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.


Reply to Slashdot about my report to the FBI

On April 7, I posted the text of a report I made to the FBI to the EDTECH mailing list, in which I stated that, in my opinion, the Wikimedia Foundation may knowingly have posted "child pornography," by which I meant "obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children."  In short, the Wikimedia Commons "Category:Pedophilia" page hosted images with realistic and disturbing drawings of child molestation. The Register reported on this and it snowballed from there.  Among other venues, it was discussed on Slashdot, where I posted the following reply.  I decided to repost it here permanently.

I have added a more recent reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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