Does reading count as direct instruction?

I have a provocative question for the teachers and educational theorists out there: does reading count as direct instruction?  I ask because, if it does, then there is surely nothing wrong with direct instruction, per se.

I think it is plausible to call it instruction, anyway.  The basic difference between reading a book, for example, and listening to a lecture is that the book is written and the lecture is spoken.  Why should we deny the word "instruction" to reading when a person reads in order to learn, or be instructed, about a subject?

And when a book instructs you that X, you are, surely, being directly instructed that X.

Therefore, reading is direct instruction, and since copious reading of increasingly difficult, important books is the very backbone of liberal arts education, direct instruction (in the form of reading) is not just a good idea, it's an absolutely necessary part of getting a complete liberal arts education.

What's wrong with that argument?


Review: "Your Baby Can Read"

Here is my review of the Your Baby Can Read videos, as posted on Amazon.com.

Many people have found that Your Baby Can Read works, especially if it is used as part of a larger literacy program that includes plenty of reading to the child.  I found that it helped quite a bit with my first child.  Now, at age 4.5, he is able to decode my college philosophy books, and we regularly read and appreciate books like Charlotte's Web and, recently, Old Yeller.

I have found over and over again that the critics of YBCR are people who think they know about how babies learn to read, but really do not.  By contrast, I, and the many parents I talk to who have used YBCR and other programs designed to teach babies to read, live every day with the results.  For us, it is not speculation.  We (many of us) see daily evidence that our kids are learning more than we knew they could learn.  You can read more about my story, including how we used YBCR, at larrysanger (dot) org (slash) reading (dot) html.

Since there are many reviews about this already, in the rest, I will mainly answer a few charges made about this program.  But first let me say that I'm giving this five stars because it actually works--or it can work, especially with other literacy support.

"It's boring": well, it's not as fancy as your standard Disney Channel or PBS Kids fare.  If your family is used to looking at that stuff, it's likely that you'll find YBCR boring, and your kids might too.  But if you're like our family and you basically don't watch TV except for some DVDs, chances are your kid will find that this is great.  For what it's worth, our little boy started watching this at 22 months and absolutely adored it, and demanded to see it daily (often more often, but we didn't let him) for a few months.  He thought it was great fun.

"I don't like the advertising": you're being asked to review the product, not the advertising.  I happen to agree that some of the advertising is obnoxious and over-the-top.  But the product is not.  In fact, the product itself is quite modest and unassuming.

"This is just a whole word program": sadly, you're right, for the most part.  There is some phonics material at the end of each disk, but not much.  And as much as I agree that this is a count against it, you can't ignore the fact that the program works, as far as it goes.  In my opinion, it's just important to supplement the program with phonics later on, that's all.  YBCR can serve as a nice leg up.  Moreover, I should point out that there are plenty of parents who report that their children have learned to read phonetically using just YBCR and without phonics "intervention."  That's not what I personally recommend, but I don't doubt that what they say can be done.

"My kid just learned the words in the video, and that's not many": well, yeah.  Did you really think that a program that is marketed to babies, toddlers, and preschoolers would, all by itself, cause such small tykes to read more than that?  On the other hand, isn't it amazing that they are able to read that much?  And, more to the point, if this is absolutely all that you do to support your child's literacy, then I would agree that your child will probably not learn to read.  You need to go farther.  It helps a lot to read boatloads to your child, holding your fingers under the words as you read them.  Doing phonics flashcards or some other little kid-accessible phonics program is also a good follow-up.  Playing with refrigerator magnets is a good idea.  But anyway, the point is that if you believe that simply plopping your child in front of a DVD, and doing little else to develop his literacy, will somehow cause him to read, then your problem is not really so much that you believe false advertising, your problem is that you misunderstood the advertising, the lengthy instructions to parents, and so forth.

YBCR was a great introduction to reading for our boy.  This product is getting a lot of attention for very good reason--not just because of the advertising.  Go to YouTube and search for videos of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers reading.  If you find out what those people did, you'll get a better, more realistic idea of what a tool like YBCR can do for you.


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.


Update about the boys

Here is a "brain dump" about what I've been doing with my little boys, ages 4.5 and 2 months.  I will refer to them as H. (the older) and E. (the younger).H's letter to Santa

H's biggest accomplishment, recently, has been finally to learn to write not only all of his numbers, but all of his capital letters as well.  Learning the numbers has made it a lot easier to go through a math workbook (Singapore Kindergarten Math B).  But he still isn't that excited about math, so we don't make quick progress with it -- I'm not forcing him to do it, I'm just asking if he wants to. If there was any doubt that he has learned to write, well, a letter to Santa proved it.  I had to sit with him, and give him some hints (mostly, asking leading questions) about spelling, but it was 90% H sounding things out.  He made a list and didn't spend too much time on the polite pleasantries, but hopefully Santa won't mind too much.

The next day he got a "Thank You" note card out of my desk and was busy scribbling away on it.  Without my help, it wasn't exactly perfect, but I was impressed anyway.

For bedtime reading, we have been reading Old Yeller lately, and have only 40-50 pages to go there.  We also started Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which reminds me once again about just what a difference a year, or even six months, can make.  We tried out Charlie about six months ago, and even though it definitely seemed within his abilities, he wasn't interested in it.  Then a few days ago, we started watching the movie (still haven't finished doing that -- the superior Gene Wilder version), and then suddenly the book seemed really cool.

We got Lollipop Logic today in the mail, and H did six pages in a row, he was so excited about it.  (He has seen my logic books all collected up on the bottom shelf of a bookcase in my office, and asked me for a logic presentation, which I made, so he has decided he is interested in logic.)

Also, we're doing Rosetta Stone Latin, we're probably an hour into it or so, but split over a half-dozen sessions.  I had the old Rosetta Stone program (Russian), and the new version absolutely kicks the old one's butt.  It's a very kid-friendly program.  I don't know if H. is going to have the motivation to stick with it -- I hope so.

Of course we're continuing to do various other stuff, reading a whole variety of books.  Recently finished several books about Greek mythology and ancient history.  (Usborne, the book publisher, is absolutely wonderful, they make loads of different topics, and classics, accessible to kids.)  I know this all must sound very hard-core, but if he isn't saying "yes" to a book, I'm not reading it to him.  So even if he occasionally takes long math breaks, that's OK, he's still learning huge amounts.  But if we had not done various presentations and read various simpler treatments of topics in advance, he wouldn't be able to handle this now.

I'm sure I could go on, but that's enough for H for now.  OK, one other thing -- we got him a cheap digital camera.  He's been learning about that, and he can even upload the pix.

As to baby E., well, I was surprised that even shortly after birth, I was able to lie down next to him and hold the iPad a foot away from his eyes or so, and show him various flashcard-style presentations, and he ate it up.  He pays close attention for five or ten minutes...after that, I stop whether he's flagging or not.  I'm not going in any sort of systematic order through the various card sets we've bought, though I wonder if we should be.  Then starting about two weeks ago he started cooing, especially at this set about cats.  E. is quite a bit more interactive than H. was as a baby.

I also did this: I took my digital camera around the house and took pictures of all objects that I thought were familiar to E.  Even pictures of Desitin, the changing table, the trash can, etc.  Then I simply group the pix together into logical groupings, put then in a folder, and import them into a PowerPoint slideshow.  Putting names on the pix is easy.  (To make it fast enough to work with, I have to reduce the file size, which ppt does automatically if you know how to ask it.)  So I've sat E. in front of the computer, 2-3 feet away from the screen, and shown him these presentations.  He likes them, too.  H. likes them even more.  I made a presentation of H. illustrating various emotions, too.  This was lots of fun.

I can't wait until we have written the software that will make it possible to highlight the parts of words as they are being read -- we'll make it possible for you to match up parts of a word to different points in a waveform.  The goal is to do this matching automatically, thus allowing people to match digital books with audio books, so the currently-being-read syllable is always highlighted.  Anyway, more on that later.

Of course, I'm reading E. some actual books, but frankly, the content of the books we read isn't that different from iPad apps.  But we'll be doing more of that as he gets better at sitting upright in my lap and staring in the direction of a book.

Haven't started Your Baby Can Read yet.  I don't think he'd be able to see our small TV screen.  When are babies able to focus 15 feet away?


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!


Are child development experts getting it wrong?

I just came across this Psychology Today blog by Richard Gentry, author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write -- from Baby to Age 7.  He poses the question, "Are Commercial-Product Claims that Babies Can Read Overblown?"  He goes on:

Or are too many child development experts from prestigious universities getting it wrong?

There is a controversy brewing over the definition of reading and whether babies and toddlers can learn to read. Driven by negative reaction to some of the commercial products that claim to teach babies and toddlers to read, print media and major news reports on television have recently quoted child development experts who state emphatically that "the baby's brain is not developed enough to read." WAIT A MINUTE! Sit back and take a deep breath. It may be a very good thing for a pre-school age child to learn to read words and phrases before age three and it may be a bad thing to equate this remarkable accomplishment with "the brain of a parrot." Show me a parrot that reads scores of flash cards with words and phrases through paired associate learning or operant conditioning! Reading word cards is not something trivial. When child development experts were asked if babies who pronounced the words or demonstrated actions to word cards such as "clap" or "arms up" were reading, many were emphatic: "No! The babies memorize cue cards. That's not reading." But automatic recognition of words, repetition, and memory are all aspects of proficient reading at any level. Joyful parent-child interaction helping the baby learn to read word cards is a good thing!

Read the whole thing, including the "What Does the Research Say?" section.  It's nice to know that there are some experts who are willing to buck the establishment on this.


Could you teach your baby to read?

Is your reaction, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is"?  I claim that you can teach your baby, toddler, or preschooler to read--probably.  What do you say to that?

I was thinking about how my essay on baby reading hardly made a ripple on its first day out in the world, despite being announced pretty far and wide.  There was no negative reaction; but there was hardly any positive reaction.  There was essentially no reaction.  I'm not sure why that might be, but my best guess is that people don't believe that there's anything to it, not enough to investigate it much.  To be sure, a 140-page essay is a bit much to expect an instant reaction to, but what about the video, the flash cards, and the presentations?  Nothing!  My explanation is that people simply don't believe that there's enough "to" claims like "your baby can read" to warrant much caring, much less investigation.

Let me make several claims, each of which I can back up with a lot of argumentation:

1. It's not just me.  Lots of people have done this.  You didn't know that?  Read my essay, especially Part 2, and you'll see.

2. It's really reading.  By age 2 or 3, lots and lots of kids who start out with Your Baby Can Read (YBCR) and the Glenn Doman method and similar methods are able to sound out new words, and understand age-appropriate books.  By the time they enter first grade, those kids read well above grade level.

3. And no, it's not because they're geniuses.  I'm not a genius, and I'm sure my little boy isn't either.  Lots of more or less average people have taught their little kids to read, and long before I found out about it.

4. I didn't pressure my little boy into reading.  If you think that's the only way to teach a tiny tot how to read, you're just mistaken!

5. It's not impossibly difficult or expensive.  Yes, I work from home and have some free time to help teach my little boy, but with the free materials out there now, and as the price of YBCR has come down, basically, you just have to spend some time doing this.  With the videos, or with looking at some powerpoint presentations or my flash cards...well, sure, it takes some time, and probably some money...but it's not a full-time job or anything.  Think of it as a side-hobby.  You could get deeply into it, the way I have, but you could have a nicely positive effect without doing so, I'm very sure.

OK, folks, what else can I say that will make you take this whole opportunity seriously?


Essay on Baby Reading

I started teaching my little boy to read beginning at 22 months, and by age four, he was decoding text (reading, in that sense) quite fluently at the sixth grade level, or above.

I've discovered that there isn't a lot written about the subject of baby reading.  So I have written a 45,000-word essay on the subject:

How and Why I Taught My Toddler to Read
PDFDOCHTML
(the PDF is best)

I've worked on this for two years, off and on.  It is formatted as a 140-page book, which I'm presenting to the public free, under a Creative Commons (CC-by-nc-nd) license.  Here is a video of my boy reading to me when he was two, then three, then four.  At age 3 years, 10 months, he read the First Amendment of the Constitution (in the video at 2:47):

How'd we do it? We used a variety of methods: I read many books to him while pointing to the words, I showed him over 1,000 home-made flashcards (careful: 122 MB zip file) arranged in phonetic groupings, we watched the Your Baby Can Read videos, we used these (150+) PowerPoint presentations I made for him (here's an enormous 862MB zip file), and we did many other literacy-building activities.  All of this was done in a completely pressure-free way; I taught him to say “that’s enough” and immediately stopped when, if not before, he got tired of any activity. (UPDATE: these flashcards are in the process of being converted into a high-quality digital version at ReadingBear.org.)

I hope that by publicizing our case, we will raise awareness of the methods available that can, in fact, teach very small children to read with about as much ease as they can learn spoken language or sign language.

Working on early childhood educational content and issues is now my full-time job; among other things, I'm planning a new tool that will emulate the best aspects of Your Baby Can Read, but it will be free.  I've passed off leadership of WatchKnow.org to a new CEO, the very capable Dr. Joe Thomas.  Expect to see regular updates on this blog about my work, and I'll be asking for your feedback about my various plans and ideas.

Please use this page to comment on both the essay and the video.

UPDATE: if you want a copy of the essay on your handheld device (and can't figure out how to put the PDF on your device), you can buy it for $2.99 from the Amazon Store.  Someone asked for this, and I obliged!

UPDATE 2 (Oct. 3, 2011): my son is now five years old. He is now reading daily on his own, and has read himself a couple dozen chapter books, including The Story of the World, Vol. 1: The Ancient World (314 pgs.).

UPDATE 3 (Dec. 16, 2012): at six, my son switches between "serious" literature which he reads with a dictionary app, including Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and The Secret Garden, and easier literature including Beverly Cleary books, the Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown. If his answers to regular comprehension questions are any indication, he's understanding what he reads pretty well.

UPDATE 4 (Mar. 26, 2013): I'm delighted to report that my second son, following methods similar to those I used with my first, is now 2.5 years old and reading at a first grade level.

UPDATE 5 (Aug. 25, 2014): my second is following in his brother's footsteps, reading a version of the Odyssey (he's crazy about Greek mythology—go figure) at age 3.5:


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" Tweets (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.

Discussion of this comment


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.