Reply to Slashdot about my report to the FBI

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 "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, where I posted the following reply.  I decided to repost it here permanently.

I have added a more recent reply.

Larry Sanger here--let me clarify a few things.

First of all, what very few of the commenters (at least the first commenters) noticed was that the statute I cited, 18 U.S.C. §1466A, has the following title: "Obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children."  It specifically states: "Any person who, in a circumstance described in subsection (d), knowingly produces, distributes, receives, or possesses with intent to distribute, a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting, that..."

That's drawings, cartoons, sculptures, and paintings.  "Visual depictions of any kind."  Many people who criticized my message to the FBI really seem to have a problem with the law, which I find interesting.

Anyway, I now realize with regret that "child pornography" was probably the wrong word to use.  I didn't realize that it would be so misleading.  I thought that "obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children" (the title of the statute) was just what we mean when we say "child pornography."  It didn't occur to me until afterward that many people restrict "child pornography" to mean photographs of real children.  If I had realized this sooner, I would have used "depictions of child sexual abuse" instead.

So, why did I report Wikimedia to the FBI?  First some background.  I am broadly a libertarian, but I am also a sincere moralist (as opposed to a cynical amoralist).  Libertarianism and moralism are not--of course--contradictory.  Being a libertarian, I think we have the right to do a lot of things, including a lot of things that broadly coarsen society; that's the price we pay for freedom.  But, just as the law provides for, I do draw one line when it comes to photographs, or even merely realistic depictions, of child sexual abuse.  Most sane libertarians recognize that some speech should be restricted by the force of law--the hackneyed examples are shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, perjury, and libel.  But for me, depictions of child sexual abuse are another.  I respect the opinion of those who have a principled disagreement with me when it comes to depictions of child sexual abuse.  But pretending that it's just obvious, even for libertarians, that we have a right to publish such depictions is simply wrong, in my opinion.

Regarding my motives, yes, I thought I was doing my civic duty, one that I didn't really want to do, but which I felt I ought to do.  Partly this was because the statute in question required me to make the report if I thought the statute applied (and it seems to me it does--those drawings sure look like obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children to me).  But partly also it was because I think that this sort of thing--including some pictures of children being out-and-out raped--is completely wrong, and should not be allowed in a civilized society.  Call this censorship if you like, but I don't really think you have a constitutional right to publish and consume realistic drawings of child rape and molestation.

But what outcome am I aiming at?  Contrary to the insinuations of some, I have no interest in trying to get Wikimedia shut down; that would be unnecessary, and I doubt it would happen as a result of the violation of the statute.  But I think and hope it may cause pressure on Wikimedia from law enforcement, politicians, and the general public to eliminate this sort of content.  I also hope that Wikimedia will be persuaded, or if necessary forced, to label its "adult" content as such in a consistent and reliable way, so that it can be easily filtered by school system filters.  This would be a win-win, because then Wikipedia would be used in more schools--something I don't at all oppose, except for all the grossly inappropriate material for school children--and, when used in schools, children would be less likely to find content that their parents and teachers regard as grossly inappropriate for their age.

I know that in our cynical world, a lot of people will have trouble believing that my motives and aims as stated are sincere.  Many people have said that I am motivated by a desire to get my projects in the news.  In fact, in posting about my message to the FBI on EDTECH, I had no conviction that it would aid my projects.  Actually, I worried that it might damage them, for exactly the reasons so many Slashdotters are howling now: leveling accusations against a popular project is a highly unpopular thing to do.  But I'm afraid (and again, some will have trouble believing this, but I don't care) I am "old school" on this sort of thing.  When it comes to doing what is right, I often say "Damn the consequences."  This is why I am not very popular, and never have been; I must seem totally tone-deaf socially speaking, because I frequently find myself obligated to do and say unpopular things.  I take my inspiration from Socrates.  To the sort of people who think this claimed, alleged, supposed idealism is obviously false, or stupid, or terminally naive, there is little persuasive that I can say, because they live in a completely different world than mine.  I'm sure all of the things I've been saying now about my motives will just confirm their opinion of me that I'm just a jerk, an authoritarian, or whatever else comes to mind.  C'est la vie.

A lot of people shrieked with indignation that I mentioned my qualifications and--horrors--my websites.  Conflict of interest!  But they omitted to say where I mentioned this, which was grossly misleading on their part.  The context of the statement was: it was in the first paragraph of a message to the FBI.  I stated those things so that they understood exactly who I was, what qualifications I had to post the tip, and--believe it or not--what conflicts of interest I might have, should they find those to be relevant.  If they want to disregard what I say because I have started a newer project competing with the project I am reporting, I want to make it easy for them to do so and move on to other pressing government business.  I did not write the message with public consumption in mind; I posted it on EDTECH only as an afterthought, to underscore a point I had made in that forum.  It only occurred to me later that this might be misconstrued as a plug for my own sites.  Only later did I realize that I should not have quoted that part of the letter at all.

Those of you who think that I have a "conflict of interest" might reflect that with this move I have if anything completely burned the last of my bridges to working in the mainstream (deeply libertarian) world of Web 2.0.  That is something I did realize.  After this, I am sure I have permanently ruined my chances of getting a job (if I had wanted one) or getting funding for a successful for-profit in Silicon Valley.  I know I will probably get a reputation of being a fraud who will say anything for a little publicity, or (much worse) a self-styled moralist who is in favor of censorship.  Neither of these things is true, but I know it is the reputation I will probably have among that crowd.  Well, you see, that's the price you pay for living honestly in the world: you do what you must, even if you wished you didn't have to, and you let the chips fall where they may.  In the end, you have to trust that you will be rewarded in other ways, if only in having a relatively clear conscience.

So, sure, I know that our (pathetic) cynicism is such that many people will be unable to believe the above; they will think I am merely trying to appear noble, and they will mock the stupidity of it, because everyone is cynical and cool and maximally tolerant of sexual proclivities these days, and "noble" motives no longer exist, so any pretense to having such motives will be mocked or discarded out of hand.  Oh well--that's a pity for me.

Still, I hope I will have gotten the public to consider the issue.  As to my career, well, let's just say that I am now interested in the education sector, and in this sector, there aren't so many people who think we have a constitutional right to view drawings of child molestation.

I have just one last comment, in response to a few Slashdot comments.  Some of those comments were written by people who sound like complete creeps to me, people I would not trust anywhere near my little boy.  Here is an example, and not the only one: "why should anyone care if someone masturbates to an image of a drawn child? If that gets his/her kicks so that the person can be a normal productive member of society, all's good, or at least should be good - no child is ever harmed, and the person has taken care of his/her urges."  I find this chilling.  But maybe even more chilling is that Slashdot rated this "Score: 5, Interesting."  Interesting--sure, I'll grant it's that.  But its high rating is chilling because it indicates that one of the most influential sectors of industry today, the geek sector in control of the most massive media production system in history, as represented by Slashdot, is steadfastly non-judgmental when it comes to someone who all but admits that he gets his "kicks" by masturbating to an image of a drawn child.  It's that attitude that explains why Category:Pedophilia and its contents exists on Wikimedia Commons.  Such people should not be making policy for the seventh most popular website in the world.

I suspect the people who make such grotesque remarks (and not all the critical comments are this grotesque) are mostly sick puppies who grew up with little moral guidance, who believe that virtually all desires are brute facts that cannot be criticized and [must be] always respected.  They vainly imagine themselves to be very clever, but they have very little in the way of actual wisdom.  These people will be utterly mortified by their youthful remarks when they actually have children of their own.  But then of course there are the tiny number of some real perverts--let's call a spade a spade--who might be older, are probably childless, and who are actually confident in defending sexual relations with children.  They actually have the temerity to pretend that this is the next cutting-edge frontier of the broader movement toward civil rights and equality, and that those who disagree with them must be stupid, knuckle-dragging conservatives.  These people are simply tangled in their own web of rationalizations for behavior and inclinations that, on my view, are simply evil.  (And, yes, I did notice that some Slashdotters mocked the notion that child sexual molestation was "evil.")  I feel no desire whatsoever to dignify such people in any way at all, and I could not care less what they have to say about me.  I can only hope that the rest of society is not so far gone in the way of moral relativism, or pseudo-tolerance, or whatever you want to call it, that they feel they must tolerate the advocates of free sexual relations between adults and children.

I don't want to end on that note, because I really doubt that most of the people who have objected publicly to my position are, as I described them, "sick puppies" and pedophilia activists.  Actually, I think most of them are libertarians, most of whom probably again don't have children, and who are probably disgusted (as well they should be) by depictions of child sexual abuse.  Despite our disagreement on the philosophical issue of where to draw the line regarding free expression, I have some sympathy and affection for these sort of people, who are taking a principled stand, but one that is, I feel, nonetheless wrong.


Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism

Wikipedia has started to hit the big time. Accordingly, several critical articles have come out, including "The Faith-Based Encyclopedia" by a former editor-in-chief of Britannica and a very widely-syndicated AP article that was given such titles as "When Information Access Is So Easy, Truth Can Be Elusive".

These articles are written by people who appear not to appreciate the merits of Wikipedia fully. I do, however; I co-founded Wikipedia. (I have since left the project.)

Wikipedia does have two big problems, and attention to them is long overdue. These problems could be eliminated by eliminating a single root problem. If the project's managers are not willing to solve it, I fear a fork (a new edition under new management, for the non-techies reading this) will probably be necessary.

Let me preface this by saying that I know Wikipedia is very cool. A lot of people do not think so, but of course they are wrong. So the following must be taken in the spirit of someone who knows and supports the mission and broad policy outlines of Wikipedia very well.

First problem: lack of public perception of credibility, particularly in areas of detail. The problem I would like to point out is not that Wikipedia is unreliable. The alleged unreliability of Wikipedia is something that the above (TechCentralStation and AP) articles make much of, but that is not my point, and I am not interested in discussing that point per se.

My point is that, regardless of whether Wikipedia actually is more or less reliable than the average encyclopedia, it is not perceived as adequately reliable by many librarians, teachers, and academics. The reason for this is not far to seek: those librarians etc. note that anybody can contribute and that there are no traditional review processes. You might hasten to reply that it does work nonetheless, and I would agree with you to a large extent, but your assurances will not put this concern to rest.

You might maintain that people are already using Wikipedia a lot, and that that implies a great deal of trust. This is true, as far as it goes; but people use many sources that they themselves believe to be unreliable, via Google searches, for example. (I do so all the time, though perhaps I shouldn't.) Perhaps Wikipedia is better described as one of those sources regarded as unreliable which people read anyway. And in this case, one might say, there's no problem: Wikipedia is being read, and it is of minimally adequate and increasing reliability. What more could you ask? In other words, why does a perception of unreliability matter?

I am willing to grant much of this reply. I think merely that there are a great many benefits that accrue from robust credibility to the public. One benefit, but only one, is support and participation by academia. I am on the academic job market now and I felt it was necessary to explain my views about Wikipedia's credibility for potential employers. A great many of my colleagues are not at all impressed with the project; but more about that in a bit.

Another benefit accruing from robust public credibility is even more widespread use and support by teachers, schools, libraries, and the general public--precisely the people who want to use what they believe to be a credible encyclopedia. To the extent that the project is not reaching, and being supported by, these people, it is not succeeding as well as it might.

Perhaps you might also maintain that, while Wikipedia does not now have a reputation for reliability, it will eventually, once enough studies proving its reliability are done, and once people are more familiar with the concept behind the project. This is hard to argue with; but it is also hard to support, because it involves predicting the future, and the future, when it comes to public opinion, is extremely unpredictable. It would be better to do something to help guarantee a reputation for reliability.

Wikipedia has another sort of credibility problem, mentioned in passing above, and I fear that time is not a solution to this problem, the way it might be to the foregoing one. Namely, one can make a good case that, when it comes to relatively specialized topics (outside of the interests of most of the contributors), the project's credibility is very uneven. If the project was lucky enough to have a writer or two well-informed about some specialized subject, and if their work was not degraded in quality by the majority of people, whose knowledge of the subject is based on paragraphs in books and mere mentions in college classes, then there might be a good, credible article on that specialized subject. Otherwise, there will be no article at all, a very amateurish-sounding article, or an article that looks like it might once have been pretty good, but which has been hacked to bits by hoi polloi. (Am I sounding elitist enough for you yet? Just wait.) One has only to compare the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy to Wikipedia's Philosophy section. From the point of view of a specialist, let's just say that Wikipedia needs a lot of work.

Second problem: the dominance of difficult people, trolls, and their enablers. I stopped participating in Wikipedia when funding for my position ran out. That does not mean that I am merely mercenary; I might have continued to participate, were it not for a certain poisonous social or political atmosphere in the project.

There are many ways to explain this problem, and I will start with just one. Far too much credence and respect accorded to people who in other Internet contexts would be labelled "trolls." There is a certain mindset associated with unmoderated Usenet groups and mailing lists that infects the collectively-managed Wikipedia project: if you react strongly to trolling, that reflects poorly on you, not (necessarily) on the troll. If you attempt to take trolls to task or demand that something be done about constant disruption by trollish behavior, the other listmembers will cry "censorship," attack you, and even come to the defense of the troll. This drama has played out thousands of times over the years on unmoderated Internet groups, and since about the fall of 2001 on the unmoderated Wikipedia.

Wikipedia has, to its credit, done something about the most serious trolling and other kinds of abuse: there is an Arbitration Committee that provides a process whereby the most disruptive users of Wikipedia can be ejected from the project.

But there are myriad abuses and problems that never make it to mediation, let alone arbitration. A few of the project's participants can be, not to put a nice word on it, pretty nasty. And this is tolerated. So, for any person who can and wants to work politely with well-meaning, rational, reasonably well-informed people--which is to say, to be sure, most people working on Wikipedia--the constant fighting can be so off-putting as to drive them away from the project. This explains why I am gone; it also explains why many others, including some extremely knowledgeable and helpful people, have left the project.

The root problem: anti-elitism, or lack of respect for expertise. There is a deeper problem--or I, at least, regard it as a problem--which explains both of the above-elaborated problems. Namely, as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise is tolerated). This is one of my failures: a policy that I attempted to institute in Wikipedia's first year, but for which I did not muster adequate support, was the policy of respecting and deferring politely to experts. (Those who were there will, I hope, remember that I tried very hard.)

I need not recount the history of how this nascent policy eventually withered and died. Ultimately, it became very clear that the most active and influential members of the project--beginning with Jimmy Wales, who hired me to start a free encyclopedia project and who now manages Wikipedia and Wikimedia--were decidedly anti-elitist in the above-described sense.

Consequently, nearly everyone with much expertise but little patience will avoid editing Wikipedia, because they will--at least if they are editing articles on articles that are subject to any sort of controversy--be forced to defend their edits on article discussion pages against attacks by nonexperts. This is not perhaps so bad in itself. But if the expert should have the gall to complain to the community about the problem, he or she will be shouted down (at worst) or politely asked to "work with" persons who have proven themselves to be unreasonable (at best).

This lack of respect for expertise explains the first problem, because if the project participants had greater respect for expertise, they would have long since invited a board of academics and researchers to manage a culled version of Wikipedia (one that, I think, would not directly affect the way the main project is run). But because project participants have such a horror of the traditional deference to expertise, this sort of proposal has never been taken very seriously by most Wikipedians leading the project now. And so much the worse for Wikipedia and its reputation.

This lack of respect for expertise and authority also explains the second problem, because again if the project participants had greater respect for expertise, there would necessarily be very little patience for those who deliberately disrupt the project. This is perhaps not obvious, so let me explain. To attact and retain the participation of experts, there would have to be little patience for those who do not understand or agree with Wikipedia's mission, or even for those pretentious mediocrities who are not able to work with others constructively and recognize when there are holes in their knowledge (collectively, probably the most disruptive group of all). A less tolerant attitude toward disruption would make the project more polite, welcoming, and indeed open to the vast majority of intelligent, well-meaning people on the Internet. As it is, there are far fewer genuine experts involved in the project (though there are some, of course) than there could and should be.

It will probably be objected by some that, since I am not 100% committed to the most radical sort of openness, I do not understand why the project that I founded works: it works, I will be told, precisely because it is radically open--even anarchical.

I know, of course, that Wikipedia works because it is radically open. I recognized that as soon as anyone; indeed, it was part of the original plan. But I firmly disagree with the notion that that Wikipedia-fertilizing openness requires disrespect toward expertise. The project can both prize and praise its most knowledgeable contributors, and permit contribution by persons with no credentials whatsoever. That, in fact, was my original conception of the project. It is sad that the project did not go in that direction.

One thing that Wikipedia could do now, although I doubt that it is possible in the current atmosphere and with the current management, is to adopt an official policy of respect of and deference to expertise. Wikipedia's "key policies" have not changed since I was associated with the project; but if a policy of respect of and deference to expertise were adopted at that level, and if it were enforced somehow, perhaps the project would solve the problems described above.

But don't hold your breath. Unless there is the equivalent of a revolution in the ranks of Wikipedia, the project will not adopt this sort of policy and make it a "key policy"; or if it does, the policy will probably be not be enforced. I certainly do not expect Jimmy Wales to change his mind. I have known him since 1994 and he is a smart and thoughtful guy; I am sure he has thought through his support of radical openness and his (what I call) anti-elitism. I doubt he will change his mind about these things. And unless he does change his mind, the project itself will probably not change.

Nevertheless, everyone familiar with Wikipedia can now see the power of the basic Wikipedia idea and the crying need to get more experts on board and a publicly credible review process in place (so that there is a subset of "approved" articles--not a heavy-handed, complicated process, of course). The only way Wikipedia can achieve these things is to jettison its anti-elitism and to moderate its openness to trolls and fools; but it will almost certainly not do these things. Consequently, as Wikipedia increases in popularity and strength, I do not see how there can not be a more academic fork of the project in the future.

I hope that a university, academic consortium, or thinktank can be found to pursue a project to release vetted versions of Wikipedia articles, and I hope that the new project's managers will understand very well what has made Wikipedia work as well as it has, before they adopt any policies.