Activision Blizzard shareholders approve plan for public report on sexual harassment

Activision Blizzard shareholders on Tuesday approved a plan for the company to release an annual, public report detailing its handling of sexual harassment and gender discrimination disputes, and how it’s working to prevent these incidences. The proposal was initially made in February by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

Under the proposal, Activision Blizzard will have to publicly disclose the following information each year:

  • The number and total dollar amount of disputes settled by the studio relating to sexual harassment and abuse, and discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, service member status, gender identify, or sexual orientation — covering the last three years

  • What steps Activision Blizzard is taking to reduce the average length of time it takes to resolve these incidents internally and legally

  • The number of pending complaints facing the studio relating to sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination, internally and in litigation

  • Data on pay and hours worked, as required by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing

The DFEH sued Activision Blizzard in July 2020, alleging executives there fostered a culture of rampant sexual harassment and systemic gender discrimination. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also sued the studio over these allegations in 2020, and Activision Blizzard settled with the federal agency in March, agreeing to set up an $18 million fund for claimants. Activists, employees and the DFEH have argued that this settlement is too low, and former employee Jessica Gonzalez appealed the ruling in May. The DFEH estimates there are 2,500 injured employees deserving more than $930 million in compensation.

“For years, there have been alarming news reports that detail allegedly rampant sexual abuse, discrimination, harassment, and retaliation directed toward female employees,” a statement in support of the proposal to shareholders reads. As an investor-focused document, it outlines the ways in which systemic discrimination and sexual abuse can damage the studio’s revenue streams and its ability to retain employees, saying, “A report such as the one requested would assist shareholders in assessing whether the company is improving its workforce management, whether its actions align with the company’s public statements and whether it remains a sustainable investment.”

While Activision Blizzard is facing multiple lawsuits and investigations in regards to sexism, harassment and discrimination, some employees at the studio are attempting to unionize with the help of the Communications Workers of America. This would be the first union at a major video game studio and could signal a shift in the industry’s longstanding crunch-centric cycle. At Tuesday’s annual meeting, Activision Blizzard shareholders denied a proposal that would’ve added an employee representative to the board of directors, with just 5 percent voting in favor, according to The Washington Post.

At the same time, Microsoft is in the process of acquiring Activision Blizzard in a deal worth nearly $69 billion. Microsoft has pledged to respect the rights of workers to unionize. And all the while, Activision Blizzard is still making games.

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Blizzard employee says she was told to ‘get over it’ after reporting sexual harassment

In the midst of multiple lawsuits and investigations over allegations of gender discrimination and sexual harassment at Activision Blizzard, an employee on Wednesday made a public statement about the abuse she says she’s experienced over her four-year career at the studio. Christine works for Blizzard, the group responsible for games including Overwatch and Diablo, and she stood outside the studio’s headquarters in Irvine, California, with her lawyer, Lisa Bloom, by her side. 

Through tears, Christine said she experienced years of sexual harassment at Blizzard, even though it had started out as her “dream job.”

“I was so excited to be a part of a community that seemed to care so much about their employees,” Christine said. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen to me. Since I’ve been employed at Blizzard, I’ve been subjected to rude comments about my body, unwanted sexual advances, inappropriately touched, subjected to alcohol-infused team events and cube crawls, invited to have casual sex with my supervisors, and surrounded by a frat-boy culture that’s detrimental to women.”

Christine said she brought these negative experiences to her supervisors and they were brushed aside. According to her statement, her superiors said the men harassing her were “just joking” and that she should “get over it.” She was told not to go to HR. She was told her abusers had done nothing wrong in the eyes of the law.

Christine said that after she complained about the sexual abuse she was experiencing, she was demoted and faced retaliation. She said she was denied shares in the company and full profit-sharing, and she received minimal raises.

In her statement, Christine said her mental health was shattered by these events, but she was going public in order to fight for a safe work environment for all Activision Blizzard employees.

“Blizzard has some amazing people that work for them, but we need to feel safe and supported by people in leadership roles, and hold people accountable for their actions,” she said.

Activision Blizzard is facing multiple investigations and lawsuits regarding its alleged frat-boy culture. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing is suing the studio after an investigation uncovered years of discriminatory hiring practices, a systemic failure to treat sexual harassment seriously, and a culture that encouraged abuse. The result, according to the DFEH report, was a studio where just 20 percent of employees were women, and leadership roles were held only by white men.

Lisa Bloom, Christine’s lawyer, made a statement of her own after the employee spoke.

“We are here because sexual harassment victims at Activision Blizzard have been ignored,” Bloom said. “They are still suffering and it’s time that they are prioritized.”

Following an investigation by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission earlier this year, Activision Blizzard was ordered to establish an $18 million fund to compensate victims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the studio. Bloom argued that this amount is far too low, considering there are hundreds of victims. She also pointed out that Activision Blizzard has already missed critical deadlines when it comes to distributing this money.

“I think we can all agree that the $18 million number is woefully inadequate,” Bloom said.

Bloom then outlined three demands. She first said Activision Blizzard should establish a streamlined, fair and fast process for all victims to resolve their legal claims, and asked for a fund exceeding $100 million. Second, Bloom said the studio should deliver a real apology to Christine and the other victims, and third, she demanded a review by a neutral third party of the career damage employees like Christine have endured, with the goal of remedying any discriminatory decisions.

Bloom has ample experience in this legal arena, most recently representing victims of Jeffrey Epstein.

Activision Blizzard employees have staged a handful of walkouts in protest of the studio’s response to these allegations, which has been dismissive and generally terrible. More than 800 workers in November signed a petition calling for CEO Bobby Kotick to resign, considering he’s held that position for 30 years and has overseen the alleged culture of harassment and discrimination the entire time. Kotick’s tenure at the studio and his power over the board is also likely why he hasn’t yet been forced out.

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PlayStation head Jim Ryan criticizes Activision Blizzard response to sexual harassment scandal

It turns out Blizzard employees weren’t the only ones to express frustration with their company and CEO Bobby Kotick after The Wall Street Journal published an explosive report on the ongoing sexual harassment scandal at the publisher. In an email obtained by Bloomberg, Sony Interactive CEO Jim Ryan critiqued Activision’s response to the article. Ryan linked Sony employees to the report, and said he was “disheartened and frankly stunned to read” The Journal’s findings.

“We outreached to Activision immediately after the article was published to express our deep concern and to ask how they plan to address the claims made in the article,” Ryan says in the message. “We do not believe their statements of response properly address the situation.”

As the company that makes the PlayStation 4 and PS5, Sony is one of Activision’s most important partners. Their close relationship is highlighted by the fact Sony has first dibs on some Call of Duty content. The fact Ryan’s email leaked shouldn’t come as a surprise given that it was an all-hands message.

Broadly, The Wall Street Journal report claims Kotick was not only aware of many of the allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment at the company, but that he may have also intervened to protect some of its worst offenders, and that he mistreated women himself. In a statement to Engadget, a spokesperson for the publisher said the article presents a “misleading view of Activision Blizzard and our CEO.” Shortly after it started circulating widely on social media, Blizzard employees announced they would stage a walkout. Hours later, Activision Blizzard’s board of directors issued a statement expressing its continued support of Kotick’s leadership. 

According to a report published by Game Developer, Activision Blizzard also defended Kotick during an all-hands meeting the company hosted after The Wall Street Journal published its report. When asked if its new zero-tolerance policy would apply to the executive, the company told employees it did not “have evidence” of the claims against Kotick due to the fact they relate to an incident that happened a decade ago.  

Update 3:49PM ET: Added information from Game Developer.   

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Blizzard cancels BlizzConline 2022 amid sexual harassment scandal

Blizzard won’t host a BlizzConline event in early 2022 as it previously said it would. Back at the end of May, when it , the studio said its plan was to put on a global event at the start of 2022 that would feature both in-person and online components. Now that won’t happen.

“Any BlizzCon event takes every single one of us to make happen, an entire-company effort, fueled by our desire to share what we create with the community we care about so much,” the company said. “At this time, we feel the energy it would take to put on a show like this is best directed towards supporting our teams and progressing development of our games and experiences.”

Without directly referencing the that has rocked the studio in recent months, Blizzard notes it plans to take time to “reimagine” BlizzCon. “Whatever the event looks like in the future, we also need to ensure that it feels as safe, welcoming, and inclusive as possible,” it said.

It’s no surprise Blizzard wants to rework the event. One of the most serious allegations made by California’s involved BlizzCon. According to the agency, the annual show was the site of the infamous “” where Blizzard employees, including former World of Warcraft creative director Alex Afrasiabi, allegedly sexually harassed women.

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Activision Blizzard loses three senior designers amid sexual harassment lawsuit

Three senior designers pivotal to Diablo 4 and World of Warcraft are no longer at Activision Blizzard. Kotaku confirmed the trio of abrupt departures after initially learning about them from internal sources. They include Diablo 4 game director Luis Barriga, lead designer Jesse McCree, and World of Warcraft designer Jonathan LeCraft. Insiders told the publication that the three developers names had been removed from Blizzard’s internal directory and Slack. 

News of the shakeup arrives as Activision Blizzard is grappling with allegations of systemic gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The incendiary accusations, which were revealed in a lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), have already led to damaging repercussions for the publisher. Blizzard is facing an internal outcry, with workers staging walkouts and demanding corrective action. Earlier this month, the company lost its president and was hit with a lawsuit by investors irked by its handling of the crisis. Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick has admitted that the publisher’s original response to the DFEH filing was “tone-deaf.”

While the company did not give a specific reason for the latest departures, two of the designers (namely McCree and LeCraft) were reportedly pictured in photos of the infamous “Cosby Suite.” This was the hotel room explicitly mentioned in the DFEH lawsuit where male employees allegedly harassed women at company events. As Overwatch fans may know, the battle royale game features a cowboy called Jesse McCree named after the now ex-Blizzard employee. It remains to be seen if the publisher changes the character’s name.

“We have a deep, talented roster of developers already in place and new leaders have been assigned where appropriate,” a spokesperson for Blizzard told Kotaku. “We are confident in our ability to continue progress, deliver amazing experiences to our players, and move forward to ensure a safe, productive work environment for all.”

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Inside the sexual harassment lawsuit at Activision Blizzard

When California’s fair employment agency sued Activision Blizzard, one of the largest video game studios in the world, on July 20th, it wasn’t surprising to hear the allegations of systemic gender discrimination and sexual harassment at the company. It wasn’t a shock to read about male executives groping their female colleagues, or loudly joking about rape in the office, or completely ignoring women for promotions. What was surprising was that California wanted to investigate Activision Blizzard at all, considering these issues have seemingly been present since its founding in 1979.

Activision Blizzard is a multibillion-dollar publisher with 9,500 employees and a roster of legendary franchises, including Call of Duty, Overwatch, Diablo and World of Warcraft. On July 20th, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, alleging executives had fostered an environment of misogyny and frat-boy rule for years, violating equal pay laws and labor codes along the way. This is about more than dirty jokes in the break room — the lawsuit highlights clear disparities in hiring, compensation and professional growth between men and women at Activision Blizzard, and it paints a picture of pervasive sexism and outright abuse in the workplace.

Here’s a rundown of some of the allegations:

  • Just 20 percent of all Activision Blizzard employees are women.

  • Top leadership roles are filled solely by white men.

  • Across the company, women are paid less, promoted slower and fired faster than men.

  • HR and executives fail to take complaints of harassment seriously.

  • Women of color in particular are micromanaged and overlooked for promotions.

  • A pervasive frat-boy culture encourages behavior like “cube crawls,” where male employees grope and sexually harass female co-workers at their desks.

It’s been a few weeks since the lawsuit was filed, and employees, executives and players have all had a chance to respond. Meanwhile, additional reports of longstanding harassment and sexism at Activision Blizzard have continued to roll out, including photos and stories of the “Cosby Suite,” which was specifically named in the filing. According to the lawsuit, this was a hotel room where male employees would gather to harass women at company events, named after the rapist Bill Cosby. 

Days after the filing, Kotaku published photos of the supposed Cosby Suite, showing male Activision Blizzard developers posing on a bed with a framed photo of Bill Cosby at BlizzCon 2013. Screenshots of conversations among the developers discussed gathering “hot chixx for the Coz” and other insulting, immature things (especially when you remember these are middle-aged men, not middle-schoolers).

One of the only executives actually named in the suit was Blizzard head J. Allen Brack, and it alleges he routinely ignored systemic harassment and failed to punish abusers. Brack called the allegations “extremely troubling,” but this line was thrown back in his face on Twitter when independent developer Nels Anderson compared it to a video out of BlizzCon 2010, featuring Brack on the far left. 

In the video, a young woman asks the panel of World of Warcraft developers, all six of whom are white men, whether they’ll ever create a female character that doesn’t look like she just stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. The panelists laugh and one responds, “Which catalog would you like them to step out of?” They proceed to essentially dismiss her question. At the end of the exchange, Brack piles on and makes a joke about one of the new characters coming from a sexy cow catalog.

On August 3rd, just two weeks after California filed its lawsuit, Brack stepped down from his role as the president of Blizzard. In his place will be GM Mike Ybarra and executive development VP Jen Oneal. Oneal will be the first woman in a president role since Activision’s founding in 1979; the lawsuit notes that there has never been a non-white president or CEO of Activision Blizzard.

Activision Blizzard’s initial response to the lawsuit was tragic, with one leader calling the allegations meritless and distorted. Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, who regularly gets into fights with shareholders over the ridiculous fortune he’s amassed, published his own response to the lawsuit, where he essentially promised to listen better. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t alleviate many employees’ concerns. A petition in support of the lawsuit ended up gathering more than 2,000 employee signatures, and workers organized a walk-out just eight days after the filing, calling for systemic change at the studio.

Shareholders weren’t bolstered by Kotick’s response, either. Investors filed an additional class-action lawsuit against Activision Blizzard on August 3rd, alleging the company failed to raise potential regulatory issues stemming from its discriminatory culture. Blizzard’s head of HR, Jesse Meschuk, also left the company in the weeks following the initial lawsuit.

Meanwhile, other major game developers have rallied behind the suit, and former Activision Blizzard leaders have shared their support for employees, apologizing for their parts in sustaining a toxic company culture.

None of this is new. As evidenced by the photos, videos, stats and personal stories flowing out of Activision Blizzard, the company has operated on a bro-first basis for decades, and honestly, it’s been sustained by an industry that largely functions the same way.

In 2019, a wave of accusations against prominent male developers crashed over the industry, and AAA studios like Ubisoft and Riot Games made headlines for fostering toxic workplace environments. California is currently suing Riot over allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in hiring and pay practices.

But even that’s not new. Women, non-binary people and marginalized folks in the video game industry have been speaking up about systemic harassment and discrimination for literal decades. Sexism is apparent in the hiring and pay habits of many major studios, and it’s also clear in the games themselves, which feature an overabundance of straight, white, male protagonists.

What is surprising, this time around, is that the lawsuit against Activision Blizzard kind of came out of nowhere. It took a blockbuster media report to make California sue Riot in 2020, but the lawsuit against Activision Blizzard appeared on its own, after years of quiet investigation by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. If sexism is systemic in the video game industry, it feels like the system is finally fighting back.

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Blizzard president ‘steps down’ amid sexual discrimination and harassment lawsuit

Blizzard Entertainment’s leadership is in upheaval following a California lawsuit over sexual discrimination and harassment. Studio president J. Allen Brack, who was named in the lawsuit, is “stepping down” from his role. Executive development VP Jen Oneal and GM Mike Ybarra (also a former Xbox executive) will take his place as co-leaders.

The company didn’t formally explain the exit, but indicated a desire to change company culture. It said that Oneal and Ybarra would strive to make Blizzard the “most welcoming workplace possible” and help with “rebuilding your trust.”

Brack previously said in a company email (shared by Bloomberg‘s Jason Schreier) that he was against harassment and “bro culture.” As Massively Overpowered noted, though, California accused Brack of taking “no effective remedial measures” to curb sexual harassment at the company. The executive allegedly held multiple conversations with employee Alex Afrasiabi about his drinking and harassment of women, but didn’t offer much more than counselling in an attempt to correct the behavior.

There was certainly pressure on Blizzard to change leadership. Workers balked at the developer’s dismissive initial response to the lawsuit, prompting a walkout protest. Activision Blizzard chief Bobby Kotick even labeled the early reaction as “tone deaf” and promised quick action to improve company culture. In that light, Brack’s departure isn’t surprising at all — it’s one of the fastest and easiest actions the company could take.

Update 5:05PM ET: Activision Blizzard’s top HR executive, Jesse Meschuk, also left the company this week, as first reported by Bloomberg.

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Tech News

Consent apps don’t stop sexual violence, so quit trying to make them

Yesterday, New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller suggested technology should be part of the solution to growing concerns around sexual assault. He encouraged serious discussion about using a digital app to record positive sexual consent.

In our research, we have studied a wide range of mobile applications and artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots used in attempts to counter sexual violence over the past decade. We found these apps have many limitations and unexpected consequences.

How apps are being used to address sexual abuse

Apps aimed at responding to sexual harassment and assault have circulated for at least a decade. With support from government initiatives, such as the Obama administration’s 2011 Apps Against Abuse challenge, and global organisations, such as UN Women, they have been implemented in corporate environments, universities and mental health services.

These apps are not limited to documenting consent. Many are designed to offer emergency assistance, information and a means for survivors of sexual violence to report and build evidence against perpetrators. Proponents often frame these technologies as empowering tools that support women through the accessible and anonymous processing of data.

In the case of the proposed consent app, critics have noted that efforts to time-stamp consent fail to recognize consent can always be withdrawn. In addition, a person may consent out of pressure, fear of repercussions or intoxication.

If a person does indicate consent at some point but circumstances change, the record could be used to discredit their claims.

How digital apps fail to address sexual violence

The use of apps will not address many longstanding problems with common responses to sexual violence. Research indicates safety apps often reinforce rape myths, such as the idea that sexual assault is most often perpetrated by strangers. In reality, the vast majority of rapes are committed by people the victims already know.

Usually marketed to women, these apps collect data from users through surveillance using persistent cookies and geolocational tracking. Even “anonymized” data can often be identifiable.

Digital tools can also enable violence. Abusive partners can use them for cyberstalking, giving them constant access to victims. Apps designed to encourage survivors to report violence raise similar concerns, because they fail to address the power imbalances that lead to authorities discrediting survivors’ accounts of violence.

Apps don’t change the bigger picture

The introduction of an app does not itself change the wider landscape in which sexual violence cases are handled.

The high-profile sex abuse scandal involving Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor convicted of a range of sex offences after being accused by more than 350 young women and girls, led to reforms that included the SafeSport app.

This resulted in 1,800 reports of sexual misconduct or abuse within a year of the app’s introduction. However, a lack of funding meant the reports could not be properly investigated, undermining organisational promises to enforce sanctions for sexual misconduct.

Read more: Anti-rape devices may have their uses, but they don’t address the ultimate problem

Poor implementation and cost-saving measures compromise users’ safety. In Canada and the United States, the hospitality industry is rolling out smart panic buttons to 1.2 million hotel and casino staff. This is a response to widespread sexual violence: a union survey found 58% of employees had been sexually harassed by a guest and 65% of casino workers experienced unwanted touching.

Employers are now required by law to provide panic buttons, but they are turning to cheap and inferior devices, raising security concerns. Legislation does not prevent them using these devices to monitor the movements of their employees.

Who owns the data?

Even if implemented as intended, apps raise questions about data protection. They collect vast amounts of sensitive data, which is stored on digital databases and cloud servers that are vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Read more: The ugly truth: tech companies are tracking and misusing our data, and there’s little we can do

The data may be owned by private companies who can sell it on to other organisations, allowing authorities to circumvent privacy laws. Last month, it was revealed US Immigration and Customs Enforcement purchased access to the Reuters CLEAR database containing information about 400 million people whose data they could not legally collect on their own.

In short, apps don’t protect victims or their data.

Why we need to take this ‘bad idea’ seriously

Fuller, the NSW police commissioner, admitted his recommendation might be a bad idea. His idea was built on the premise that the important issue to address is making sure consent is clearly communicated. It misunderstands the nature of sexual violence, which is grounded in unequal power relations.

In practice, a consent app would be unlikely to protect victims. Research shows data collected through new forms of investigation often result in evidence that is used against victims’ wishes.

There are other reasons why the consent app is a bad idea. It perpetuates misguided assumptions about technology’s ability to “fix” societal harms. Consent, violence and accountability are not data problems. These complex issues require strong cultural and structural responses, not simply quantifiable and time-stamped data.

This article by Kathryn Henne, Professor and Director, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University; Jenna Imad Harb, PhD Scholar, Australian National University, and Renee M. Shelby, Postdoctoral fellow, Sexualities Project, Northwestern University, is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Published March 22, 2021 — 12:18 UTC

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Tech News

German investigators to use Deepfake images of child sexual abuse to bust online predators

German lawmakers recently passed legislation allowing child sexual abuse investigators to deploy artificially-generated images in their efforts to snare online predators.

Recent crackdowns in the European nation have resulted in several arrests amid nationwide investigations. This comes on the heels of reports from mid-2020 indicating authorities were “overwhelmed” by the number of reported incidents.

In the country’s efforts to fight child sexual abuse, investigators and child advocacy groups have requested the use of Deepfake generators to produce artificial “kinderpornografie.” This, reportedly, would include imagery created using a database containing actual images of child sexual abuse.

The reasoning for the investigators’ request, according to a report from local news outlet Suddeutsche Zeitung, is so undercover agents can infiltrate child sexual abuse rings. The so-called “darkeweb” groups often solicit images from prospective new members as a form of initiation and vetting.

It’s typically illegal for officers of the law to provide investigative targets with actual depictions of child sexual abuse. But, despite the ethical concerns surrounding the generation of novel, artificial depictions of child sexual abuse, experts in Germany believe the use of such materials will make it easier to identify and arrest predators who operate online.

The new legislation also allows for the arrest and charging of adults who unwittingly attempt to groom a parent or undercover officer who they believe to be a minor.

Quick take: There was mild opposition to the law at its inception from political leaders who feared the use of criminal content to capture criminals was unwarranted. Even some lawmakers who supported the effort saw the potential for negative impact.

In 2019 Stephan Thomae, the deputy leader of the opposition Free Democrats’ parliamentary group, said “the goal should actually be to eliminate child pornography material from the internet, and not to enrich it with computer-generated material,” before ultimately supporting the initiative.

Despite the potential for good, it’ll take awhile to sort out the ramifications of the decision. We’re not sure if the German investigators have developed a method by which they can tag and track the images as they’re passed around or if they’ve tested them for resilience against detection.

H/t: Jack Clark, Import AI

Published February 1, 2021 — 18:20 UTC

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