Activision Blizzard execs respond to harassment and discrimination lawsuit

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) against Activision Blizzard this week over alleged sexual harassment and discrimination against women. In a memo to staff obtained , Blizzard Entertainment president wrote that “the allegations and the hurt of current and former employees are extremely troubling.”

Brack wrote that everyone should feel safe at Blizzard and that “it is completely unacceptable for anyone in the company to face discrimination or harassment.” He noted it requires courage for people to come forward with their stories, and that all claims brought to the company are taken seriously and investigated.

“People with different backgrounds, views, and experiences are essential for Blizzard, our teams, and our player community,” Brack wrote. “I disdain ‘bro culture,’ and have spent my career fighting against it.”

, the DFEH made a string of accusations against former senior creative director Alex Afrasiabi. The agency alleged that Afrasiabi was “permitted to engage in blatant sexual harassment with little to no repercussions” and suggested that the activity was an open secret.

Brack is said to be among those who were aware of Afrasiabi’s purported actions. The DFEH claimed Brack “allegedly had multiple conversations with Afrasiabi about his drinking and that he had been ‘too friendly’ towards female employees at company events but gave Afrasiabi a slap on the wrist (i.e. verbal counseling) in response to those incidents.” After those supposed talks, Afrasiabi “continued to make unwanted advances towards female employees,” including groping one of them, according to the suit.

The DFEH claimed a Blizzard employee informed Brack in early 2019 that people were leaving the company because of sexual harassment and sexism. The employee allegedly said that women on the team were “subjected to disparaging comments,” that “the environment was akin to working in a frat house” and that women who weren’t “huge gamers” or “into the party scene” were “excluded and treated as outsiders.”

Activision Blizzard has denied the allegations. It claimed the suit “includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past.” The company also accused the DFEH, which investigated Activision Blizzard for two years, of “disgraceful and unprofessional” conduct and claimed the agency didn’t engage in a “good faith effort” to resolve complaints before resorting to legal action.

“A recently filed lawsuit presented a distorted and untrue picture of our company, including factually incorrect, old and out of context stories — some from more than a decade ago,” Fran Townsend, executive vice president for corporate affairs at the publisher, wrote in a memo to employees. Some Blizzard employees are “fuming” over the note, .

Townsend, a former Homeland Security advisor to President George W. Bush who joined Activision Blizzard this year, said “the Activision companies of today, the Activision companies that I know, are great companies with good values.” Townsend also claimed Activision Blizzard “takes a hardline approach to inappropriate or hostile work environments and sexual harassment issues” and that the company has “put tremendous effort into creating fair compensation policies that reflect our commitment to equal opportunity.”

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Should countries ever respond to cyberattacks with physical force?

In conventional warfare, it’s accepted that if a state finds itself under attack, it’s entitled to respond – either with defensive force, or with a counterattack. But it’s less clear how countries should respond to cyberattacks: state-backed hacks which often have dangerous real-world implications.

The 2020 SolarWinds hack, attributed to state-backed Russian hackers, breached security at around 100 private companies. But it also infiltrated nine US federal agencies – including the US Energy Department, which oversees the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

Such attacks are expected to become more common. Recently, the UK’s 2021 Strategic Defence Review confirmed the creation of a “National Cyber Force” tasked with developing effective offensive responses to such cyberattacks, which could even include responding to them with nuclear weapons.

Philosophers like myself would urge caution and restraint here. As cyberattacks are new and ambiguous forms of threat, careful ethical consideration should take place before we decide upon appropriate responses.

‘Just war’ theory

We already have a millennia-old framework designed to regulate the use of physical force in wars. It’s called “just war theory”, and its rules determine whether or not it’s morally justified to launch military operations against a target. Given how cyber systems can be weaponized, it seems natural for ethicists to build “cyberwar” into existing just war theory.

But not everyone is convinced. Sceptics doubt whether cyberwar requires new ethics, with some even questioning whether cyberwar is actually possible. Radicals, meanwhile, believe cyberwar requires a wholesale rethink, and are building an entirely new theory of “just information war”.

Read more: Cyber attacks are rewriting the ‘rules’ of modern warfare – and we aren’t prepared for the consequences

Lending credence to the radicals’ claim is the assumption that cyberattacks are fundamentally different from physical force. After all, while conventional military force targets human bodies and their built environment, cyberattacks chiefly harm data and virtual objects. Crucially, while physical attacks are “violent”, cyberattacks seem to present – if anything – an alternative to violence.

On the other hand, some ethicists highlight the fact that cyber operations can sometimes lead to physical harm. For instance, when hackers infiltrated the system controlling the fresh water supply in Oldsmar, Florida, in February 2021, they weaponized physical infrastructure by attempting to poison the water. And a ransomware attack on a Düsseldorf hospital in September 2020 actually contributed to the death of a patient.

Espionage or attack?

Clearly, cyberattacks can result in grave harms that states have a responsibility to defend their citizens against. But cyberattacks are ambiguous – US senator Mitt Romney characterized the SolarWinds hack as “an invasion”, while Mark Warner of the US Senate Intelligence Committee placed it “in that grey area between espionage and an attack”.

Read more: We aren’t in a cyber war – despite what Britain’s top general thinks

For defence agencies, the difference matters. If they regard state-backed hacks as attacks, they may believe themselves entitled to launch offensive counterattacks. But if hacks are just espionage, they may be dismissed as business as usual, part of the everyday intelligence work of states.

In just war theory, some “revisionist” philosophers find it useful to go back to basics. They analyse individual threats and acts of violence in isolation before carefully building up a robust theory of complex, large-scale war. Because cyber-attacks are new and ambiguous, the revisionist approach may help us decide how best to respond to them.

Cyber violence

I have argued previously that some cyber-attacks are acts of violence. That’s partially because, as noted above, cyberattacks can cause grave physical harms just like conventional violence.

But the gravity of harms alone doesn’t help us categorize cyber-attacks as acts of violence. Think of the myriad ways that the often lethal harm of a coronavirus infection can be transmitted: through recklessness, negligence, or mischief; by accident; and even sometimes as a byproduct of an otherwise legitimate policy.

We wouldn’t say these harms resulted from violence, and nor would we argue that defensive violence is an appropriate response to them. Instead, what seems to make some cyber operations violent attacks – rather than mere espionage – is that they express similar sorts of intention to those expressed in physical violence.


To explore how, consider an example of physical violence: someone shooting a distant, unwitting human target with a long-range rifle.

Like all agents of violence, the sniper seems to intend one thing, but really intends two. First, she intends to harm her target. But second, and less obviously, she intends to dominate her target. The target has no means of evading or deflecting the threat of the bullet.

This relationship, of domination versus defencelessness, can be established by any number of technologies, from swinging a club to launching a rocket from a remote drone. In these cases the threat is undetectable – like a cyberattack on drinking water, you don’t know anything is wrong until it’s too late.

Many cyberattacks have a similar profile. They establish technical domination by creating a vulnerability and positioning themselves to execute harm at the hacker’s will. Like boobytrap bombs, they leverage secrecy and surprise to keep their victims from acting until it’s too late.

If some cyberattacks are acts of violence, then perhaps they could justify defensive violence or counterattack. That would depend on the degree of destruction threatened, and defenders would still have to satisfy age-old just war rules.

But the same premise means that employing offensive cyber-attacks ought to be seen as a grave matter – as grave, in some cases, as physical attacks. It is vital, then, that the UK’s new National Cyber Force directs its operations with the same care and restraint as if they were using military weapons in a conventional war.

This article by Christopher J. Finlay, Professor in Political Theory, Durham University, is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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