by attorney-client privilege as part of our relationship with the cybersecurity attorneys at the firm of Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard and Smith LLP who worked with us as we responded to an unprecedented and complicated emergency.

Excuse #1. “There’s a perfectly satisfactory explanation to everything, but security forbids its disclosure.”

We worked with those attorneys, none of whom are affiliated with the OTW, because they are experts in cybersecurity in the context of hacking and related issues, which we are not. (For those curious, their fees were paid by OTW’s insurance, and did not come out of donor funds; donor funds do pay for the Organization’s insurance which is the standard type of insurance a non-profit the OTW’s size and type should maintain.)

We still do not know who was behind the attacks, but one of the very first steps the org took was to suspend everyone’s access to various org communication tools, and begin an investigation into how the attacker may have gotten access to personal information regarding several OTW volunteers. It is important to remember that at this time, OTW volunteers were traumatized, afraid for their jobs, and in some instances, afraid for their lives. Our chief priorities were making the org safe for volunteers, and making sure we complied with legal requirements concerning criminal investigations and global privacy and data protection laws.

Excuse #2. “The urgency and severity of the situation stretched supervisory resources beyond their limits.”

In close consultation with our outside attorneys and with the assistance of people in several org committees, we began an investigation of who had access to what information at what times, and how those times corresponded to various attacks and communications from the terrorist. Several people around the OTW received emails in specific batches between the days of May 3 and May 7, 2022. We collected information about these messages, their content, and who received them as well as we could throughout the crisis, and shared this information with the Lewis Brisbois attorneys.

Some peculiar coincidences regarding what accounts had access to particular information at what times in relation to the messages led us to believe that one volunteer’s Slack account may have been compromised, whether with their knowledge or without it. We suspended this account’s access to Slack. At the same time, in an abundance of caution, we also severely limited our communication with anyone outside of a small bubble of people who were directly involved in the investigation, because we did not know how the attacker was getting their information. We recognize that this strategy was distressing for many, and apologize for it. Although we deeply regret the distress it caused, it does appear to have been effective in cutting off access to information by the attacker or attackers. After May 7, no more attack emails were sent to anyone. This is another coincidence we cannot explain.

Excuse #3. “It was a worthwhile experiment, now abandoned, but not before it provided much valuable data and considerable results.”

With the assistance of outside counsel and their cybersecurity experts, we continued to investigate. On July 5, after almost two months of investigation and scrubbing of personal information from org spaces, we determined that the risk of restoring this account’s access to Slack was negligible, and Volcom began the process of restoring access.

Excuse #4. “It occurred before certain important facts were known, and couldn’t happen again.”

The following day, the volunteer contacted us to ask about their Slack access and we let them know that it was being restored. This is yet another information coincidence we do not understand and cannot explain.
We hope that emergencies like the events of May 2022 will not ever occur again. That said, over the past year, we have been increasing security measures and developing emergency procedures – some which are still in process so they are consistent with volunteer expectations and comply with laws of various countries – so that communication and decision-making in future emergency situations will be clearer to all volunteers, consistent with what volunteers expect, more structured and less ad hoc, and we hope, less distressing.

Excuse #5. “It was an unfortunate lapse by Management, which is now being dealt with internally and new procedures are being drafted.”

We apologize to all those who have been distressed by these decisions, particularly the affected volunteer (who has since left the organization). We hope that by creating these procedures we can have clearer processes to address these situations – even as we hope something like this will never occur again.

Legal has managed to hit all five of the excuses in a single statement, in order. Seriously, it was the exact same order as it appeared in that particular episode of the TV show. You can’t make this up. Here’s the clip of the episode. Now, in addition to the two coincidences noted in the statement, you now have a third coincidence too! 3 for the price of 2!

Obviously, on inspection, all five of these excuses are perfectly reasonable:

  1. Attorney-client privilege is a real concern: If Legal releases the relevant information, then the consultancies would no longer be obliged to keep other parts of the information secret. Bear in mind the investigations could have contained personal records of some of the volunteers, which under no circumstances would be acceptable to be released to the public;
  2. Indeed it was a trying time for the Org. It is perfectly reasonable to expect that the Board would be swamped with paperwork and potential liabilities to the extent that they were unable to deal with everything that demanded their attention;
  3. It would appear, if not by causation but correlation, the experiment of suspending volunteers’ access worked;
  4. It’s perfectly reasonable that such investigations take time, and nothing could be done before the investigation reaches a sound conclusion;
  5. This was indeed a lapse of the Org: it did not have specific procedures on how to deal with such a crisis. It’s also reasonable to say that nobody really expected that the Org would face a crisis of this nature before 2022, although there were signs of a potential attack looming several months before.

But the statement just isn’t very satisfying. Why?

You’re Missing The Point

The whole statement is trying to address one point: Why Legal had decided to suspend the volunteer in the first place.

But the thing is: we already know that. We understand that it was perfectly reasonable for the Org to take the action that it did, considering the severity of the situation, and I understand that due to legal and liability reasons, the Org was right to restrict communications with the volunteer in question.

But that’s not the main concern. The points were:

  • The Org lacks proper accountable procedures to suspend or dismiss a volunteer;
  • Volunteers (especially front-line ones like PAC ans Support) lack wellbeing guarantees and counselling, and there is a lack of anti-bullying mechanisms within the Org;
  • The Legal Committee apparently has unchecked power over the Org, even though it should only serve an advisory role for the Board. Source

And the statement addresses none of them. Although, to the Board’s credit, it was never meant for public release, so it’s perfectly reasonable that it didn’t address public controversies outside the org. I don’t know about what volunteers inside the Org are demanding from the Board, so I cannot comment.

My Suggestions

There’s been no shortage of suggestions from others on forums, such as resignation of the Board, resignation of the Legal Committee, or even resignation of the whole of the OTW.

Such resignations, while satisfying the temperamental animalistic anger rightfully incurred during such a revelation, does very little or even does irrepariable damage to the overall goals of the public outcry. There are obviously better and less disruptive ways to reform the OTW rather than demanding a coup d’état.

Create a New Volunteer Wellbeing Committee

Form a Volunteer Wellbeing Committee (VWC). It should have the responsibility of:

  • Providing mental-health mutual aid and counselling to volunteers;
  • Ensuring front-line and vulnerable volunteers on PAC and Support are regularly checked-up to ensure their wellbeing;
  • Prescribing of sabbaticals to volunteers;
  • Providing an independent listener within the Org when a volunteer feels cornered or bullied by their peers or seniors, with the power to recommend sanctions against the perpetrators to the committee chairs.
  • Have sole exclusive power to suspend or remove a volunteer from the Org; A written authorisation from the VWC Chair is required for such action to be taken.

Its chair should be an elected position voted on by volunteers within the Org, to ensure mutual trust, in case suspension of a volunteer is necessary but the reasons could not be disclosed for legal complications.

Management Structure Reform

Currently, the management structure within the OTW looks like this:

Current management structure diagram

This is the intuitive way to draw a tree: Volunteers report to their chair, chairs report to the directors. While this is suitable for a small organisation, it does have some problems when applied onto an organisation of the size of the OTW:

  • The committee chairs have too much unchecked power. As they are permanent posts and not democratically elected, they garner an incredible amount of power within the Org, especially over time. It becomes difficult for the board to reject the Chairs’ decisions.
  • The committee chairs have no accountability, so there is no motivation to implement policies set by the Board.

In my reform, the management structure would look like this:

Proposed reformed management structure diagram

Directors on the board would be delegated to one or several committees each, to serve as the committees’ directors. Old committee chairs would become Committee Officers, responsible for the day-to-day operations of the committee, using their subject-area expertise. Committee Directors would make policies and future plans for the committee, whereas Committee Officers will carry out the policies. Officers will report to directors, and the directors would meet at the Board and report to the Chair. Additionally, important decisions taken inside of a committee will require a written approval from its director, making decisions democratically accountable.

This ensures there is accountability at the committee level; No longer would the Board be able to simply say something happened in a committee without its knowledge. It would also limit the power of the current committee chairs, as there would be democratic and effective oversight over their deliberations. It would even make the Org more efficient, as policy and administration concerns are separated, taking some of the workload off the current committee chairs.

To make sure the Board is always acting in the interests of the volunteers, there could be a ‘vote of no confidence’ mechanism, where volunteers can trigger a new election to replace the whole board with a simple majority.

A Call For More Candidates

We are nearing the candidacy sign-up deadline on 18th of June. More than anything, I would encourage current OTW volunteers to stand for office, as there are 4 open seats this year, and there is a non-negligible likelihood that there would be an equal or even fewer number candidates than open seats, which would result in an unopposed victory, at which point there would be no debates on policy or plans for improvement.

Candidates are more than welcome to use my proposals in your manifesto. In fact, if you reach out to me, I will even help you prepare your election statements and Q&As. So please, consider running in this year’s election.

To voters, don’t forget to donate $10 to the OTW before 30th of June, so you get your eligibility to vote in the election in August. And please, keep calm. The situation is not as bad as you have been led to believe, so be positive about the future of our beloved OTW and don’t wish harm upon it or its people.


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