My new book is launched in paperback: Here are some quotes

I am announcing that my book is now available on Amazon in paperback. Please show your appreciation for this blog (and my other attempts to enlighten the world) by buying it!

Here: Essays on Free Knowledge: The Origins of Wikipedia and the New Politics of Knowledge, Sanger Press (my own imprint), ISBN 978-1-7357954-1-6. 12 essays. 270 pages. $18.75 for the paperback. The ebook version is best purchased on Gumroad ($9.95), but it is now available on Amazon as well (same price). I will make an audiobook version if there is much demand. So far about four people have requested an audiobook version. If the number of requests goes over ten, I guess I will make an audiobook.

Wikipedia celebrates its 20th anniversary in January, but as I explain in this collection of essays, it began by organizing a decentralized, global community to catalog their knowledge neutrally, with minimal rules. The results were amazing, sparking debates about whether amateurs really could declare "what we all know" and whether all this free knowledge could replace memorization. A decade later, as control of knowledge has become more centralized and closed, I ask: should we decentralize knowledge once again, and if so, how?

What do you get? In addition to front and end matter (including a full index), these twelve essays, which I include with some perhaps representative quotes:

The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir

The focus on the encyclopedia provided the task and the open content license provided a natural motivation: people work hard if they believe they are teaching the world stuff. Openness and ease of editing made it easy for new people to join in and get to work. Collaboration helped move work forward quickly and efficiently, and posting unedited drafts made collaboration possible. The fact that we started with a core of good people from Nupedia meant that the project could develop a functional, cooperative community. Neutrality made it easy for people to work together with relatively little conflict. Finally, the Google effect provided a steady supply of “fresh blood”—who in turn supplied increasing amounts of content.

Two Early Articles about Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s content is useful, and so people are starting to link to it. Google and other search engines have already discovered Wikipedia and the daily traffic they send to the project produces a steady stream of new readers and participants. The greater the number of Wikipedia articles, the greater the number of links to them, and therefore the higher the rankings and numbers of listings on Google. As they say, “the rich get richer.” So it is far from inconceivable that the rate of article-production will actually increase over the coming years—in fact, this seems rather likely.

But why all this activity and interest? Surely that is puzzling. Wiki software must be the most promiscuous form of publishing there is—Wikipedia will take anything from anybody. So how is it possible that so many otherwise upstanding intellectuals love Wikipedia (some, secretly) and spend so much time on it? Why are we not writing for academic journals, or something?

Wikipedia's Original Neutrality Policy

Wikipedia has an important policy: roughly stated, you should write articles without bias, representing all views fairly. This is easily misunderstood. The policy does not assume that it is possible to write an article from just one point of view, which would be the one neutral (unbiased, “objective”) point of view. The Wikipedia policy is that we should fairly represent all sides of a dispute, and not make an article state, imply, or insinuate that any one side is correct.

Why Neutrality?

To ... put it metaphorically, neutrality does not give us a free ride. It throws us into the issues and requires us to swim through them under our own power. This can be difficult and frightening (thus Kant’s injunction, sapere aude) but it also makes us feel empowered to decide for ourselves. Neutrality supports us both intellectually and emotionally in the act of exercising autonomous judgment by presenting us with all the options and providing us the tools to judge among them for ourselves. ...

When you write with bias, you are treating your readers as your pawns, as mere means to your ends. You are not treating them as autonomous agents, capable of making up their own minds rationally. You are not respecting their dignity.

Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism

There is a deeper problem—I, at least, think so—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 are tolerated).

How the Internet Is Changing What (We Think) We Know

[T]he superabundance of information makes knowledge more difficult. ... [F]or all the terabytes upon terabytes of information on the Internet, society does not employ many more (and possibly fewer) editors than it had before the advent of the Internet. When you go to post something on a blog or a web forum, there is no one called an editor who decides to “publish” your comment. The Internet is less a publishing operation than a giant conversation. But most of us still take in most of what we read fairly passively. Now, there is no doubt that what has been called the “read-write web” encourages active engagement with others online, and helps us overcome our passivity. This is one of the decidedly positive things about the Internet, I think: it gets people to understand that they can actively engage with what they read. We understand now more than ever that we can and should read critically. The problem, however, is that, without the services of editors, we need our critical faculties to be engaged and very fine-tuned. While the Internet conversation has made it necessary for us to read critically, still, without the services of editors, there is far more garbage out there than our critical faculties can handle. We end up absorbing a lot of nonsense passively: we cannot help it.

Who Says We Know: On the New Politics of Knowledge

[T]he public deserves a seat at the table it did not have throughout most of history. Wikipedia’s tremendous usefulness shows the wisdom of that policy. Still, it is no exaggeration to say that epistemic egalitarianism, as illustrated especially by Wikipedia, places Truth in the service of Equality. Ultimately, at the bottom of the debate, the deep modern commitment to specialization is in an epic struggle with an equally deep modern commitment to egalitarianism. It is Truth versus Equality, and as much as I love Equality, if it comes down to choosing, I am on the side of Truth.

Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age

The educational proposals and predictions of the Internet boosters described above point to a profoundly illiberal future. I fear that if we take their advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, enculturated by hive minds, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our “digital tribe,” ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue. I see all too much evidence that we are moving headlong in that direction. Indeed, I fear this is already happening. I honestly hope that I prove to be an alarmist, but I am a realist reporting on my observations. I wish the news were better.

Is There a New Geek Anti-Intellectualism?

The more that people have these various [anti-intellectual] attitudes, the more bad stuff is going to result, I think. The more that a person really takes seriously that there is no point in reading the classics, the less likely he will actually take a class in Greek history or early modern philosophy. Repeat that on a mass scale, and the world becomes—no doubt already has become—a significantly poorer place, as a result of the widespread lack of analytical tools and conceptual understanding. We can imagine a world in which the humanities are studied by only a small handful of people, because we already live in that world; just imagine the number of people all but vanishing.

But is this not just a problem for geekdom? Does it really matter that much if geeks are anti-intellectuals? The question is whether the trend will move on to the population at large. One does not speak of “geek chic” these days for nothing. The digital world is the vanguard, and attitudes and behaviors that were once found mostly among the geeks of yesteryear are now mainstream. Geek anti-intellectualism is another example.

Introducing the Encyclosphere

A few thousand people work regularly on Wikipedia. But what if millions more—orders of magnitude more—wrote encyclopedia articles and rated them, as part of a completely decentralized knowledge network, with no individual, group, corporation, or government in charge of the whole? That is surely possible. There are surely that many people who, if given the freedom to do so, would be highly motivated to volunteer their time to add to the world’s largest collection of knowledge.

We could create a knowledge commons, defined by neutral, open, technical standards and protocols: a network that decentralizes encyclopedias, exactly as the Blogosphere has done for blogs.

Declaration of Digital Independence

We declare that we have unalienable digital rights, rights that define how information that we individually own may or may not be treated by others, and that among these rights are free speech, privacy, and security. Since the proprietary, centralized architecture of the Internet at present has induced most of us to abandon these rights, however reluctantly or cynically, we ought to demand a new system that respects them properly.

The Future of the Free Internet

Even more fundamentally, what the decline of Wikipedia and social media have in common is the concentration—the centralization—of authority on the Internet. This centralization of Internet authority has many and terrible consequences. It turns out that placing so much power in the hands of Internet executives undermines us, our relationships, our minds, even our sanity, and ultimately our politics. Who knew this would happen, even ten years ago? Some open source software stalwarts foresaw some of it. But as to the general public, they had little notion, perhaps beyond a vague inkling. It is all too plain now.

Buy it!


Essays on Free Knowledge (book)

New book: Essays on Free Knowledge

I published my first book this morning. The current cost is $9.95. It is a 270-page ebook, first published on Gumroad, where I'll get a higher percentage. A paperback should arrive in about a month on Amazon if I don't get distracted by other things.

Buy via the embedded ad below, and after that, I'll have a few notes for my regular blog readers.




I first had the idea of making a collection like this over ten years ago. I decided to do it now because I was thinking of combining fundraising for the Encyclosphere with a course. But to get publicity for a course, I thought it would be good first to remind folks of my writings (and qualifications) to teach something like this. A book would help publicize both the Encyclosphere and the course. I also thought if I were going to keep plugging away at my (time-consuming) consulting business, a book would help spread the word for that as well (although I have had more business than I have had time for). Finally, the fact that Wikipedia is going to have its 20th anniversary this coming January means the book should have a better audience than it would otherwise.

I hope you will get your hands on it (or rather, get it on your handheld) soon, but I will have a paperback available hopefully in about a month, if that is more your style.


Wikipedia Is Badly Biased

The Uncyclopedia logo. Maybe more appropriate for Wikipedia itself now.

Wikipedia's "NPOV" is dead.((The misbegotten phrase "neutral point of view" is a Jimmy Wales coinage I never supported. If a text is neutral with regard to an issue, it lacks any "point of view" with regard to the issue; it does not take a "neutral point of view." My preferred phrase was always "the neutrality policy" or "the nonbias policy.")) The original policy long since forgotten, Wikipedia no longer has an effective neutrality policy. There is a rewritten policy, but it endorses the utterly bankrupt canard that journalists should avoid what they call "false balance."((On this, see my "Why Neutrality?", published 2015 by Ballotpedia.)) The notion that we should avoid "false balance" is directly contradictory to the original neutrality policy. As a result, even as journalists turn to opinion and activism, Wikipedia now touts controversial points of view on politics, religion, and science. Here are some examples from each of these subjects, which were easy to find, no hunting around. Many, many more could be given.

Wikipedia's favorite president?

Examples have become embarrassingly easy to find. The Barack Obama article completely fails to mention many well-known scandals: Benghazi, the IRS scandal, the AP phone records scandal, and Fast and Furious, to say nothing of Solyndra or the Hillary Clinton email server scandal—or, of course, the developing "Obamagate" story in which Obama was personally involved in surveilling Donald Trump. A fair article about a major political figure certainly must include the bad with the good. The only scandals that I could find that were mentioned were a few that the left finds at least a little scandalous, such as Snowden's revelations about NSA activities under Obama. In short, the article is almost a total whitewash. You might find this to be objectively correct; but you cannot claim that this is a neutral treatment, considering that the other major U.S. party would treat the subject very differently. On such a topic, neutrality in any sense worth the name essentially requires that readers not be able to detect the editors' political alignment.

Not Wikipedia's favorite president

Meanwhile, as you can imagine, the idea that the Donald Trump article is neutral is a joke. Just for example, there are 5,224 none-too-flattering words in the "Presidency" section. By contrast, the following "Public Profile" (which the Obama article entirely lacks), "Investigations," and "Impeachment" sections are unrelentingly negative, and together add up to some 4,545 words—in other words, the controversy sections are almost as long as the sections about his presidency. Common words in the article are "false" and "falsely" (46 instances): Wikipedia frequently asserts, in its own voice, that many of Trump's statements are "false." Well, perhaps they are. But even if they are, it is not exactly neutral for an encyclopedia article to say so, especially without attribution. You might approve of Wikipedia describing Trump's incorrect statements as "false," very well; but then you must admit that you no longer support a policy of neutrality on Wikipedia.

I leave the glowing Hillary Clinton article as an exercise for the reader.

On political topics it is easiest to argue for the profound benefits—even the moral necessity—of eliminating bias in reference works. As I argue in my 2015 essay, "Why Neutrality," we naturally desire neutrality on political and many other topics because we want to be left free to make up our own minds. Reference, news, and educational resources aimed at laying out a subject in general should give us the tools we need to rationally decide what we want to think. Only those who want to force the minds of others can be opposed to neutrality.

"Prior to prohibition, cannabis was available freely in a variety of forms," says Wikipedia, helpfully.

Wikipedia can be counted on to cover not just political figures, but political issues as well from a liberal-left point of view. No conservative would write, in an abortion article, "When properly done, abortion is one of the safest procedures in medicine," a claim that is questionable on its face, considering what an invasive, psychologically distressing, and sometimes lengthy procedure it can be even when done according to modern medical practices. More to the point, abortion opponents consider the fetus to be a human being with rights; their view, that it is not safe for the baby, is utterly ignored. To pick another, random issue, drug legalization, dubbed drug liberalization by Wikipedia, has only a little information about any potential hazards of drug legalization policies; it mostly serves as a brief for legalization, followed by a catalog of drug policies worldwide. Or to take an up-to-the-minute issue, the LGBT adoption article includes several talking points in favor of LGBT adoption rights, but omits any arguments against. On all such issues, the point is that true neutrality, to be carefully distinguished from objectivity, requires that the article be written in a way that makes it impossible to determine the editors' position on the important controversies the article touches on.

Gospel reliability is "uncertain," Wikipedia says, neutrally.

What about articles on religious topics? The first article I thought to look at had some pretty egregious instances of bias: the Jesus article. It simply asserts, again in its own voice, that "the quest for the historical Jesus has yielded major uncertainty on the historical reliability of the Gospels and on how closely the Jesus portrayed in the Bible reflects the historical Jesus." In another place, the article simply asserts, "the gospels are not independent nor consistent records of Jesus' life." A great many Christians would take issue with such statements, which means it is not neutral for that reason—in other words, the very fact that most Christians believe in the historical reliability of the Gospels, and that they are wholly consistent, means that the article is biased if it simply asserts, without attribution or qualification, that this is a matter of "major uncertainty." In other respects, the article can be fairly described as a "liberal" academic discussion of Jesus, focusing especially on assorted difficulties and controversies, while failing to explain traditional or orthodox views of those issues. So it might be "academic," but what it is not is neutral, not in the original sense we defined for Wikipedia.

Of course, similarly tendentious claims can be found in other articles on religious topics, as when the Christ (title) article claims,

Although the original followers of Jesus believed Jesus to be the Jewish messiah, e.g. in the Confession of Peter, Jesus was usually referred to as "Jesus of Nazareth" or "Jesus, son of Joseph".[11] Jesus came to be called "Jesus Christ" (meaning "Jesus the Khristós", i.e. "Jesus the Messiah" or "Jesus the Anointed") by later Christians, who believe that his crucifixion and resurrection fulfill the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.

This article weirdly claims, or implies, a thing that no serious Biblical scholar of any sort would claim, viz., that Jesus was not given the title "Christ" by the original apostles in the New Testament. The Wikipedia article itself later contradicts that claim, so perhaps the editors of the above paragraph simply meant the two conjoined words "Jesus Christ," and that Jesus was rarely referred two with those two conjoined words in the New Testament. But this is false, too: the two words are found together in that form throughout the New Testament.

But the effect of the above-quoted paragraph is to cast doubt that the title "Christ" was used much at all by the original apostles and disciples. That would be silly if so. These supposed "later Christians" who used "Christ" would have to include the apostles Peter (Jesus' first apostle), Paul (converted a few years after Jesus' crucifixion), and Jude (Jesus' brother), who were the authors of the bulk of the epistles of the New Testament. The word "Christ" can, of course, be found frequently in the epistles, including very early epistles, thought to be the first texts written about Jesus.((Both in the form "Jesus Christ" (e.g., 1 Peter 1:1, Jude 1:1) and in the form "Christ Jesus" (1 Corinthians 1:2). "Christ" is found throughout three epistles widely held to be among the first written, including Galatian and 1 Thessalonians, and twice in James.)) Of course, those are not exactly "later Christians." If the claim is simply that the word "Christ" does not appear at all or much in the Gospels, that is false, as a simple text search uncovers dozens of instances in all four Gospels,((I mistakenly conceded this false point in an earlier draft of this article, after not searching enough. Nominative Χριστόν, accusative Χριστόν, and genitive Χριστοῦ can be found throughout.)) and about 550 instances in the entire New Testament. If it is used somewhat less in the Gospels, that would be a reflection of the fact that the authors of the Gospels were, argumentatively, using "Messiah" to persuade that Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish messiah. But the word means much the same as "Christ": the anointed one, God's chosen. So, in any event, the basic claim here is simply false. He is called "Jesus Christ" (Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) in the very first verse of the New Testament (Matthew 1:1) and in the first verse of the gospel sometimes thought to be the first-written, Mark (1:1), as well.((If you look at the footnote Wikipedia cites in support of its weird claim, you will find a sensible and not-misleading article by Britannica, the context of which makes it perfectly clear that the authors were not making any claim about the use of the title "Christ" but instead the two-word combination "Jesus Christ," as applied directly to Jesus in his own lifetime. It seems likely that that two-word name was used rarely, but this has nothing whatsoever to do with his having the title "Christ," but a reflection of the fact that "Ancient Jews usually had only one name, and, when greater specificity was needed, it was customary to add the father’s name or the place of origin." Wikipedians may have missed that bit.))

Clearly, Wikipedia's claims are tendentious if not false, and represent a point of view that many if not most Christians would rightly dispute.

It may seem more problematic to speak of the bias of scientific articles, because many people do not want to see "unscientific" views covered in encyclopedia articles. If such articles are "biased in favor of science," some people naturally find that to be a feature, not a bug. The problem, though, is that scientists sometimes do not agree on which theories are and are not scientific. On such issues, the "scientific point of view" and the "objective point of view" according to the Establishment might be very much opposed to neutrality. So when the Establishment seems unified on a certain view of a scientific controversy, then that is the view that is taken for granted, and often aggressively asserted, by Wikipedia.

Neutral information, representing a scientific consensus with no dissent, I'm sure.

The global warming and MMR vaccine articles are examples; I hardly need to dive into these pages, since it is quite enough to say that they endorse definite positions that scientific minorities reject. Another example is how Wikipedia treats various topics in alternative medicine—often dismissively, and frequently labeled as "pseudoscience" in Wikipedia's own voice. Indeed, Wikipedia defines the very term as follows: "Alternative medicine describes any practice that aims to achieve the healing effects of medicine, but which lacks biological plausibility and is untested, untestable or proven ineffective." In all these cases, genuine neutrality requires a different sort of treatment.

Again, other examples could be found, in no doubt thousands of other, perfectly unexciting topics. These are just the first topics that came to mind, associated as they are with the culture wars, and their articles on those topics put Wikipedia very decidedly on one side of that war. You should not be able to say that about an encyclopedia that claims to be neutral.

It is time for Wikipedia to come clean and admit that it has abandoned NPOV (i.e., neutrality as a policy). At the very least they should admit that that they have redefined the term in a way that makes it utterly incompatible with its original notion of neutrality, which is the ordinary and common one.((That it was Wikipedia's original notion, see the Nupedia "Lack of Bias" policy, which was the source of Wikipedia's policy, and see also my final (2001) version of the Wikipedia neutrality policy. Read my "Why Neutrality?" for a lengthy discussion of this notion.)) It might be better to embrace a "credibility" policy and admit that their notion of what is credible does, in fact, bias them against conservatism, traditional religiosity, and minority perspectives on science and medicine—to say nothing of many other topics on which Wikipedia has biases.

Of course, Wikipedians are unlikely to make any such change; they live in a fantasy world of their own making.((UPDATE: In an earlier version of this blog post, I included some screenshots of Wikipedia Alexa rankings, showing a drop from 5 to 12 or 13. While this is perfectly accurate, the traffic to the site has been more or less flat for years, until the last few months, in which traffic spiked probably because of the Covid-19 virus. But since the drop in Alexa rankings do not seem to reflect a drop in traffic, I decided to remove the screenshots and a couple accompanying sentences.))

The world would be better served by an independent and decentralized encyclopedia network, such as I proposed with the Encyclosphere. We will certainly develop such a network, but if it is to remain fully independent of all governmental and big corporate interests, funds are naturally scarce and it will take time.



EU copyright reform could threaten wiki encyclopedias

If we are to believe its critics, under the pending EU copyright reform legislation, the EU would implement a "link tax" across all of Europe. So if you link to a news article, for example, including a text snippet, then you'd have to pay a fee. When Spain tried this, Google News simply discontinued service in the country—that didn't go over too well.

Maybe worse, the new law would require websites that engage the public to set up review processes to proactively remove violations of copyright rules. Those of us who have designed and used collaborative and participatory websites (that'd be most of you reading this) can well understand the difficulty here: it mandates a review process. It would be against the law to follow the publish-then-filter principle that is at the core of open source and open content projects. This could be disastrous for those projects—including, of course, Everipedia and Wikipedia. Let me explain.

The current regulatory regime in the U.S. is defined to a great extent by the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act), which enables websites to declare themselves to be Internet service providers who are not directly responsible for what their users post. If they receive a "takedown request" from someone whose rights are violated—for example, someone whose copyrighted work is reproduced without permission—they must simply take the work down promptly, and the problem goes away. And of course, the DMCA has no requirements whatsoever regarding hyperlinks. (Why on earth would it?)

But under the new EU regime, the Internet wouldn't work that way. You'd have to pay to link to news articles—that would have made Infobitt impossible (among many more). And whenever you designed a form allowing a user to upload information for public consumption, you'd also have to design a whole system enabling the information to be checked for copyright infringement before being posted. Web developers naturally find both ideas absolutely ridiculous, not only because of the expense and technical difficulty, but also because it would interfere with and potentially ruin the social dynamics that make the sites work properly.

Of course, Internet giants like Facebook and Twitter might be able to satisfy the requirements of the law, but so many smaller projects would not. And while Everipedia's new blockchain review process might satisfy the review mechanism requirement (see our white paper), it seems impossible that the literally millions of links from our articles could be paid for—if, as seems likely, they would have to be under the new regime. (Any link to content that is under 20 years old would have to be paid for.)

Wikipedia never would have been able to get a start under this regime. Nor would any small, independent startup. Only giant corporations would be able to satisfy the law's requirements.

But then, maybe that's the point.


Some thoughts, 15 years after Wikipedia's launch

It's been 15 years since I announced the opening of the new Wikipedia.com site, with a little message that said:

http://www.wikipedia.com/
Humor me.  
Go there and add a little article.  
It will take all of five or ten 
minutes.
--Larry

I am still sometimes called "Wikipedia's sharpest critic," but if you actually look at the panoply of Wikipedia criticism, you'll quickly see that that's not actually true. I happen to know some critics of Wikipedia, people like Gregory Kohs and Edward Buckner. They know a lot more (and care and are more "outspoken") about Wikipedia's assorted flaws than I do. Saying Wikipedia's co-founder is a critic does make a nice headline, though, which is why, when I did a long, nuanced interview with VICE recently, the headline writer (not the interviewer) called me "Wikipedia's most outspoken critic."

Some people might come to this page to see what have I been up since leaving Wikipedia 14 years ago, so let me fill you in. I taught philosophy for a while, I worked on somebody else's failed startup for a year, then transitioned to start Citizendium, which is still kicking six years after I left. I allowed myself to be poached from my own project by a Memphis-area philanthropist who wanted me to work on what became WatchKnowLearn. While developing that I was teaching my toddler son to read, and the video of his precocious reading inspired the same philanthropist to fund ReadingBear, which digitizes the method I've used with both my sons. Reading Bear was very difficult to develop, but I'm proud of it. You'll probably see some new features on the site soon—mobile compatibility, probably.

After that I decided to try my first for-profit funded startup, Infobitt; we ran out of runway, as most startups do, but we also learned a lot about how a volunteer, collaborative news summary site might work. Since last July I've been working part-time doing various fun projects for Ballotpedia as well as ReadingBear, and I've been wooed by a few different startups. I've been developing a few different exciting ideas, just to test them and make proposals to different organizations. Whatever I do, I want my next move to be into something that has a good chance of being long-term.

One idea I'm toying with a lot lately is educational videos like these, which my boys liked quite a bit and which surprisingly get a good bit of traffic. The best part is that they're fun to make and I can make them pretty quickly. I don't have a sponsor as such for them, yet, but making a bunch of such videos does seem like a worthwhile way to spend my time. I have various other interests that I've thought about parlaying into meaningful employment: writing a curriculum about philosophy for kids; free speech, a topic I'm greatly interested in; organizing a community to defend the fundamental ideas behind enlightenment Western civilization; writing superior reviews of homeschooling resources; and joining a news startup interested in letting me develop Infobitt further.

There are two grand ambitions lurking in the background, although the jury's still out whether I will ever have time and resources to work on them. One is Textop. The other is developing a system of philosophy roughly in the vein of Thomas Reid, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher of common sense.

I would love to hear from anyone with advice and help to move forward on any of these fronts.


Let's try out "Golden Filter Premium" on Wikipedia, shall we?

I encountered a journalist-activist on Twitter, a writer for (among others) Al Jazeera in English, who is nevertheless a free speech activist. We discussed the recent FoxNews.com article that reported, among other things, that the Wikimedia Foundation entirely failed to respond to a "more or less free" offer of filtering software. They need such software, of course, because they are heavily used by school children, and widely available in schools, and yet they host enormous amounts of porn. Anyway, the journalist-activist and I had a charming exchange, the end of which went like this:

Journalist-activist: "Why don't you simply push for people to purchase NetSpark or similar for home use?"

Me: "...a lot of people don't have money or expertise to install such a solution."

JA: "I don't buy that - free, good filters are widely available."

Me: "If you find me a 'free, good filter' that is 'widely available,' I will install and test, and blog about the results."

JA: "http://t.co/4CHL54yc"

Me: "All righty then! This should be fun!"

First, the Egyptian-made Golden Filter Premium is quite easy to install. However, though I am a certified "power user" of computers (Jimmy Wales called me that back in 2000), I couldn't immediately find where the software resides. As soon as it installed, the installation window closed, zoop!, and when I searched "porn" in Chrome (my currently favored browser), the window magically closed. So it was working, I just couldn't figure out where to fiddle with the options. Finally I opened the Task Manager, found the original file location of the exe, read the ReadMe, and discovered that the app is shown via F9 and F10. I would have known the F9/F10 trick if I had read the installation notes, apparently, but who does that?

So once it's installed, what is the first thing I do? I follow the script I followed when I made this fun video. Results?

It doesn't filter Wikipedia.org, which is fine. You can use it to block the whole site, if you want. But of course the WMF should offer a more fine-grained filter than that.

The software instantly closes a window as soon as it sees one of the verboten words on it. You may edit the list of verboten words.

I don't think they know about "fisting" in Egypt. It isn't in the list of verboten words, so when I type it into Wikipedia, of course I get the article, complete with illustrations. (I won't supply links here. You can go ahead and search if you dare, but bear in mind that this and the following examples are highly NSFW.)

Next, I go to multimedia search on Simple English Wikipedia, as I did in the above video. Let me try my test searches: "Poseidon." Yep, there's the old "Kiss of Poseidon.jpg" which does not actually feature the Greek God.

"Cucumber"? Page 2 of the results (used to be page 1) features some female exhibitionists who are altogether too fond of this vegetable.

"Toothbrush"? Again, page 2 has someone using a toothbrush in a way not approved by the ADA (used to be the top of page 1; Wikipedians obviously were uncomfortable with the bad publicity).

So...this free version doesn't work. By the way, for what it's worth, a non-free filter, NetSpark's, not only caught these examples, it deleted them inline instead of simply blocking the whole page. I'm not saying NetSpark is the only or the best solution, just that it's the one I'm familiar with and that it seemed to work rather well.

Wikipedia could pay a modest amount of money (I'm not sure what the bottom line bill would be, if over $0, from Netspark) and obtain a solution on behalf of the school children who use their smut-ridden resource. But they refuse. Few parents will want to use "Golden Filter Premium," in any case. It's just too clunky, and it doesn't work the way it should on Wikipedia anyway.


On the moral bankruptcy of Wikipedia's anonymous administration

I announced, named, and launched Wikipedia way back in January of 2001. My originating role in the project was acknowledged by Jimmy Wales later on in 2001, when he wrote, "Larry had the idea to use wiki software..." Virtually all of the news articles about the project before 2005 identified me as one of the two founders of the project, as did the project's first three press releases, all of them approved by Jimmy, of course. I managed it as "instigator" and "chief organizer" for the project's seminal first 14 months. To give you an idea of what role I had in the project, Jimmy declared, a few weeks before I left the project, that I was "the final arbiter of all Wikipedia functionality."

Since then, I've become better known as a critic of Wikipedia. But this is mostly because I am defending myself against repeated attacks on my reputation and pointing out inconvenient truths that a more responsibly-managed organization would try to fix. Contrary to what some have said, I bear no grudges--once I have defended myself, I let matters drop. And I am not trying to damage Wikipedia. Rather, because I inflicted it on the world, I am trying to improve it because it has become one of the most influential websites in the world. I feel some responsibility for it, even though I'm long out of its administration.

I've been reading draft chapters of a fascinating book, written by some online friends of mine, about the history and conduct of Wikipedia and its administration. I knew that Wikipedia's administration is screwed up and somewhat corrupt, but these writers have opened my eyes to episodes and facts that I had not been tracking. However useful Wikipedia might be--and its usefulness is something I have always affirmed--the sad fact is that Wikipedia's administration has been nothing but one long string of scandal and mismanagement. The saga of Wikimedia UK and its chair is only the latest. Did you know that the deposed chair, Ashley van Haeften, continues to sit on the Wikimedia UK board, and continues to head up Wikimedia Chapters Association? This is despite the fact that van Haeften has been banned from editing Wikipedia, for various violations of policy such as using multiple "sockpuppet" accounts (anonymous, fake accounts), something truly egregious for a high-ranking editor. What kind of Internet organization allows its leadership to continue on in positions of authority spite of being banned (for excellent reasons, mind you) from the very institution it is promoting? Wikipedia defenders, consider what you are defending.

But again, this is only the latest in a long, long series of scandals, which included things like Jimmy Wales telling The New Yorker, of all things, that he didn't have a problem with someone lying about his credentials on Wikipedia, the hiring of a deputy director with rather dodgy views on child-adult sexual relations, and the hiring of a COO who turned out to be a convicted felon.

Let's not forget the problems associated with the many, many questionable editorial decisions made by Wikipedia administrators. Like the rank-and-file, they can be and often are completely anonymous. You read that right. The people who make editorial decisions about what is taken to be "probably pretty much right" by a lot of gullible Internet users do not even have to reveal their own identities. That's right. There are all too many Wikipedia administrators who self-righteously pride themselves on insisting that the full, ugly truth be revealed about the targets of their sometimes quite biased Wikipedia biographies; yet those very same administrators bear no personal responsibility for their actions, which can be quite consequential for people's careers and personal lives, insofar as they remain anonymous.

No other journalistic or scholarly enterprise would tolerate such unaccountability. The reason that journalists are prized in our society, the reason they are in their positions of power and influence, is that they have committed themselves to high journalistic standards and put their personal reputations on the line when they make claims that can damage their targets. Wikipedia, like it or not, enjoys a level of credibility but without personal accountability. The system has been ripe for abuse and indeed far too many Wikipedia administrators do routinely abuse the authority they have obtained. I look forward to the above-mentioned book because it will really blow the lid off this situation.

Wikipedia administrators bear a heavy moral burden to make their identities known. If you make serious decisions that affect the livelihoods and personal relationships of real people, or what students believe about various subjects, the price you pay for your authority is personal responsibility. Without personal responsibility, it is simply too easy to abuse your authority. Why should anyone trust the decisions of anonymous Wikipedia administrators? They could easily be personally biased, based on ignorance, or otherwise worthless. Worse, aggrieved parties--whether they are persons whose reputations have come under attack or scholars who are seriously concerned about the misrepresentation of knowledge in their field--have no recourse in the real world. If someone writes lies about you, there is no way you can name and shame the liar, or at least the Wikipedia admin who permits the lie. Instead, you have to play the stupid little Wikipedia game on its own turf. You can't go to the real world and say, "Look, so-and-so is abusing his authority. This has to stop." In this way, by remaining anonymous, Wikipedia's decisionmakers insulate themselves from the real-world responsibility that journalists routinely bear for their statements and publishing decisions.

If you were a Wikipedia administrator, wouldn't you feel absolutely bound to make your identity known? Wouldn't you feel cowardly, craven, to be standing in judgment over all manner of important editorial issues and yet hiding behind anonymity? I know I would. Why shouldn't we hold Wikipedia responsible for making its administrators' identities known? A Wikipedia administrator who refuses to reveal his or her identity is morally bankrupt, because unaccountable authority is morally bankrupt. Members of democratic societies are supposed to know this.

Even the so-called "bureaucrats," the people who are responsible for conferring adminship on an account, can be anonymous. In fact, from a glance at their usernames, most of them are anonymous.

It is a little strange that journalists, who are trained to understand the importance of taking responsibility for published work, have given Wikipedia a pass for this appalling state of affairs. It's one thing for Wikipedia authors to be anonymous, a situation journalists often remark on with bemusement. It is quite another for its administrators to be, a fact that journalists have hardly noticed at all.

Indeed, why is the fifth most popular website in the world, which shapes what so many people believe on all sorts of subjects, controlled by a cadre of mostly anonymous administrators? Isn't that fact, all by itself, scandalous? Why don't we as a society demand more accountability? I don't get it.

Wikipedia, wake up. We, the undersigned (let's make a petition out of this), demand that all administrators be identified by name.


The Saga of Wikimedia UK and its Chair

The following story is very instructive about the sort of people in the Wikipedia universe, and what sort of people actually run things on the sixth most popular website online.

In case you didn't know, there is an organization, Wikimedia UK, that is legally independent of the Wikimedia Foundation headquartered in San Francisco. Wikimedia UK has a separate budget of £1 million, and is currently headed up by someone who calls himself "Fae" (among many others) on Wikipedia, and whose real name is Ashley Van Haeften.

Van Haeften is a charming character. Among his many exploits, he is reputed to have posted pornographic pictures of himself in bondage gear to Wikimedia Commons, although any evidence has by now been deleted, so we now have only copies like this. While he has been a high-profile administrator on Wikipedia, he routinely lobbed personal attacks at those who dared to criticize him. And much else.

So the High Court of Wikipedia, the Arbitration Committee, declared on July 20: "For numerous violations of Wikipedia's norms and policies, Fæ is indefinitely banned from the English Language Wikipedia. He may request reconsideration of the ban six months after the enactment of this remedy, and every six months thereafter."

In other words, Van Haeften, the head of a £1 million charity devoted to the promotion of Wikipedia, has been banned from Wikipedia itself, and for violating Wikipedia's own policies!

Now that is, I'm sure you'll agree, just appalling. It speaks volumes about the Wikipedia community at present that Van Haeften attained the position he holds. But it gets even worse.

On July 26, Wikimedia UK held a closed-door meeting in which the Board declared that they are "united in the view that this decision does not affect his [Van Haeften's] role as a Trustee of the charity."

In other words, the board that manages a £1 million budget, devoted to promoting Wikipedia, supports its chair even if the chair has been banned from editing Wikipedia itself. One has to wonder: how can the Wikimedia UK Board pretend that Van Haeften can continue to be a credible chair of a well-funded Wikipedia charity if the judicial body of Wikipedia has deliberately excluded him from the website for violating Wikipedia's own policies?

It is a stunning revelation of just how huge a pass the mainstream media has given Wikipedia that this story was nowhere to be heard, outside of online forums and blogs, until this morning. Eleven days after Van Haeften, head of Britain's £1 million Wikipedia charity, was banned from Wikipedia, and five days after he was unaccountably supported by Wikimedia UK, a single story came out in the mainstream media.

This morning, the Daily Telegraph came out with a pitch-perfect and (as far as I can tell) factually accurate report:

Ashley Van Haeften is chairman of Wikimedia UK, a charity with an £1m annual budget funded by donations by Wikipedia visitors and dedicated to promoting the website among British museums and universities.

Despite his volunteer role at the head of the charity he is now banned indefinitely from contributing to Wikipedia because of “numerous violations of Wikipedia's norms and policies”.

Mr van Haeften’s punishment exposes a deep rift among Wikipedia contributors over the mass of explicit material in the online encyclopaedia, at a time when the Government is developing new controls on internet access to protect children online.

The story goes on to discuss Wikipedia's problem of unfiltered porn, readily available to the school children who use it, and includes my YouTube video about the problem, and the following quote from yours truly: "Some things are worth going to the mat over and this is one of them. It goes to the sense of seriousness of the whole project. Wikipedia can’t command respect if it regards itself as above the norms of wider society." The story was also followed up by an excellent report in CivilSociety.co.uk. (Update: And on August 1, FoxNews.com.)

I hope the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) is paying attention. They will lose credibility by being associated with Wikimedia UK (WMUK). They should not allow Wikimedia UK to use Wikipedia.org for any further fundraising. Nor should WMF cooperate with WMUK in any other way. The WMF should also release a statement condemning WMUK's recent action. They should continue this non-cooperation until the WMUK Board has been replaced. If the WMF continues to act as if nothing has happened, they will become complicit in the appalling behavior of Ashley Van Haeften and his colleagues on the WMUK Board who supported him.

If Van Haeften had any decency, he would have resigned on July 20. If the WMUK Board had any sense, they would have fired him as soon as Van Haeften made his defiance clear.

By the way, if you want to get into the sordid details, some places to start are this long Wikipediocracy thread and this Wikipedia Review thread. Frankly, I haven't read much of either one.

This story's front page thumbnail is from a screen capture of this Google Images search--note, the fifth search result for the image search is taken from this article. (Update: that search is made when SafeSearch is "off." As it turns out, Google's optional filter excises Van Haeften's self-pornography.)

UPDATE (8/2/2012): Van Haeften has finally resigned.


Wikimedia Foundation Board Officially Rejects Porn Filter

Last Wednesday, the Wikimedia Foundation board quietly voted, in person, 10-0 in favor of repealing the "personal image hiding feature"--in other words, a very weak, opt-in porn filter. "Quietly," I say, because the resolution was not posted publicly until the middle of the weekend. Note that the page mistakenly states that Jimmy Wales voted against it: "That page is wrong," Wales clarified on his user talk page, "I voted yes."

This is certainly news. A brief recap of some related events will help put it in essential context. (Here's another recap.) You may not know that funding for the early years of Wikipedia came from Bomis, Inc., which made much of its money from what Wikipedians have called "softcore porn." I've always said that Bomis was the fertilizer on which Wikipedia was built. Jimmy Wales was CEO and one of the three partners of Bomis. I started Wikipedia for Bomis, which paid my paycheck. Anyway, I'm not sure when Wikipedia first started hosting what most people would call porn, but it may have been around 2003. Over the years, there have been many proposals to rein in or filter the "adult content," all of which have failed. In March 2008, Erik Moeller, who had recently been appointed Deputy Director of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), came under heavy fire for what Mashable called "his continued self-defense of statements generally indicating that pedophilia is something that’s less than evil." Moeller continues to hold the post. In December, 2008, Wikipedia was temporarily blacklisted by the British Internet watchdog, the Internet Watch Foundation, for hosting "images of child pornography." The site continues to host the offending image, as well--an album cover feature a nude, and very sexualized, picture of a pre-pubescent girl.

Things really began to heat up in 2010. In March, I reported the WMF to the FBI because they hosted graphic depictions of child sexual molestation on Wikimedia Commons--and they still do. At the time, I also strongly urged the WMF to install a pornography filter. In the fallout, Wales and others started purging porn from Commons, but Wikipedians summarily swatted down the erstwhile "God-King" and reinstated much of the porn that had been deleted. There was also ongoing concern about Wikipedia's pedophilia problem. In reaction, the WMF commissioned a report, which recommended installing an opt-in porn filter. In May, 2011, the WMF unanimously approved a "personal image hiding feature." Matters were far from settled, however. In September, 2011, Wikipedians came out strongly in favor of allowing minors to edit pornography articles right alongside adults, and the German Wikipedians voted 86% against even a weak, opt-in a porn filter.

In March of 2012, Board members dropped hints that work had stopped on the filter and that they, like others, no longer supported it. I began conferring with some colleagues about what to do; I had been largely silent on the issue since the WMF demonstrated some commitment to tackle it responsibly. I was surprised to learn that the amount of "adult" content on Wikimedia servers had grown substantially since 2010. With the help of those colleagues I carefully wrote and posted this explanation of the problem, which got quite a bit of exposure. As I put it via Twitter: "Wikipedia, choose two: (1) call yourself kid-friendly; (2) host lots of porn; (3) be filter-free." Jimmy Wales responded via Twitter, stating clearly and unequivocally that he supported the filter. My impression is that members of the public who recently commented on the issue online have been overwhelmingly supportive, many expressing surprise and even shock at the amount of "adult" content that Wikipedia hosts. This video of mine may help clarify the trouble.

That takes us up to today. On the issue of a weak, opt-in filter, the WMF perfectly reversed itself, going from unanimous support to unanimous rejection. "Unanimous" rejection assumes that Jimmy Wales voted yes on Wednesday's resolution, as he said on his Wikipedia user talk page, and contrary to what the resolution page says, as of this writing. He has further clarified (if that is the right word) that, despite his apparent "yes" vote for Wednesday's resolution, he continues to "strongly support the creation of a personal image filter." If I were cynical, I would say that he and the WMF had deliberately left his views unclear, so that he could speak out of both sides of his mouth. Anyway, if he still strongly supports the creation of a "personal image filter," voting to rescind the resolution that would create the filter is a mighty strange way to show his support.

However matters are, the filter is now officially and overwhelmingly rejected. Unless they make another 180° change and actually get to work, publicly, on a filter, I believe a boycott may well be in order.

UPDATE: Jimmy Wales is now hosting a discussion (talk) of how the filter should be written. Let's see if anything constructive comes out of it.


Dad & Junior find porn via a Wikipedia "Schools Gateway"

I thought I'd illustrate one of the "what could possibly go wrong?" scenarios, for people who (1) don't want to click on the nasty links and/or (2) lack imagination.

Script:

Opening shot: article about unfiltered porn on Wikipedia

Voiceover: The adult imagery is blurred in this video. Still, don’t watch it with your kids.

Man (voiceover): Wikipedia has porn? Surely not.

(switches to Wikipedia)

Man: What did he say, “fisting”? I don’t even know what that is.

(types in fisting)

Man: Oh! Boy! They have multimedia!

(clicks on magnifying glass in search box, then clicks “Multimedia”)

Man: Let’s see here… Oh my gosh. OK, yeah, well, it’s a real-life phenomenon, I guess. So that’s what fisting is. Wikipedia, you have disappointed me. How can I tell Junior to "go look it up on Wikipedia" now? But wait a second, didn't I see once something called "Simple Wikipedia"?

(types in simple.wikipedia.org)

Man: Yeah…here we go…yeah, it says here, "The Simple English Wikipedia is for everyone! That includes children." So Junior shouldn't be able see any fisting in here. Oh, look at this, they have a "Schools Gateway."

(clicks on "Schools Gateway")

Man: Yeah, see, they wouldn't have such a page if they feared the wrath of schools. I mean, they could get in serious trouble, if they invited schools in and also hosted adult content here. (sounding uncertain) Right? Well, whatever.

Man (turning away from microphone): Junior! C’mere!

Junior (could be same person doing voiceover, but preferably turned away from microphone and in a boy's voice): What?

Man: Here's a place where you can search for images for those reports you were working on!

Junior: That’s cool.

(clicks on magnifying glass icon in search box, clicks on Multimedia)

Man: it's called "Simple English Wikipedia." They say it's for children, so, you could probably bookmark this one. Didn’t you make a list of things to search for? What’s the first one?

Junior: Yeah, OK. We’re growing different plants in science, and I’m growing a cucumber plant. So I need a cucumber picture for the title page of my lab report.

Man: Huh.

(types in “cucumber”; gets results)

Man: These look OK. You could use any of those.

Junior: No, I just want one cucumber by itself.

Man: Huh, well, OK.

(scrolls down; sees the nude lady)

Man: Oh my gosh.

(quickly backs up)

Junior: You didn’t see any cucumbers by themselves?

Man: Uh…no. (to himself) Well, that was probably just a fluke. It’s Wikipedia. You can’t expect perfection. (exhales) OK, so what else have you got?

Junior: In health, my group is doing a powerpoint presentation about dental hygiene. I’m supposed to find the pictures.

Man: All right, let’s get to work. What’s the first item on the list?

Junior: “Toothbrush.”

Man: Oh…kay.

(types in “toothbrush”)

Man: (not noticing the bad pic) So, there’s some toothbrushes…

Junior: What is that? Is that somebody using a toothbrush on his arm?

Man: Whoa!

(quickly backs up)

Man: Wow. OK. Well, maybe those were just flukes. Let’s just try one more.

Junior: What was that?

Man: Never mind. No more dental hygiene pictures. Anything else?

Junior: You could search for “Poseidon.” I’m supposed to write a report about him.

Man: OK, “Poseidon.” That sounds safe.

(types it in, hits enter; picture of naked lady is blurred)

Man: There we go.

Junior: Wow! Is that a naked lady?

Man: What the?

(quickly goes back)

Man: Oh, my god.

Junior: I don’t think that was Poseidon, Dad.

Man: You know what? Go away, Junior.

Junior: Whatever! I’ll just get on Mom’s computer.

Man: Wait, wait, do not do that yet. Just go play.

Junior: Good! OK, bye!

Man: (innocent-sounding encouragement) Yeah, you go have fun. (after a short pause) I wonder…

(types in “fisting”)

Man: (disgusted) Those are the same results I saw on the main Wikipedia search. Ugh. What kind of people run this website? God…

  • (Does these things, ad lib voiceover:
    goes to main page
  • clicks on “Wikipedia:Schools”
  • clicks on “talk”
  • types in: Porn on Simple English Wikipedia
  • types in: Shouldn't you at least tell schools that you've got a lot of porn here, so they can make an informed decision? -- Concerned Dad
  • save