More replies about Wikimedia and the fallout of my report to the FBI

Background: on April 7, I posted the text of a report I made to the FBI to the EDTECH mailing list, in which I stated that, in my opinion, the Wikimedia Foundation may knowingly have posted “child pornography,” by which I meant one common usage of the term, namely, “obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children.”  In short, the Wikimedia Commons “Category:Pedophilia” page hosted images with realistic and disturbing drawings of child molestation. The Register reported on this and it snowballed from there.  Among other venues, it was discussed on Slashdot, and I reproduced my reply to Slashdot on this site.

Then on April 27, FoxNews.com covered the story. This elicited howls of protest from the Internet geek community, and some support from the broader online community. In addition, there was a reply from the Wikimedia Foundation both in their blog and in a widely-circulated AFP wire story, and Erik Moeller also posted a reply. Lastly there was some (rather misleading) coverage by techdirt and The Inquirer.


There was a huge spate of commentary–to put it nicely–following the FoxNews.com coverage of my report to the FBI. The sheer amount of error and misinformation spread about the situation is predictable, but that won’t stop me from, now, setting the record straight and offering replies on several points:

1. The images were (maybe still are) on Wikimedia Commons, not Wikipedia. The page I reported was Category:Pedophilia on Wikimedia Commons, not a Wikipedia article.  This matters because some people evidently went to the Wikipedia, looked at the pictures there, and concluded that my report was frivolous.  Indeed, if I had been talking about the pictures on Wikipedia’s “Pedophilia” article, the report would have been frivolous, but it wasn’t.

2. It isn’t only photographs of real children that are against the law. Obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children are against the law as well, and in fact, that’s exactly what 18 USC §1466A addresses. You may disagree with it, but that is the law of the land at present. Quite a few commentators presented the fact that the images were not of real children as some sort of “gotcha.” But I clarified perfectly well in my original FBI report that I was talking about drawings. I made sure that the statute I cited applied to the images I had stumbled upon.

3. The statute required me to make the FBI report. Many people commenting on my report don’t seem to realize that the statute specifically states that violations must be “reported…to a law enforcement agency.” This is, in fact, a necessary part of the affirmative defense stated by the statute itself. “But,” you say (agreeing with techdirt), “you didn’t need to make the report public.”  Read on:

4. I posted the FBI report publicly for good reason. I discussed my motives earlier, and I encourage everyone who has glibly dismissed my motives as self-interested to read that. But I want to add something here. This nest of issues badly needed to be made public. A public debate about the mere morality of hosting either drawings of child molestation or pornography in general would have done no good. Knowing them as I do, I doubt the technology press would find my public complaints worth reporting about. As to the Wikipedians, for one thing, Wikipedia allows pornography by policy, and they’re not going to get rid of it, or care too much about reliably labelling adult content, just because the much-maligned Larry Sanger has some objections to it. I have enough experience with that crowd to know that the dialogue would go nowhere. The only way to get any response, I thought–and all the sniping and derision after my report have made me only more sure of this–would have been to get the broader public to look at the problem carefully. As Justice Brandeis said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. So, gritting my teeth, I made the report public. I knew I was burning bridges, but I felt that my obligation to standards and the law is higher than my own standing in the online/tech community.

5. Isn’t this low priority for the FBI? Some have suggested that my report asked the FBI to focus on something that is lower-priority than catching actual purveyors of child porn. But in fact, I admitted something like that in my note to the FBI. I do not know, or pretend to have interesting opinions, about FBI priorities. I told them that of course I was leaving such decisions in their hands and will respect any decision they come to. But saying that violations of the statute by Commons (if the FBI agrees that they are violations) are low priority in this case surely implies that 18 USC §1466A should not be enforced. Besides, Wikimedia projects are now very high-profile. Long gone are the days when Wikipedia and sister projects were sites known only to geeks. If the FBI ignores violations of a statute on Wikimedia servers, that sends a message to the many others who collectively would be much harder to regulate.

6. The age of the images is irrelevant. Some of Wikimedia’s defenders sniffed that some of the images in Category:Pedophilia are “historic.” They supply no evidence or reasoning that the images are of historic importance; considering the truly outrageous nature of the smut they contain, I would be inclined to conclude that they are merely old, not “historic.” The courts and FBI may disagre with me, but I’m fairly sure that the fact that an image is old does not mean that the statute does not apply. At first I too did not think that the images were that bad, until I actually clicked on the thumbnails and looked at them. Despite their age, they are gross and perverted, and just the sort of thing, I imagine, that the statute was designed to cover. Or will we say that images that are clearly covered by the statute today will be “historic” and therefore just fine in 100 years?

7. My concern about using pornography hosted by Wikimedia in schools is sincere and well justified. My main complaint was about the images of child abuse I saw on Wikimedia Commons, but I also discussed pornography generally, and this found its way into some reporting and discussions. Now, I support the Wikimedia Foundation’s right to host (legal) pornography. I’m guessing that many of Wikipedia’s most active supporters do not have school-aged children. So it is easy for them to ignore or make light of my claim that Wikipedia makes pornography accessible in schools where Wikipedia is not filtered. I think most teachers, and parents of school-aged children, are by contrast keenly aware of the difficulties of guiding their students’ Internet use. They think it is important, and rightly so.

So, for those who lightly dismiss all issues about children’s use of pornography on Wikipedia, let’s get a few things straight. First, if there is any question about the amount and explicitness of the pornography on Wikipedia, have a look at this article and search on the page for “Clearly, it is hard to know”. There you’ll find some graphic descriptions of photos (not the images themselves). This is just a small amount of what can be found on Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons. If you don’t mind looking at the pictures themselves, you might start your own search from Wikipedia’s “sex positions” article and category. As to Wikimedia Commons’ offerings, have a look at this list of its most popular pages. This (along with the above-mentioned pornography policy) clearly puts the lie to the Wikimedia Foundation spokeman’s claim that “Our community abhors issues around pornography and pedophilia and they don’t want to provide opportunities for these things to take place.” If they don’t want to provide opportunities for pornography to take place, then why do they specifically allow it and have so much of it?

Second, while some school districts block access to Wikipedia, quite a few do not. Any curious student, armed with a few ideas of things to search for, can use computers in those school districts to view images that most people would call porn, and with just a few mouseclicks. Believe it or not, some district filter managers apparently did not know this. This actually surprised me quite a bit.

Finally, I know very well that most students who want to find porn online will be able to find holes in fallible filters and via their own connectivity. But placing vast amounts of it on a supposed reference site, and giving students access to it through school system computers, is greatly frowned upon by most school officials, not to mention parents, in the U.S. You might not like that, but it’s a fact and it is not likely to change. To be a good citizen, Wikipedia should label its mature content reliably and so that it can be blocked by school district filters.  Then, there would be more school districts and families using a kid-friendly version of Wikipedia, and fewer students doing their background reading on the unexpurgated version.

8. May be, not is, and other minor corrections of the Foxnews.com article. First let me say that I appreciate the work–and dare I say the courage–of the FoxNews.com journalist, and I think she did a good job overall. But she reported a few small things about me incorrectly, I’m afraid. I don’t want people to get the wrong idea about what I believe, so I’m going to correct the record. (1) I did not say that the Wikimedia Foundation is knowingly distributing child pornography, I said they may be. I used this only because, not being any sort of legal expert, I didn’t know if it really was in fact covered by the statute I cited. As they say online, “I am not a lawyer.” I’m trying to be modest. But for what it’s worth, I have been told by two different journalists that they tried to find some legal experts who would deny that the statute in question applied to the images in question, they could not. (2) I did not implore the FBI to investigate. If you read my original message to the FBI, you’ll see that I concede that they may have higher priorities, and that of course I left it up to their expert judgment. (3) I am sure I did not say that Commons was rife with renderings of children performing sexual acts. I think “rife” implies a huge or widespread number.  I didn’t claim that. (4) Category:Lolicon, when I saw it, had only one image that I thought violated the statute (this is described in the article; I am not going to repeat the description here). Other than that one, as far as I recall, it did not provide cartoons “similar in detail and depiction.”

9. The AFP’s presentation of my position falsely implied that I had backpedaled on my claim. The AFP wire story (which, by the way, they wrote without interviewing me), opened its coverage with the Wikimedia Foundation’s rejection of the allegations of hosting child pornography.  When they got around to stating what the allegations were, in the fourth paragraph, they began by quoting my clarification that the term “child pornography” was misleading to some, because some people think it means only photographs. That’s not my view, by the way. I think drawings of sexual abuse of children counts as child porn, and many people agree with me. But AFP did not even bother to state the main point, which was not at all affected by my small semantic concession, that the two Wikimedia Commons categories I reported to the FBI did seem to be in violation of 18 USC §1466A.

10. How dare I suggest the law be enforced? I really think what has a lot of people hot and bothered is that I have had the outrageous gall to suggest that the law and common, reasonable societal standards be enforced against a site that has, for Wikipedia’s many true believers, been a model of self-regulation. The very opposite has been the case. The notion that the government might be called in to make the Wikimedia Foundation and its community play by the (legal) rules goes completely against the idealistic, anarchistic Wikipedia spirit. To put it another way, the real world threatens to interrupt the whole insulated Wikipedia game, which is a sort of collective delusion. My failure to believe in the game, and my willingness to denounce its results publicly, is what really crosses the line for Wikipedia’s true believers. (That, and the fact that I’m speaking nearly alone against a whole mass movement; this makes me especially easy to demonize.) But I think Wikipedia must become more consistent with the somewhat higher standards of the world it is a part of, and I would think of myself as lacking courage if I did not say so. I hope others will join me.

By the way, I would like to thank the people who have sent me notes of appreciation by email, Facebook, and Twitter. Your support means a lot to me.

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 133 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, and WatchKnowLearn.org, and ReadingBear.org. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

One Response to "More replies about Wikimedia and the fallout of my report to the FBI"
  1. Reply Larry Sanger Blog » Wikipedia’s proposed legal policies May 22, 2011 14:41 pm

    […] the Congressional FBI liason.  But for this, I was publicly excoriated, as you can see here and here.  Nevertheless, it led to reportage in The Register and FoxNews.com and others.  It also had many […]

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