Wikipedia's porn filter DOA, and a proposal

Warning: this post has links to pages that are definitely not safe for work or school. I'll warn you which ones those are with "NSFW."

The post has two parts. The first is about the availability of porn on Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons, which for most people reading this is probably old news; but they've reached some new lows, such as actual pornographic films. The second part contains what I think is real news: that the much-debated porn filter they were developing is no longer in development and looks likely to be dropped.

I

There are, as many people reading this know very well, stupendous amounts of explicit imagery on Commons as well as Wikipedia itself; simply search for any fetish, porn industry term, or body part, and you'll be likely to find it illustrated literally ad nauseam. Users, whether they like it or not, can be exposed to all sorts of inappropriate, explicit content when doing perfectly innocuous searches. This degree of smut is obviously inappropriate for an Internet resource touted as "educational" and promoted for classroom use.

Almost two years ago, I reported the Wikimedia Foundation to the FBI (as I was required to by law) on grounds that Wikimedia Commons was hosting two image categories, labeled "Pedophilia" and "Lolicon," which featured depictions of child sexual abuse. I tracked the fallout in two posts. Recently, FoxNews.com followed up their coverage, reporting that little had been done since then. The Fox News reporter did a good job, I think. But some more developments have come to light.

The pervy categories are still there, and include whole hierarchies of categories under the titles "Erotic images of children" (NSFW) and "Child sexuality" (NSFW). The garbage by Martin van Maele, who drew many illustrations of children being sexually abused in the early 20th century, is still there, aggressively and proudly defended by the powers-that-be on Wikimedia Commons as "historical" and "educational." To give you an idea of the attitude of the pedophilia sympathizers on Commons, who clearly feel themselves to be put-upon and wronged, consider that there is a so-called "Hate for pedophiles" category which has existed, unmolested, since May 2010 (which, come to think of it, is the month when my FBI report made news). Consider also (as was recently pointed out to me) that the activists-for-free-porn on Commons have been awarding each other the new, outrageously gross, "Hot Sex Barnstar" (NSFW!) for their efforts. There are clearly some (to me) extremely unsavory characters involved who have made it their mission to make Commons, and Wikipedia as well, as free as possible to host the most explicit sorts of imagery on this tax-exempt, non-profit 501(c)(3) website.

Recently I received an email from someone who follows this issue. He called a few things to my attention. One item: a convicted child pornographer has apparently been prominently involved in curating adult pornography. It seems he is one of those who loves to use Commons to post pervy naked pictures of himself--discussion here. He is probably not the only one. Another item: Commons is now hosting an antique video (really, really NSFW) which I am told (I didn't watch the whole thing) shows a dog fellating a woman (in a nun's habit) and a man.

The Wikipedia community's more prurient tendencies are, so far from being reined in and moderated, exercised more boldly than ever.

II

My correspondent also directed me to this extremely interesting discussion on the Wikimedia Foundation mailing list (Foundation-L). Read both pages--here is page 2. As I write this, discussion is ongoing.

This discussion has revealed two pieces of news so far.

First, the powers-that-be at the WMF have directed their programmers to stop working on their opt-in "controversial content" (including porn) filter. They have higher priorities, we are told.

This needs some background. The very least that Wikipedia could do, on this issue, is to let people turn on a filter so that they (or the children using their computers) would not be shown porn and other grossly inappropriate content. In fact, my understanding is that the porn would merely be "collapsed," meaning that the user could still easily display it by "uncollapsing" the image. This, as sane people can agree, sounds both welcome and completely uncontroversial. This is what the WMF's consultant recommended in 2010, and it was widely assumed, after a referendum indicated general support (if lukewarm), that it would be implemented soonish. After all, the tool would simply let people turn on a personal filter. (It wouldn't be turned on automatically--users would have turn it on in user settings.) And the filter would only hide "controversial" images, not completely block them. But, no. There's no compromise on porn in Wikipedia-land, despite this being an "educational" project constitutionally committed to consensus and compromise. They want their commitment to free speech so loudly proclaimed that two full-color vulvas greet you at the top of the page (with a variety of others further down), should you have the temerity to look up the subject on Wikipedia. There has been such a groundswell of loud opposition to the opt-in filter idea that the project was never implemented.

This leads me to the second piece of news. It appears that two Wikimedia Foundation Board members, Kat Walsh and Phoebe Ayers, have both changed their positions. The Board was sharply divided on the need of this filter (which is just as amazing and silly as it sounds) last fall, but things have become even sillier since then. There is more community opposition, and so Ms. Walsh and Ms. Ayers no longer support it. They strongly imply that the earlier decision to build a filter is now a dead letter.

This says something very disappointing and even disturbing about the Wikimedia Foundation as an institution. It certainly looks as though they are in the thrall of anarchist porn addicts whose scorn for the interests of children--the group of users that stands to gain the most from a high-quality free encyclopedia--is constrained only by the limits of the law, and maybe not even that.

Eighteen months ago, after speaking at length to both WMF Executive Director Sue Gardner and the consultant she hired, Robert Harris, I had the distinct impression that the WMF might be capable of prevailing on Wikipedia and Commons to the extent of, at least, installing a completely innocuous opt-in filter system. So color me disillusioned.

I don't wish any grief or embarrassment upon Wikipedia's more sensible managers, like those I've mentioned--Gardner, Ayers, and Walsh. They are clearly right that politically they're in a "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" situation. But given the choice, I'd rather be damned for doing the bare minimum needed to meet the needs of children, or at least trying to do that, than be more richly damnable for not doing anything. I'd suck it up and remind myself that there are quite a few more important things than power and status. Since such a complete no-brainer as an opt-in filter is currently politically impossible, Gardner and other sane adults among the Wikimedia managers face a dilemma: maintain some degree of power in the organization, but implicitly supporting what is only too clearly a deeply dysfunctional and irresponsible organization; or resign. If I were Gardner, or a member of the Board, I would seriously consider resigning and making a clear and pointed public statement.

Ultimately, the WMF, which has legal responsibility for the project--and which is supposed to be the grown-up, after all--has shown in its inability to act on this issue that it cannot avoid a truly spectacular scandal or a really serious lawsuit. The potential trouble isn't that the government might shut Wikipedia down, or slap it with judgments it can't repay. Rather, the biggest potential trouble is a mass exodus of profoundly disillusioned contributors, which is surely the Achilles' heel of a project with tens of millions of articles and files to manage.

If she really wanted to take serious leadership on this issue, what Gardner might do is spearhead a brand new project to use some of the many millions they've amassed and start a serious Wikipedia for young people, one that K-12 teachers can be proud to use with their students. It could be a curated version of Wikipedia. It would not only have obvious controls regarding age-appropriate content, it would also have reviewed versions of articles, Citizendium-style. They could brag that they have finally adopted "flagged revisions," which the media has been repeatedly led to believe is "right around the corner."

I do not think the WMF needs to ask the Wikipedia rank-and-file to vote on this. Or, if they ask those people, they should also ask their contributors to vote on it, as well. The WMF has to ask itself: who are we serving, the Wikipedia rank-and-file, which is dominated by anarchist porn addicts, or readers? Are they sensible enough to answer this question correctly?

As an added bonus, if a WMF-supported responsible version of Wikipedia existed and were growing healthily, then I would shut up about the X-rated version of Wikipedia. Maybe.


Wikipedia's proposed legal policies

It looks like Wikipedia might be, finally, accepting its legal obligations.

Geoff Brigham, General Counsel of the Wikimedia Foundation (which is the legal owner of Wikipedia), has posted to the Foundation-l mailing list a link to a draft document described as Office of General Counsel "staff policies."  The document is here: http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Legal/Legal_Policies

When I saw it, one of my first reactions was: it's totally amazing that  it has taken Wikipedia ten years to draft this document.  Better late than never, though.

Note that these are proposed policies of the Wikimedia Foundation. They are described as "staff policies." I don't believe the average Wikipedia editor is considered "staff."  Nevertheless, the policies would seem to impact Wikipedians directly, and they essentially serve to conclude certain contentious issues in a way that is sure to upset some of the louder idiots on Wikipedia.  For example, the Wikimedia Foundation would be placing the whole sordid "child pornography" mess in the ambit of "office actions."  Office actions, for those who aren't familiar with this term of wiki-governance, are content decisions that the foundation takes without consulting or debating with the Wikipedia community.  They are, in short, rare end runs around the collaborative process, rare bows to the fact that the enterprise takes place in a broader societal (especially legal) context.

In particular, the page addresses child pornography on Wikipedia (and Wikimedia Commons).  It is worth quoting the section:

5. Child Pornography. Child pornography must be removed from the site immediately. Generally speaking, child pornography constitutes a photograph or other visual image of a child engaged is sexually explicit conduct.[3]

It is important to note that depictions such as drawings, cartoons, sculptures, or paintings that represent children in sexually explicit conduct may run afoul of certain obscenity statutes if the depictions lack certain cultural or social value. See 18 U.S.C. 1466A.

Relevant federal statutes on child pornography – with corresponding definitions -- may be found here:

http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/PageServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US&PageId=1476#1

State laws may also be applicable.[4]

As soon as possible, the Office of the General Counsel or the Reader Relations unit should report any discovery of child pornography (as described above) to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (800-843-5678).

Community members who find child pornography on the site may delete and report it. Community members are asked to notify Readers Relations or the Office of the General Counsel about any child pornography found on the site to ensure it is properly reported to the authorities.

Even when reporting, Community members are advised not to send images of child pornography through any means, including the email.

First let me point out that "child pornography" is the term used by the WMF--extended to include "drawings, cartoons, sculptures, or paintings."  The text cites precisely the statute under which I reported the WMF to the FBI (18 U.S.C. 1466A), and under which, at my request, a Senator and Representative of mine referred the matter to 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 other indirect effects, including the appointment of a consultant, Robert Harris, to write a report about how the community should deal with "controversial content."  Also, I'm not sure that this is related, but the WMF's counsel during the child pornography hullaballoo, Mike Godwin, left the foundation I think last fall.  He had nothing but loud, blustery, and quite unprofessional contempt for my report to the FBI.  It seems that Geoff Brigham, the new counsel who is apparently responsible for these "staff policies," would not have the same reaction.  If he is willing to underscore the Foundation's commitment to 18 U.S.C. 1466A, going so far as to require staff members to report violations to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Foundation's legal management certainly does seem to have changed for the better.

Congratulations to the WMF would be a little premature at this point, because we need to see how things will shake out--and whether the WMF will actually act on its own policies.  Still, I'm feeling vindicated.

But maybe more interesting in the long run is the fact that the WMF has--as was inevitable, because it is surely the WMF's legal obligation to do so--taken certain new powers upon itself, in a way that is possibly unprecedented.  Observe a new element of Wikipedia's governance taking shape before your eyes.


25 Replies to Maria Bustillos

In a recent essay, in The Awl ("Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert"), Maria Bustillos commits a whole series of fallacies or plain mistakes and, unsurprisingly, comes to some quite wrong conclusions.  I don't have time to write anything like an essay in response, but I will offer up the following clues for Ms. Bustillos and those who are inclined to nod approvingly with her essay:

1. First, may I point out that not everybody buys that Marshall McLuhan was all that.

2. The fact that Nature stood by its research report (which was not a peer-reviewed study) means nothing whatsoever.  If you'll actually read it and apply some scholarly or scientific standards, Britannica's response was devastating, and Nature's reply thereto was quite lame.

3. There has not yet been anything approaching a credible survey of the quality of Wikipedia's articles (at least, not to my knowledge).  Nobody has shown, in studies taken individually or in aggregate, that Wikipedia's articles are even nearly as reliable as a decent encyclopedia.

4. If you ask pretty much anybody in the humanities, you will learn that the general impression that people have about Wikipedia articles on these subjects is that they are appalling and not getting any better.

5. The "bogglingly complex and well-staffed system for dealing with errors and disputes on Wikipedia" is a pretentious yet brain-dead mob best likened to the boys of The Lord of the Flies.

6. It is trivial and glib to say that "Wikipedia is not perfect, but then no encyclopedia is perfect."  You might as well say that the Sistine Chapel is not perfect.  Yeah, that's true.

7. It is not, in fact, terribly significant that users can "look under the hood" of Wikipedia.  Except for Wikipedia's denizens and those unfortunate enough to caught in the crosshairs of some zealous Wikipedians using the system to commit libel without repercussion, nobody really cares what goes on on Wikipedia's talk pages.

8. When it comes to actually controversial material, the only time that there is an "attempt to strike a fair balance of views" in Wikipedia-land is when two camps with approximately equal pull in the system line up on either sides of an issue.  Otherwise, the Wikipedians with the greatest pull declare their view as "the neutral point of view."  It wasn't always this way, but it has become that way all too often.

9. I too am opposed to experts exercising unwarranted authority.  But there is an enormous number of possibilities between a world dominated by unaccountable whimsical expert opinion and a world without any experts at all.  Failing to acknowledge this is just sloppiness.

10. If you thought that that Wikipedia somehow meant the end of expertise, you'd be quite wrong.  I wrote an essay about that in Episteme. (Moreover, in writing this, I was criticized for proving something obvious.)

11. The fact that Marshall McLuhan said stuff that presciently supported Wikipedia's more questionable epistemic underpinnings is not actually very impressive.

12. Jaron Lanier has a lot of very solid insight, and it is merely puzzling to dismiss him as a "snob" who believes in "individual genius and creativity."  There's quite a bit more to Lanier and "Digital Maoism" than that.  Besides, are individual genius and creativity now passe?  Hardly.

13. Clay Shirky isn't all that, either.

14. Being "post-linear" and "post-fact" is not "thrilling" or profound.  It's merely annoying and tiresome.

15. Since when did the Britannica somehow stand for guarantees of truth?  Whoever thought so?

16. There are, of course, vast realms between the extremes of "knowledge handed down by divine inspiration" and some dodgy "post-fact society."

17. The same society can't both be "post-fact" and thrive on "knowledge [that] is produced and constructed by argument," Shirky notwithstanding.  Arguments aim at truth, i.e., to be fact-stating, and truth is a requirement of knowledge.  You can't make sense of the virtues of dialectical knowledge-production without a robust notion of truth.

18. Anybody who talks glowingly about the elimination of facts, or any such thing, simply wants the world to be safe for the propagation of his ideology by familiar, manipulable, but ultimately irrational social forces.  No true liberal can be in favor of a society in which there are no generally-accepted, objective standards of truth, because then only illiberal forces will dominate discourse.

19. Expert opinion is devalued on Wikipedia, granted-and maybe also on talk radio and its TV spin-offs, and some Internet conversations.  But now, where else in society has it been significantly devalued?

20. What does being a realist about expertise--i.e., one who believes it does exist, who believes that an expert's opinion is, on balance, more likely to be true than mine in areas of his expertise--have to do with individualism?  Surely it's more the romantic individualists who want to be unfettered by the requirements of reason, including the scientific methods and careful reasoning of experts, who are naturally inclined to devalue expertise per se.

21. Wikipedia does not in any plausible way stand for a brave new world in which competing arguments hold sway over some (fictional) monolithic expert opinion.  There have always been competing expert views; Wikipedia merely, sometimes, expresses those competing expert views when, from some professors, you might hear only one side.  Sometimes, Wikipedia doesn't even do that, because the easy politicization of collaborative text written without enforceable rules makes neutrality an elusive ideal.

22. Um, we have had the Internet for more than 20 years.

23. The writing down of knowledge is more participatory now, and that's a fine thing (or can be).  But knowledge itself is, always has been, and always will be an individual affair.  The recording of things that people take themselves to know, in Wikipedia or elsewhere, and findable via Google, does not magically transfer the epistemic fact of knowledge from the recorder even to those who happen to find the text, much less to all readers online.  Knowledge itself is considerably more difficult than that.

24. Ours is an individualistic age?  Don't make me laugh.  People who actually think for themselves--you know, real individualists--appear to me to be as rare as they ever have been.  It is a delight to meet the few who are out there, and one of the better features of the Internet is that it makes it easier to find them.  The West might be largely capitalist, but that doesn't stop us from being conformist, as any high school student could tell you.

25. The real world is considerably more complex than your narrative.


Looong interview with me by Dan Schneider in Cosmoetica

Off and on, for the last 2.5 years, I have been answering questions from poet and critic Dan Schneider, who has conducted a series of long, interesting interviews.  My interview, posted a few hours ago, is #27 in the series; Schneider himself gives the interview four stars (out of five).  That should tell you something about the Schneider: he's the kind of guy who asks questions that take hours and hours to answer, and then has the audacity to rate the answers.  The questions cover my life, Wikipedia, Citizendium, philosophy, and my reactions to various idiosyncratic puzzles that Schneider has come up with.  If you were to ask why I agreed to do an interview that ended up being 40,000 words long, without any compensation or anything, I'd say that I didn't know it was going to be that long, and Dan Schneider was very persistent.  And maybe this reveals just how vain I really am.


Wales declares Sanger arbiter of consensus on Wikipedia

While looking at the old Wikipedia-L archives, I came across the following deliciously ironic post from none other than Jimmy Wales:

[Wikipedia-l] subpages

Jimmy Wales jwales at bomis.com
Mon Feb 25 23:33:51 UTC 2002


kband at www.llamacom.com wrote:
[...]
> If he's still the final arbiter of all Wikipedia
> functionality, then this is a moot point. If, however, we're back to
> policy by consensus, then it won't be too hard. But Mr. Wales needs to
> tell us what the story is there.

Don't think of it as "Larry as final arbiter" on the one hand and
"policy by consensus" on the other hand.  The right way to look at it
is that Larry is the final arbiter of what the consensus is.  Since
agitators on all sides are likely to never concede that the consensus
is against them, we need to have a final stopping point.

That's Larry, or maybe me if the issue is something technically beyond the
scope of his knowledge, but so far, achieving technical consensus has been
pretty easy.

--Jimbo

So, I'd like to clarify a few things for people who actually care about accuracy in writing about the early history of Wikipedia--admittedly, there aren't many such people.

Occasionally, we find Jimmy Wales saying that I was merely a paid employee and merely carrying out his marching orders--as if he were leading the charge, and I were merely some back office functionary.  But we have it straight from the horse's mouth that, as late as February 25, 2002, I was "the final arbiter of what the consensus is" on Wikipedia, and that the declarer of consensus was "maybe" Jimmy Wales himself "if the issue is something technically beyond the scope of his knowledge."

I'd love for some journalist to confront Jimmy Wales with this.  Preferably live, on camera.

I'd also like to comment on what this says about Wales' notion of consensus, that someone in authority is needed to declare it in order to shut up dissenters, but I'll leave that to someone else.

UPDATE: I never really thought there was a consensus in that case myself; my approach was different, and more honest, than Wales'.


Jimmy Wales on advertisement

A comment in Wired UK has Jimmy Wales saying this:

Sanger was absolutely adamant that Wikipedia must have ads, and it was my refusal to do so that led to Wikipedia being as it is today. The Spanish fork did not provoke any changes of any kind. We stayed the course. I didn't want to have advertising, and I found ways to avoid it -- the Spanish fork was an important event in the history of Wikipedia, but not in the sense of "provoking change".

The suggestion that I demanded ads and that Jimmy Wales was opposed to them is, I am afraid, yet another self-serving lie from Wales.  The lie is again, sad to say, designed to inflate his own reputation at the expense of mine.  It is also brazen, because he knows that there are at least three people--Tim Shell, Terry Foote, and me--who can provide a more accurate story.  This is not to mention words from the man himself from 2002, which you can find at the bottom of this post.
 
The facts of the matter are these.  Nupedia and, later, Wikipedia began life as side-projects of the ad-driven for-profit business Bomis, Inc.  It was my full-time job to start and lead both projects, while Wales was, of course, CEO of Bomis and relatively uninvolved with the projects while I was on board.  But Wales was the one to make the business decisions (along with Tim Shell, partner and co-owner of Bomis).  From the beginning, Wales let me know in no uncertain terms that, once it garnered enough traffic, Nupedia would become ad-supported.  This would of course also be true of Wikipedia when it started, because Wikipedia started as a side-project of Nupedia.  Frankly, this funding model made me nervous from the beginning, and I said so to Wales on several occasions: I was always uncomfortable with the idea of a for-profit concern, that would pay for my own job, being built on the backs of volunteers.  I still am.
 
At some point in 2001, it had become quite clear that the nature of the participants and the project itself was such that the encyclopedia would have to become non-profit.  This is something that I had asked for early on.
 
But the plan to sell ads did not change; after all, as Wales himself argued, plenty of non-profit concerns are partly supported by ads, such as PBS and National Geographic.  Our line was that the ads would be best described as low-key, unobtrusive "sponsorships" and not as "ads" per se.  The question came up from time to time about when we would start running ads (or sponsorships), but Wales' original line, that we would not run ads until we could start making a significant amount of money from them, held good through the end of 2001.  I agreed with this, because I knew that ads would be unpopular with contributors (and made me a little uncomfortable as well; this was just before Google Ads got started).  Even when the site was approaching its first 20,000 entries and had had the benefit of coverage in The New York Times and Technology Review, traffic was still not high enough to warrant running ads.
 
Then, toward the end of 2001, Bomis lost a major, million-dollar contract with the old Go.com portal--all on account of the collapse of the Internet bubble--and Bomis had to lay off the half-dozen or so people they had hired in 2000 and 2001.  I was the last of these people to be laid off, Tim Shell told me.  But, around the time Shell informed me--in December 2001--that I would soon be laid off, I was also assured by Wales that he would finally have Terry Foote try to sell ads to support my position.  This was something that Wales and I discussed together and, he led me to believe, we both agreed on.  I was still uncomfortable with the idea of ads being run to support me, even in a non-profit context.  I do vaguely recall that Wales said that he didn't think they'd have much luck, because the market for Internet ads had almost disappeared.
 
After a month or two, however, I had no news from Wales.  Eventually he told me that they had had no luck in selling ads, and that I shouldn't expect money from that avenue.
 
I invite Jimmy Wales to offer refutations of specific claims I have made in this account.  One thing he is specifically wrong about is that he was opposed to selling ads, because doing so had been his design from the beginning of the project.  The decision not to sell ads was announced only after I had resigned from the project.  He was still far from stalwart in his opposition to ads; I went to the Wikipedia-l archives and found this mail from Jimmy Wales, which I reproduce in full:

[Wikipedia-l] Advertisements
 
Jimmy Wales jwales at bomis.com
Fri Mar 1 20:44:26 UTC 2002
 
With the resignation of Larry, there is a much less pressing need for funds.  Therefore, all plans to put advertising of any kind on the wikipedia is called off for now.
 
We will move forward with plans for a nonprofit foundation to own wikipedia, and possibly to solicit donations and grants to help us carry out our mission.  (Ironically, I think that grant money would come with many annoying strings attached, which we could not accept, comparted to advertising money, which is virtually 100% string-free.)
 
Just as the National Geographic Society is supported in large part by advertisments in the National Geographic Magazine, I expect this to be a potentially necessary thing at some point in the future, if we wish to have an impact beyond our own little corner of the Internet.  (And, I think we all do.)
 
But for now, there's no pressing need unless and until we find chaos descending on us from the lack of constant oversight.
 
The hosting of Wikipedia I can continue to do for no charge for the foreseeable future.  Even if Wikipedia traffic were to grow by a factor of 10, I would be willing to absorb all the bandwidth and hardware costs.  If it grows beyond a factor of 100 or 1000, obviously, alternative solutions would have to be found.

So, according to Wales on March 1, 2002, just after I resigned, Wales clarifies again that there had been "plans to put advertising" on Wikipedia, but that advertisements might still become a "potentially necessary thing at some point in the future."

And if there is any question that Jimmy Wales himself was in favor of advertisement prior to this declaration, consult this Wikipedia-L post from February 2, 2002, where he says, "However, with the ongoing hard times in the Internet economy, we do anticipate adding some forms of advertising to the site in the near future."

UPDATE: some Wikipedians attempted to press Wales on this issue; he ended up deleting the discussion.


Advice for the Wikimedia Foundation (not for Wikipedia!)

Since before I left Wikipedia, even before I proposed the old Sifter project in 2002, Wikipedians have talked about a method of using experts to rate, or approve, or review versions of Wikipedia articles (cf. this Slate interview).  Similarly, some of the cooler heads both inside and outside Wikipedia have wished that Wikipedians would tag their copious amounts of porn and other child-unfriendly content, so that pages containing that content could be efficiently blocked by filters.  (Speaking as a father of two, I now actually think about such things.)

Of course, the problem with all such sensible suggestions is that the Wikipedia community is not very sensible.  As anyone familiar with the community knows, if such things are left up to Wikipedians themselves, they will never happen.  They will have to be done independently.

But it occurred to me that there is no reason whatsoever that the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) could not do these things independently of Wikipedia.  They could be other WMF projects, like Wikimedia Commons, Wikibooks, and so forth, but scrupulously independent of Wikipedia itself.  I call on the WMF's Executive Director, Sue Gardner, to investigate the viability of these and other such independent projects personally, and not just leave them to "Wikimedia Strategy" groups such as this one.

Let me try to put this suggestion into perspective.  For a long time, whenever anybody suggested expert review, porn labelling, or other obviously good ideas, there was always one big argument-stopper: the community would never stand for it.  They can't be moved.  You can persuade all the people you like outside the project, you can raise a ruckus in the media, but the Wikipedia community just won't go for it -- period.

The WMF showed that it could work independently of the Wikipedia community when it hired someone to write a report of recommendations of how to deal with "controversial content."  Besides, Wikipedia and the WMF are both constantly saying that the Foundation does not control editorial issues.  If they are independent entities, then what, really, is stopping the WMF from starting credible projects to do expert labelling and independent labelling of porn (and other images inappropiate for children)?  Theoretically, they don't have to answer to the Wikipedia community in order to start such projects.  And we can start blaming the WMF itself, and its management, if such projects are not started, because it is well within their power and authority to do so.


Wikipedia's ancient history unearthed

Wikipedia programmer Tim Starling has discovered some ancient backup files from the earliest months of Wikipedia. The files themselves (which I haven't downloaded yet, if I ever will) are here (8.4 MB) and cover some of the earliest history of Wikipedia.  This should be very interesting indeed, if anyone decides to study what happened in those, um, interesting few months!


A comment on Wikileaks

Over the weekend, I wrote a series of Tweets inspired by Wikileaks' then-upcoming release of U.S. diplomatic communiqués.  This caused quite an uproar, with people insulting me vociferously and demanding that I explain myself.  (A few people were supportive, and thanks to them.)  I am not going to write a whole essay in defense of my views; I don't have the time either to write one or to deal with the inevitable aftermath of such an essay.  Actually, I wish I didn't have to do even the following, because I'm busy with various new educational projects, and I have no desire to make myself into a political pundit.  But I suppose at this point it is my duty to post at least the following; I think I'm in a position where I could do some good, so I had better, if I want to follow my own advice.

Rather than write a long essay, I will put down just a few paragraphs explaining my views a little better.  This is obviously not, nor is it intended to be, a complete defense of the position I'll briefly describe.  That I leave to the policy wonks.

Here are the "offending" [tooltip color="blue" text="This is on twitter."] Tweets [/tooltip] (from Nov. 25-26):

I'll go ahead and say the obvious: Wikileaks is an enemy of the U.S.—and not just the government. Deal with them accordingly.

How does Wikileaks repeatedly get massive troves of classified material?

Did a person or group in the U.S. govt have access to ALL these docs & leak them to Wikileaks? If so, that person or group is traitorous.

@wikileaks Speaking as Wikipedia's co-founder, I consider you enemies of the U.S.—not just the government, but the people.

@wikileaks What you've been doing to us is breathtakingly irresponsible & can't be excused with pieties of free speech and openness.

First, let me say that my main complaint is against releasing secret diplomatic communiqués, not against Wikileaks' other work, which is less important for purposes of this discussion.  Also, when I said I was "speaking as Wikipedia's co-founder," I was distinguishing wikis generally from Wikileaks, which is not a wiki.  I was and am not speaking for Wikipedia, but only for myself.  To those who said that they'd stop contributing to Wikipedia, you might not know that I left Wikipedia a little over a year after I got it started, and have since founded a competitor.  I'm no longer even the editor-in-chief of this competitor; I'm now working on brand new things.

My argument is quite simple and commonsensical.  It goes something like this. (A policy wonk would be able to explain this better than I could, but I'm in the hot seat so I'll have a go.) Diplomatic communiqués are secret precisely because they contain information that it would be dangerous, or stupid, to make public. They disclose names and quotations that, for reasons either obvious or quite impossible for us to know, might get people killed. They also contain reports of actions that might lead to serious repercussions. They might even pinpoint locations of secret installations that might come under attack. They recount discussions of important plans and personalities—information that, if known to the wrong people, might lead to various military excursions, including war.

Does that sound acceptable to you?  Let's put it this way.  Wikileaks' actions, by releasing so much consequential, incendiary information, could easily lead to the deaths of people all around the world, and not just Americans. It could destabilize foreign relations that it benefits no one to have destabilized. It could—probably will not, but given that these are secret diplomatic communiqués in a very complex world, could—lead to war.

I find it incomprehensible that Wikileaks and its defenders are not given pause by such obvious considerations. I find it sad that so many people are not able to grasp such arguments intuitively.  Perhaps they ignore them, or perhaps they only pretend that such considerations do not exist.

Now, let's talk about three common fallacies about Wikileaks' latest disastrous actions. Again, this is going to have to be brief.

Fallacy: we can already see (less than 24 hours after release) that the leaks have no damaging information, and the information in the first leaks (about Iraq and Afghanistan) did not lead to any deaths. Well—not yet they didn't, not as far as we know.  But there is a big difference between the Iraq and Afghanistan leaks and the latest leak.  Since the latest leak contains huge numbers of secret diplomatic communiqués, they do, of course, concern intelligence.  Wikileaks' defenders seem not to realize the cumulative nature of intelligence.  Intelligence-gathering is like detective work.  In a detective story, often it is one tidbit of information that sheds light on a case and blows it wide open.  Similarly, a communiqué that looks to the uninformed to be completely innocuous might turn out to be exactly the tidbit needed for enemies of the U.S.—and others—to inflict death and serious destruction.  It amazes me that otherwise intelligent people, including journalists, think that they can make such judgments, let alone promote their obviously amateur judgments online.  This does not speak well for the judgment of the New York Times' editors.  To their credit, others, such as the Washington Post, would not make deals with Wikileaks.

Fallacy: the United States is an "empire" and needs to be reined in. Exposing the inner workings of this government's foreign policy is a good thing. It's not a bad thing that the leaks damage U.S. interests, because U.S. interests are contrary to the interests of a lot of the rest of the world. This argument is made by two different groups of people who are best addressed separately.

On the one hand, people on the radical left are of course deeply opposed to the American system of government. I am not one of these people—though occasionally, as an open-minded philosopher, I have considered some such people as my personal friends. Anyway, these people naturally regard the U.S. government, the main defender of this much-hated system, as enemy #1 in world politics.  I don't.  Obviously, radical leftists will be among Wikileaks' most vociferous supporters in the latest leaks, precisely because they want the U.S. undermined.  As a patriotic, loyal American citizen, I do not want my country undermined, and I'm not ashamed to say so.  Taking this openly pro-U.S. stance as I do, radical leftists cannot be expected to treat me nicely.  Fortunately, I couldn't care less about what they think, when they use playground insults and attempt to bait me into stupid exchanges of sentiments.  I'm not about to enter an exchange with such people about the merits of the American system and hence the defensibility of undermining it.

On the other hand, there are plenty of liberals, libertarians, and social democrats who support Wikileaks. My views are closer to theirs.  I agree with them that, as a rough generality, leakage of government documents is a good thing for open government, free speech, and democracy.  This is why, when Wikileaks first appeared, I was cautiously supportive.  But it is perfectly consistent for liberals, libertarians, and social democrats—and conservatives too, of course—to draw the distinction between positive leaks that improve government and irresponsible leaks that do nothing but cause all sorts of harm and pointless chaos.  If you are an anarchist, you might celebrate all leaks, but most of us aren't anarchists and are capable of making intelligent distinctions between good and bad leaks.

Let me put this another way.  There are a lot of things that the U.S. State Department does that democracy-loving people across the political landscape can agree are positive, or at least supportable.  But some of those things have to be done in secret.  That is the nature of diplomacy, espionage, and foreign policy in the real world, which is a dangerous, complex world.  To leak three million communiqués potentially undermines everything positive that the U.S. can do in the world.  Come on, folks—can't you see that?  It should be obvious, and it's very disappointing that it isn't more so to liberals.  Unless you count yourself as one of the aforementioned radical leftists, who want to see the U.S. lose, period, then you cannot support Wikileaks' action.  It is completely unsupportable.

Fallacy: Wikileaks is a force for openness and transparency.  Openness is good.  (Oh, how can a founder of Wikipedia fail to realize this?  The horror!) There are some people who think that all of government should be conducted "in the open," always.  Such people remind me of my radical libertarian friends: their theories sound nice, beautiful even, but they quite stubbornly refuse to take seriously the reasons for the things they criticize.  The fact is that some, only some, of democratic government has always been conducted without public exposure.  In this brief comment, I cannot elaborate the reasons for occasional government secrecy, but I'll give you a hint: it has to do with privacy, public safety, and national defense.  I disagree with those people who want government to be so "open"—open far beyond anything any government has ever experienced, open far beyond anything widely thought to be required—that they are perfectly willing to undermine privacy, public safety, and national defense in order to secure that openness.  Such people are ideologues, and they are fun for other ideologues to argue with, and occasionally for philosophers too, but they can be safely ignored by more sane, grounded people and those with little time on their hands for philosophy.

Finally, Julian Assange is no hero.  He is a twit.  He should not be made into a liberal icon.  He gives hackers a bad name.  He and his organization are indeed enemies of the U.S. government and the people represented by that government; they should be stopped, and they richly deserve to be punished for this latest leak.  And that goes double for the person or people in the U.S. government who leaked the documents in the first place.  None of these people deserve your support any longer.

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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.