Nine months later, some revised policies at SE

Back in October, Stack Exchange posted some policies for moderators to apply for reinstatement. I and many others raised concerns about transparency, fairness, and that the whole thing was a black box. Some also raised the concern that if a moderator was removed capriciously, without any valid process, it made no sense for that person to have to submit to this process that starts from a presumption of guilt. (The whole thing has a vibe of "we'll evaluate whether you're still beating your wife".) I posted my assessment there and also copied it in this journal for safe-keeping. (One never knows whether the original would survive, after all.)

This week they posted an updated version (feedback post). Let's see how it stacks up against the issues that were previously raised!

Note: this is a systems analysis. I am looking at this policy as policy, looking at ways it can be used and misused. I'm not commenting on specific cases. A policy must be sound before you apply it; saying it would work out in such-and-such case doesn't help if the policy is flawed.

This is a first stab at this analysis. It's not concise. It's not something I would post on Meta for that reason, but I need to work through this to be able to get to a more focused version, and y'all get to read along (if you're still reading).

One of the concerns I've raised several times (not just in that original post) is that a reinstatement process is not applicable when the removal is contested or did not follow processes. There needs to be a way to appeal a removal. The new process adds some "appeal" language, which is good. I understand it was a late addition under pressure from moderators, so I'm glad to hear that moderators can successfully apply pressure at least some of the time.

Let's look at that appeal language. First, the (ex-)moderator still goes in through the "apply for reinstatement" door; there's no shortcut to "appeal". But I guess you can say that in the message you send? An application for reinstatement can be granted by the community managers without going farther up, but an appeal must then go to the "Community Leadership Team (CLT)", described as "leaders from the different teams and groups that work with the community". No, I don't know who that is either. There is a "community strategy" team that include Sara Chipps (a director), Tim Post (a high-ranking non-manager), and someone else I think. There is Teresa Dietrich, the new CPO who started the day after SE fired its two most experienced community managers in the name of serving the community. Sara and Tim report to Teresa. Teresa has been posting stuff about wanting to repair the relationship with the community, but it's hard to tell if there's substance behind it. She has not, for example, reached out to me. These folks are presumably all on the CLT; I don't know who else is.

Appeals must go to the CLT, and the CLT has the option to veto. That's unchanged; the previous version gave Sara's team the ability to veto, too. About the veto, the new policy now says:

The steps below include the option for a CLT veto, which is reserved for rare and extreme cases. Examples include (but are not limited to) cases where the CLT feels that for legal reasons, or due to repeated egregious violations of the Mod Agreement, an applicant could never be a moderator on the network again.

And later it says:

Potential reasons for vetoing reinstatement: violation of Mod Agreement or ToS so egregious that PM cannot be reinstated under any circumstances; potential legal liability; repeat offense after previous reinstatement.

These are all, as it says, examples. They're trying to convey that a veto is for serious, substantiated reasons. This means that if it's known that someone was vetoed, that sounds pretty damning. But they don't actually have to be serious reasons; the CLT can say "legal concerns" or "business concerns" and there's no way to challenge that. This cannot be appealed.

And then it goes on to say:

In the event of a CLT veto, the PM will be informed of decision and reasoning. Mod Council and current site mods will be informed of occurrence as well with as much detail as can be provided.

They're finally actually telling the moderator a reason, which is a positive change from last time. But look! They're also blabbing to the Moderator Council, a new advisory group (with no teeth) with members chosen by SE informed by a vote of moderators who hadn't yet resigned or been fired when the vote was taken. The function of this council is unclear, though (outside of the veto case) moderators whose reinstatement requests are denied can appeal to this body -- who will then advise SE of their opinion.

So even though the moderator can't appeal the CLT's decision to the Mod Council, they nonetheless share their allegations with that council, out of view of the moderator who appealed and where that moderator can't respond. This is a serious privacy violation. It should be up to the moderator whether to inform the Mod Council (who, after all, can't do anything in response, except gossip). Up to this point, the only people who necessarily know that the moderator even appealed are the other moderators on that person's site (because SE gets their input in the first stage). A moderator who appeals a removal should expect to have public conversations about it and might be advised to get out in front of it. Appeals are not for the faint-hearted.

Aside from the CLT/appeal/veto case in particular, the new version has greatly increased communication between SE and the moderator. This is good. In the previous policy, you sent a request into the void and waited for SE to say yay or nay, but if they had concerns they didn't have to come back and talk with you about them along the way. Now they do. And they compile documentation, which I gather is something like a Google Doc that they can all share and add to. I don't think the moderator gets to see this document directly, but I can't tell.

As with the previous version, all applications for reinstatement (and now appeals) must be approved by the other moderators on the person's site or sites. Now, there is a process they've had for several years whereby a moderator team can remove one of its own; in that case it certainly makes sense that you'd need to run a reinstatement past the moderator team. But if SE removed a moderator without involving that team, or if a moderator stepped down (say, to have more time for school, or for a health matter) and wants to come back later, this approval step doesn't make a lot of sense. The community elected the moderator and the other moderators don't get a say in who can stand for election; why should they be able to bar someone who took some time off? This is unchanged, but the new version does raise the requirement a little: previously a single moderator could veto, and now on a site with more than half a dozen mods it takes two vetoes and they need to state reasons. (To SE, not to the moderator.)

In the new process, SE consults this mod team at each escalation, giving more chances for the team to produce that one (or two) vetoes. I don't quite understand what the nominal purpose of these consultations is, since it's probably not meant to be that. Each one adds a week to the process, though; a moderator who expects to have to deal with more than one level of decision-making is in for a long haul.

As with the last version, the review process at SE starts with two members of the community management (CM) team. If they agree with each other (and it's not an appeal), done. If they disagree, they bring in a third. If the CMs agree on reinstatement -- to which they can add conditions -- then the process finishes: the moderator accepts the conditions and is reinstated, or doesn't and isn't. This is a positive change; in the previous one Sara Chipps's team could still step in and say no without giving reasons. But the ability to attach conditions can be abused (more below).

If the CMs deny the request the moderator can now appeal to the CLT. If the CLT says no but doesn't veto, the moderator can appeal to the Mod Council. Both of these escalations are new; previously, all you could do is send email to be ignored. The mod council, as I said, has an advisory role. The 15 members of this council will know details of the application and deliberations; 15 people can't keep a secret, which can work for or against the parties involved. It's more auditing than was possible before, but advisory auditing.

There does not appear to be an escalation path if the CMs (or CLT) reinstate with conditions and the moderator doesn't accept the conditions. That is, you can't escalate over the conditions, only over the yes/no decision itself. It sounds like there's discussion with the moderator now, so I guess the moderator can challenge restrictions that way, but it's very much "take it or leave it" per the policy. They can, for example, require you to publicly say that you will never ever again beat your wife; you didn't, but the implication is otherwise. This is a great way to say you approved a reinstatement (look! SE is fair!) but that a demanding mod didn't follow through (bad mod!).

The moderator still cannot challenge judges. The policy says several times that CMs, CLT members, and Mod Council members "can" recuse themselves. There is absolutely no way for the moderator to exclude people for cause. In the case of an appeal, this means that the same people who removed a moderator (or, in the case of the Mod Council, possibly complained about a moderator) can decide whether to reinstate or grant an appeal. As far as I can tell, the moderator won't even be told who the judges are, with the possible exception of whichever community manager is handling the correspondence. The other CM(s), the CLT, and the Mod Council are opaque. Oh, and there's something called the Community Members At Large group that under some circumstances makes the decision; you don't know who they are, either.

I objected last October that the (first) process starts from a presumption of guilt. This is still somewhat true, in that the moderator's application needs to address the reasons for removal (not covered: what if you were never told?), but there is at least now the ability to cast it as an appeal, sort of. I say "sort of" because you can't file a "naked" appeal: you appeal the decision and apply for reinstatement, but the idea of appealing to clear your name isn't covered. Of course, you can appeal, be reinstated, and then resign in that case.

They have closed a loophole in the previous version. With the version posted last October, a moderator could decide that this process was too much bunk and simply stand for re-election instead. A couple months ago they edited that policy to say that ex-mods must go through this new process and can't stand in elections. (Remember, that's even if you took time off to deal with health problems.) The new version adds some nuance to this; if a request is denied, there's a further determination of whether the moderator can stand for election again or is barred forever.

This new version takes steps toward the appeal path, which is good, but misses a really important consideration. It needs to add Step 0: Was the removal done under a valid process? If yes, proceed. If no, reverse and expunge; process ends here. The set of such cases will likely be very small but non-zero.

The previous process was easily riggable. The new one is less riggable for the common case (reinstatement), but appeals are still problematic. Some other flaws of the previous version have been corrected; some new flaws have been introduced.

More work is needed.