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ACM's Open-Conference Principle and Political Reality

Former CACM Editor-in-Chief Moshe Y. Vardi

ACM's Open-Conference Statement starts with a lofty principle: "The open exchange of ideas and the freedom of thought and expression are central to the aims and goals of ACM and its conferences. These aims and goals require an environment that recognizes the inherent worth of every person and group, that fosters dignity, understanding, and mutual respect, and that embraces diversity." (See This principle reflects ACM's mission of "advance computing as a science and a profession; enable professional development; and promote policies and research that benefit society." In the past few weeks, however, this principle has been gravely tested.

In March 2016, the U.S. State of North Carolina passed a sweeping law (House Bill 2—HB2) that reversed a local ordinance that had extended some rights to people who are gay or transgender. The new law also nullified local ordinances around the state that would have expanded protections for the LGBT community. Several U.S. localities issued travel bans in response to HB2, limiting travel to North Carolina. In January 2017, the ACM SIGMOD Executive Committee decided to move the SIGMOD/PODS 2017 conference out of North Carolina to a new location (see statement here: This decision resolved the issue for one conference. Unfortunately, in the 2017 legislative session, state legislators in 11 other U.S. states have pre-filed or introduced legislation that would restrict access to multiuser restrooms, locker rooms, and other sex-segregated facilities on the basis of a certain definition of sex or gender ("bathroom bills"). The SIGMOD/PODS 2018 conference is currently slated for Houston, Texas, but this plan is now in jeopardy as Texas is one of the states that is discussing passing a "bathroom bill."

But the bathroom-bill issue was dwarfed by an Executive Order issued by U.S. President Trump on Jan. 27, 2017, which banned nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. for at least the next 90 days. This includes persons with valid U.S. visas, as well as—at least initially—U.S. permanent residents. This Executive Order covers not only new arrivals to the U.S., but also persons who have been residing in the U.S. and are temporarily outside the U.S. In response to this executive order, ACM expressed grave concerns and urged the lifting of the visa suspension so as not to curtail the studies or contributions of scientists and researchers. I'd like to see ACM go farther and band with other professional societies to fight the Executive Order; perhaps this will have happened by the time this letter is published.

As this issue goes to print, we do not know how the status of the Executive Order will unfold. There are strong arguments against the constitutionality of the Order, and lawsuits against the U.S. government have already been filed. But it may take months if not years, for the legal process to conclude, and the outcome is far from certain. In the meantime, if we follow the SIGMOD precedent, ACM should avoid holding conferences in the U.S. Should it? I think not.

In fact, while I appreciate the reasoning that led the SIGMOD Executive Committee to decide to relocate the 2017 conference away from North Carolina, I disagree with the decision. ACM is a global professional society. Its Open-Conference Principle has to be interpreted from that perspective. Undoubtedly, there are going to be more liberal and less liberal interpretations. Should all ACM conferences be held in California, which tends to be the most liberal state in the U.S.? Or, in view of the Executive Order, how about moving all ACM conferences to Sweden? This is not only impractical, but, in my opinion, not even right. In fact, the ACM SIGMOD/PODS 2007 conference was held in Beijing, China. There are those who would have argued then that China's human-rights record is not up to Western standards, so ACM should not hold conferences in China. But the ACM SIGMOD Executive Committee decided then, correctly, I believe, that going to China rather than avoiding China would better serve the case of open conferences.

The Open-Conference Principle is aimed at benefiting society. When we boycott a particular locality, we are also telling our colleagues in that locality, who are likely to be supporting the cause of open and just society, that we would rather stay away than come and support their fight. This is unlikely, I believe, to benefit society. Boycotting may feel right, but I doubt that it would be productive. Staying and fighting for a cause—though it is far from clear what the best way of doing it is—may be much harder, but is the right path.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2017 ACM, Inc.


Amy Greenwald

Much too dangerous to move all conferences to Sweden!

Andruid Kerne

No, Moshe Vardi, relocating events to places of freedom, where diversity is respected, is not a signal to colleagues in oppressed places that we don't support them. Quite the opposite.

An important point is to "bring the struggle home", to make it personal for everyone who lives in one these places (e.g., the U.S.!), that we are inconvenienced. That our lives, not just the lives of those in targeted groups, are upended. That we have to say, "The U.S. is not a suitable place to hold an open conference." That we have to bear feeling what that means.

Boycotting oppressive places is a means of solidarity. It's a way of weighing in, on, "First they came for the transgender people. Then they came for the Muslims..."

Let it be inconvenient for us. Let us feel the pain personally. Let us act through all channels to fight oppression!

Douglas Lange

Is it fraudulent to accept people as members in the ACM, allow them to pay dues, and then host ACM conferences in places they are not allowed to enter?

Even if you don't agree with setting a human rights bar and insisting that conferences be located in places that meet that level, there seems to me to be a fundamental difference when it comes to locating conferences where our members are banned.

I prefer to locate our conferences where our organization's values are met (and we should make sure we have those well specified). But even if you are comfortable having conferences where some of our members may be uncomfortable attending due to the local laws and practices, should they not at least have the option of being the ones to decide whether or not they will attend?

Brenton Chapin

If you really believe the ACM principles you quoted about open access and freedom of expression, why does your article end with a copyright notice? Why is it not copyleft?

Conferences are expensive and exclusive affairs, and I see no good reason for that. The proceedings are locked down by copyright, and why? Certainly not to pay for the expense of printing copies, not in this day and age of digital access. How, for instance, could high school students attend a conference? Would be educational to allow high school science classes to observe one. When I was in high school, I would have loved it, but it wasn't even on the radar. Some of those students will go on to become scientists themselves. To debate the merits of holding conferences in oppressive jurisdictions while overlooking those questions seems disingenuous. Barriers in the form of copyrights and high entry fees increase the resentment for scientists and science. They're all of a piece with things such as student loans and the textbook racket that so many schools practice. Clean up your own act first.

Dr. Vardi, tear down that copyright notice!

CACM Administrator

[[The following comment by Joseph Hellerstein was submitted February 01, 2017 04:35.
--CACM Administrator]]

Joseph Hellerstein

This is important stuff, and I appreciate the thoughtful discussion. I couldn't help seeing this article in the perspective of the heartfelt and painful editorial in today's New York Times opposing a "Scientists' March" on Washington (

In both cases I admire the authors' concerns but come to different conclusions.

When our lofty principles are gravely tested, as you put it, that it is precisely the time to reaffirm those principles via actions. That is what principles are for. Speaking for myself, I think SIGMOD made a choice consistent with those principles in joining the boycott of NC, in solidarity with collegiate groups like the NCAA and ACC, whose decisions were far more fraught than SIGMOD's on every front. The fact that the federal government has since made things worse on a national scale does not make me question that choice. Yes, harder questions are now being thrust upon us. We did not ask for these moral and practical complexities, but we do have to deal with them. We did not ask to be forced to choose between rallying behind our colleagues in these locales or joining the rally to support disenfranchised individuals, but we have to make the choice. Our principles were developed, presumably, to help us make those hard choices.

Robert S. Young's editorial in the Times makes an argument that relates to some of the internal discussions within the SIGMOD community: that publicly marching for principles like "fact-based decision-making" serves only to politicize science, and diminish its appearance of universality in the eyes of the uneducated. Rather than marching on Washington to highlight the importance and universality of science, Young advocates a more retail approach, addressing "local civic groups, churches, schools, county fairs, and, privately, . . . the offices of elected officials". I think Young is making a terrible mistake. Local, human interactions are of course important. That is a real path to change, but it is a slow one. Meanwhile, we cannot simply cede the public sphere to science deniers who are clearly energized and acting boldly.

It is incumbent upon us to make a public, vigorous case for science, and the principles of our scientific communities. The decisions we are making now will be viewed through a longer lens. History does not look back favorably on science choosing the easy path on social or political issues.

I would also point out that we are a uniquely privileged science, given the economic power of the computing industry and the fluidity of movement between research and commerce. All the more reason for the ACM to be bold and proactive in acting on its principles.

And in that spirit I'm glad you addressed this difficult topic. The focus on ACM's principles is healthy. It is a shame literally that we are being forced to worry about them in this way, but it is also our responsibility. Thank you for starting the discussion.

CACM Administrator

[[The following comment by Moshe Y. Vardi was submitted February 07, 2017 03:59.
--CACM Administrator]]

Moshe Vardi

What should CS conferences do post Trumps travel ban? My 4-point proposal

By Emiliano DC Associate Professor at University College London.

Background. As you probably know, on January 27, US President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order (EO) suspending current and new visas from citizens of 7 countries (Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, Yemen). If you dont know, you can find out, e.g., here ( and here (
Community response. The response of the academic and scientific community has been quite quick and relatively strong. Among other things, there is a petition signed by several thousand academics condemning the EO, a directory to facilitate prospective Computer Science students to find opportunities outside the US, and numerous statements from universities and companies. There is also a call for an academic boycott of US conferences and a similar petition. (Im sure there are more initiatives, please let me know if you think I should link to some more but anyway you get the point.)

So, what should we do??? Many steering committees and advisory groups of top conferences are now discussing what to do, and how to react. Should we relocate? Should we issue a statement? Thats not an easy discussion. For instance, moving a conference from the US to Europe means that EU-based students from the 7 banned countries can attend but US-based ones cant since their visa is no longer valid and they cannot leave the country.
For many, not a new problem. Lets stop for a second and look back. The overwhelming majority of visas given to, e.g., US-based Iranians CS students has always been single-entry, which means that they could never really attend conferences outside the US. Also, it has always been very hard, and lengthy, for students of the 7 countries based, e.g., in Europe, to get US tourist visas and attend CS conferences there.

For some, a new-ish problem. The EO now also affects green card holders. Although it has been announced that permanent residents are exempt from the ban, they still need to undergo extreme vetting, with long and invasive secondary inspections, request to provide proof of employment/residency, and, reportedly, even surrender contacts as well as email and social media accounts. A similar treatment applies to dual nationals of the 7 countries (e.g., to a French-Syrian). Also note that, since December 2015, the HR158 law prevents dual nationals and people who have visited the 7 countries after 2011 from going to the US and attending conferences using ESTA, requiring them to apply for a tourist visa from a local consulate instead: while some easily get a 10-year multiple-entry visa, others previously eligible for ESTA now get a single-entry visa after 69 months wait on a background check (I am not sure why).

My 4-point proposal:

1. No emergency relocation. It is not only a matter of costs, difficulty of finding venues, etc. The response from our community should be rational and logical, and as such we should not make rush decisions that might end up hurting US-based students or the organizers who have worked for months toward successful events, over a ban that might turn out to be temporary or get much worse. But people are free to and should not be penalized by any means for deciding not to attend.
2. Enforce rotation as a policy. No matter where we base our conferences, there will always be a non-negligible amount of people for whom it is hard to travel. I dont only mean with respect to costs, time, convenience, but primarily in terms of barriers and hurdles due to nationality and government policies. It is time to recognize these hurdles and respect people who need to overcome them. Lets alternate conferences between the US and the rest of the world. We are long past the time where top-notch research only happened in the US yet, for instance, two of the top four conferences in cybersecurity always take place in California, one either in US or Canada, and the other one has been held outside the land of the free only 6 out of 23 times. (Note that PC meetings are also almost exclusively in the US).
3. Invest some resources to support remote attendance. This is no longer an open research problem. With enough bandwidth, and a few good microphones, we can support remote presentations, live streaming, virtual chats, etc. If this incurs non-negligible extra costs, lets get rid of the social dinner, lets not print the proceedings, lets not give out gadgets. Or lets charge $10 more. This is more important. And anyway, in times like these I am confident top conferences can get help from corporations like Google, Facebook, and Amazon to chip in, e.g., some cloud resources. It is time to open our conferences, widely, to the community. Everybody deserves to see a talk, to chat, even if virtually, with other attendees. Obviously, the face-to-face coffee-break experience is something else, but I do not believe live-streaming would nudge people into losing out on this experience.
4. Be understanding with people who cannot attend. I do believe we should keep requiring authors of accepted papers to present at the conference. However, besides actively specifying on CfPs that authors affected by visa restrictions will not have their papers removed from the proceedings, I think that General and Program Chairs should be understanding with people who cannot travel. The line defining who cannot travel is increasingly more blurred and we should be considerate. For instance, green card holders or dual nationals could technically travel but should they risk it for a conference? A pregnant lady could be allowed by most airlines to fly up to 36 weeks but might prefer not in the first 1215 weeks. I think this is not the time to enforce strict, binary policies. Let people feel that you care, and support them, even if you dont personally agree with their choices.
(And, by the way, I think the same should apply for PC meetings.)

Looking forward to your comments.

R Oldehoeft

No. Vardi's "slippery slope"

'Should all ACM conferences be held in California, which tends to be the most liberal state in the U.S.? Or, in view of the Executive Order, how about moving all ACM conferences to Sweden? This is not only impractical, but, in my opinion, not even right.'

is a canard. NC's violations of human rights must have consequences. In the US it is easy to move a meeting, with sufficient planning, to a nearby state with values more in tune to humanity's concern for all people.

Vik Solem

Based on this article and the comments listed here it would appear that the only ideas the ACM entertains are those of the Liberal Left. Are we to understand that all of the people who do not agree with the Liberal Left are simply wrong? Are their ideas not worth hearing? What about "The open exchange of ideas" and "freedom of thought".

Could there possibly be a valid reason for the so-called "bathroom bill"?

Let's consider the people who are affected by this bill. That would be all people who would prefer to use a bathroom that does not currently match their physical gender.

I suggest that the two largest groups of those people are

1. people who are good, descent people who identify with a gender other than their physical gender.

2. people who are bad, who would like to take advantage of bathroom access in order to spy on or otherwise engage in bad behavior in a location where their behavior cannot be recorded on video.

While group 1 deserves protection under the law, group 2 is security risk.

So, as scientists, what might be a solution? What if all public restroom locations were to provide private accommodations? Then anyone who desires a private bathroom may have one.

Instead of allowing a community of would-be criminals to take advantage of a freedom intended for good, descent people, we could provide a solution that helps everyone, actual privacy in the restroom.

A similar argument could be made regarding the immigration order that (1) is lawful and (2) is designed to protect the United States from terrorism, but I'll leave that for another commenter, with the hope that I'm not the only ACM member reading these articles who disagrees with the policies of the Liberal Left.

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