William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for the ‘Censorship’ Category

Two Wikipedia Co-Founders, Two Very Different Causes

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on June 29, 2012 at 3:58 pm

The Wikipedian has been occupied with other projects, and fairly quiet as of late. The good news is that, with the Wikimania global conference just around the corner, I’ll be writing more here in the near future. And I really do mean just around the corner: Wikimania 2012 will be held in the city I call home, Washington, DC.

Meanwhile, here’s something I’ve noticed that I don’t think other Wikipedia commentators have remarked upon: the divergent activism of its two co-founders, its still closely involved spiritual leader and unofficial mascot Jimmy Wales, and estranged, erstwhile rival Larry Sanger. Although both men might be broadly described as libertarian—as legend has it, they first met on an Internet discussion forum for Objectivists—and yet their causes today are all but diametrically opposed.

In the last week, Wales has publicly opposed U.S. Department of Justice plans to extradite a British student, Richard O’Dwyer, for (allegedly) knowingly enabling copyright violations by users of a website he once operated (since shuttered). Although based in the UK, O’Dwyer’s domain was registered in the U.S.—hence the federal government’s interest. Wales’ point, made in a Guardian op-ed:

One of the important moral principles that has made everything we relish about the Internet possible, from Wikipedia to YouTube, is that Internet service providers need to have a safe harbour from what their users do.

A fair point? Sure. Self-serving? Most certainly! Wikipedia is always making someone mad because anonymous individuals use the site to spread malicious, sometimes defamatory, occasionally offensive material, true or false. In fact, someones like… none other than Larry Sanger.

In recent months, Larry Sanger has has taken up a more conservative cause, focused on some of Wikipedia’s more controversial content. Sanger is critical of Wikipedia for allowing the inclusion of sexually explicit photos on articles about sexually explicit topics, and moreso Wikipedia’s sister site Wikimedia Commons, for allowing users to upload even more graphic photos, many of which serve no purpose except to titillate the uploader, and disgust most others. Here’s an exhaustive report by Internet buzz beacon BuzzFeed, on one such example (highly NSFW, even with blurring).

Wales remains squarely within the camp of Internet libertarians, lending support to those who do things we may not like, but whom we may defend on principles of freedom. It is also consistent with his previous activism against U.S.-based SOPA and PIPA legislation, which I wrote about in January.

From a Wikipedia perspective, the key difference is this: in this case, Wales is seeking to use only his celebrity (which is considerable, in Internet terms) to draw attention to his cause, rather than enlisting the power of Wikipedia’s community as a force multiplier. The matter has been the subject of much discussion on Wales’ Talk page (basically a water cooler for Wikipedians) this week, led by the following comment:

As someone who strenuously opposed the political advocacy pursued by the Wikimedia Foundation early this year … I commend your decision to take action on the O’Dwyer case as Wikipedia founder and respected opinion leader as opposed to (additionally) trying to light a fire under the editing community.

Sanger has far less celebrity to wield (even in Internet cricles). Earlier in June, Sanger was interviewed by TechCrunch to discuss these topics, and as he said in a tweet aimed partially at yours truly:

Wikipedia, choose two: (1) call yourself kid-friendly; (2) host lots of porn; (3) be filter-free.

Not a bad point there, either.

I don’t mean to wade into this controversy myself. I find myself largely in agreement with both men on some broad points, contradictory as that may seem, although I think the long-run implications of both issues are more difficult to assess.

As for reservations about Wales’ petition: are we to be ISP freedom absolutists? Is there no “fire in a crowded theater” moment? As for reservations about Sanger’s cause: how are we to determine what serves a genuine informational purpose, and how do we balance this against Wikipedia’s longstanding and admirable policy that it is “not censored”?

I don’t know the answer, but if you think you do, I welcome your response in the comments.

Trick or Treat! “The Human Centipede” and the Making of an Unpopular Featured Article

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on October 31, 2011 at 11:08 am

Editors on the English-language Wikipedia often like to choose “Featured articles” (FA)—the best articles Wikipedia has to offer—for appearance on the website’s front page to coincide with relevant dates, including holidays and anniversaries. This is called “Today’s Featured article” (TFA), and while all Featured articles are eligible (and only those articles) it is not automatic and not necessarily a given. For example, two articles shared featured status on the day of the U.S. presidential election in 2008: John McCain and Barack Obama. To coincide with Halloween in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent elsewhere) Wikipedia editors have chosen “The Human Centipede (First Sequence)” as the day’s Featured article. And not without some controversy.

If you don’t know what this film about… I suggest that ignorance may in fact be bliss. But the chances are pretty good that you do; “The Human Centipede” is a film that many more people know about than will ever choose to see, so there was more than enough independent coverage to write extensively about it, and there were in fact serious horror fans who were so moved to write it. So it exists. And according to those who have reviewed it closely (I am not one of them) it’s quite well done.

This doesn’t mean everyone was happy that the article was granted Featured status, nor that it was actually chosen to be featured on Wikipedia’s front page. In fact, when it was first nominated for Today’s Featured article—by its originator and chief contributor, Coolug—to coincide with the sequel’s release earlier this month, it didn’t go over so well. One editor replied:

Using Wikipedia’s main page to promote the sequel, which features even more depraved torture of pregnant women, rape of children, etc., would be despicable. The nominator should quickly remove this nomination with an apology (for his own good) and then observe a self-imposed (unofficial) “block” as penance (again for his own good).


Oppose due to my personal belief that this is a disgusting topic, although I think Kiefer goes way too far in suggesting Coolug owes us an apology. He has as much right as anyone to be proud of his efforts and wish to see them on the main page.

And another:

Quite apart from the obvious dubious moral grounds in featuring this article, it also amounts to giving free advertising to The Human Centipede II, a film so questionable in its content that it is actually illegal to supply in the UK. “Highlights” of Centipede II include [Editor’s note: Wow, I’m really not going to quote that here.] I am sorry, but giving the kind of exposure the main page of Wikipedia provides to this apocalyptic level of filth is just not on. I am therefore posting a firm oppose.

So the article was shot down, and Coolug replied:

I suspected this might be the reaction to this nomination, but I thought I would give it a try anyway, oh well never mind 🙂 Maybe in a few months I will try and get a more traditional article on the main page. I’m writing something very boring about the Soviet Union and who knows where that might end up? I didn’t nominate this to try and help Tom Six sell tickets for his horrible sequel, but I can see why editors might see things that way. I must admit I am very amused by the suggestion that by nominating this I am essentially a bad person. Thanks for the comments congratulating me on getting the article to FA by the way.

But with Halloween on the horizon, he tried again, and this time the reaction was not too much warmer—just enough to get it through. The opponents led early:

I restate opposition to featuring Human Centipede on the main page, because its sadistic content and the worse content of its sequel, which includes murdering of a mother, torturing a pregnant woman, etc. A few minutes exposure gave me nightmares, honestly. The British authorities have banned the latter film because it threatens to cause harm to the public.

Second, I believe that everybody but myself stated (some) appreciation for Coolug’s efforts, so it is an exaggeration to say that “his head was handed to him”. Nonetheless, the community overwhelmingly opposed featuring Human Centipede on the main page, with many stating an objection based on its sadism, albeit apologetically, alas. Those objections will remain.

Although it was pointed out:

The Brits reversed their ban on the second film after filmmakers did a little more editing. This article is also not about the second film, but about the first one – thoughts on the content of the second film (or its article here) should not weigh into the decision. Our precedent has not been to wait a year after the release of a sequel to have other movies/video games/tv shows on the main page.

I’d be much more inclined to hold my objections if Human Centipede were on the main page on Halloween instead of a different date. I still wish I’d never read it, but that’s not due to the quality of the article.

And support did emerge:

OK Coolug, I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that you go ahead and nominate this for Hallowe’en. There seems to be some support building for this here, and on your user talk page. While I still think that the subject matter is horrible, it’s a very popular and widely-read article, and it is one of a tiny number of featured articles about horror movies. On Hallowe’en, readers will be less shocked to see the article on the main page, and I think that any concerns about promoting the sequel are even less relevant now that it no longer coincides with the release date. Finally, noting that a precedent exists for articles about distasteful subjects and extreme horror films on the main page, I can offer my support for a nomination in this date context.


Support. Agree with Papa November. Coolug’s article is an accomplishment, well done! Nothing in the article nor the film is distasteful except the concept. Is Wikipedia going to disregard Raul’s (and the general readership of Wikipedia’s) opinion? Are we such prudes that we censor what the public finds fascinating? Halloween is the ideal choice. What else could be such a match? (Most past Halloween choices have been quite boring.)

Not that everyone agreed:

Strong Oppose, on any date The subject matter of the article is frankly extremely disturbing and filthy. I don’t deny that this is out of personal interest. My little sister views Wikipedia’s main page on a regular basis. I don’t want her to see this, and I’m fairly certain that the majority of readers wouldn’t want to read this either. This would also generally reflect very badly on the project.

But if I had to choose one quote that summarizes why the article was approved, it would be this:

I do not oppose the article (or indeed, any article) being banned from TFA [Today’s Featured article] at any point in time. I think it would be insulting to an editor who put so much work into an FA to be told “no, we won’t allow your article on the main page because the subject matter is icky” (which is what this ultimately boils down to), especially when such a thing is anathema to Wikipedia culture.

The point about Wikipedia culture links to a Wikipedia guideline called “Wikipedia is not censored“, which generally means that just because content may be conisdered “objectionable” is not a reason to remove it. Whether that means such material should be actively promoted is another issue entirely.

Other featured articles were suggested for the date, including Bride of Frankenstein and London Necropolis Company (this one would have had my vote) but “The Human Centipede” was on a roll. Today, some opposition is apparent on the article’s discussion page. The heading of one editor’s reply: “On What Planet Did Making This A Featured Article Seem Like A Good Idea?” You have to expand a hidden section to read all of the protest, so I can’t actually link it, but here is one that’s readily visible:

Wow. What a troll. How in the hell did this article become a Featured article? It’s not exactly morally right and this doesn’t make a good impression of Wikipedia to the masses who come here everyday. I hope the (old, resident) Wikipedians here are not becoming weird (if they aren’t already). Please reconsider and remove the Featured article nomination… this has NOTHING to do with Halloween, it is NOT FITTING; the subject of the article isn’t morally right and this kind of stuff shouldn’t be known by young kids who might come here. Oh what have you guys done? :O

And Coolug has set up a page to collect “Human Centipede related hate mail”—although no one has taken up the offer just yet. And has posted a note on his user page explaining the article’s history:

I started this article for a bit of a joke back in 2009 when I had for the most part only really used Wikipedia to mess about with articles and cause general low level mischief. I ended up taking the whole thing a little bit too seriously and out of it somehow became a pretty serious Wikipedian. I suspect this is quite a common editing progression and therefore I’m always loathe to treat the vandals too harshly. We can always revert their rubbish and hey, maybe one day they might write something really good?

After three attempts at FAC [Featured article candidates] this eventually passed, however, the attempt to immediately shove it onto the main page was as predicted an absolute disaster, with one editor observing that I should apologise and then leave Wikipedia temporarily “for (my) own good”.

However, bizarrely quite a few editors thought it would be a good idea to nominate the article again, this time for Halloween 2011. And even more bizarrely, it actually got selected!

You may not care for the subject matter—I’m not planning to read the article, let alone see the film—but I think that makes it all the more interesting a Wikipedia success story.

The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2010

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on December 30, 2010 at 6:50 pm

The year 2010 will be over and out in another day’s time, which means there is no time like the present to look back on the year that was at Wikipedia. Instead of some kind of highfalutin’ think piece on what the past year, like, meant, let’s make this an easy-to-write, easier-to-read listicle outlining the biggest stories of the year involving Wikipedia—at least from an English-speaking, North American perspective. (For it is this perspective from which I am most qualified to write.)

For better or worse, here are the stories that defined Wikipedia, on-site and off, in 2010:

10. Wikipedia backups discovered — This occurred just in the past few weeks, and has not received a great deal of attention outside of Wikipedia circles, but to Wikipedia enthusiasts, it’s a big one. In mid-December, Wikimedia Foundation developer Tim Starling found several files dating back to Wikipedia’s first three months of existence. These had long been presumed to be gone for good, but now Wikipedia’s earliest days are much easier to reconstruct. Joseph Reagle of Harvard’s Berkman Center extracted the first 10,000 edits and has placed them on his own website for viewing, and in the future a more accessible reconstruction may be created, similar to the one at nostalgia.wikipedia.org.

9. Cuba’s Wikipedia copycatEcuRed is the Castro regime’s attempt to emulate Wikipedia. At least, in terms of look and feel: EcuRed may well be built using wiki software, but content updates are strictly reserved for unknown pre-approved editors. The entry for Estados Unidos is amusing. Surprisingly, there is no entry for Capitalismo, only Imperialismo, fase superior del capitalismo. Translated from Spanish, the website’s front page proclaims it was “born from the desire to create and disseminate knowledge with everyone and for everyone from Cuba and the world.” It would probably more more correct to say that it was born of a desire to create and disseminate propaganda for Fidel and Raúl Castro and their cronies.

8. Mike Godwin vs. the FBIThis was just weird. During the summer, the FBI sent a cease-and-desist letter to Wikipedia demanding that they remove occurrences of the FBI seal from Wikipedia articles about the agency. According to the FBI, use of the logo conflicted with the law. According to Wikimedia Foundation general counsel Mike Godwin, the law cited was about preventing people from impersonating FBI officials. Godwin’s sardonic reply—”While we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it, the fact is that we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version”—amused many. Two months later, Godwin resigned his position at Wikimedia. Were the two incidents connected? That was the whisper, but neither Mike nor the Foundation have clarified the reasons for his departure. It’s entirely possible that the two are not connected, but the whispering hasn’t been refuted. The FBI seal’s presence on Wikipedia, and Mike Godwin’s famed wit elsewhere, live on.

7. Wikimedia expansion to India — Wikipedians are all too aware of the fact that most of their contributions come from the rich, Western nations in the Anglosphere and Western Europe, but they yearn for participation to grow much beyond. As in the global economy, much growth may be found in the BRICs. Among industrializing countries, interest in Wikipedia has been especially strong in India, which is being rewarded with the first non-U.S. office of the Wikimedia Foundation. (For what it’s worth, I myself attended a Wikipedia-oriented conference in Bangalore this past January.)

6. Wikipedia gets a new look — Bet you didn’t notice this until months after it happened, but in the first half of 2010, Wikipedia received its first major redesign in several years. Gone was the “Monobook” skin and in was the “Vector” look. Why change? Wikipedia is always looking for ways to make the site easier to read—and easier to edit—and there had been concern for some time that the site design was becoming outdated, even in some ways confusing. Perhaps the biggest change involved moving the search field from the lefthand sidebar to the top right corner, a placement more common among popular websites. And the result? The number of individuals contributing during the second half of 2010 has been mostly flat, and even down slightly. Whatever drives people to contribute to Wikipedia, or stay away, is a force more powerful than web design.

5. Flagged revisions, er, pending changes — For years, the German-language Wikipedia has maintained a unique system for improving the reliability of its pages: contributions by new and infrequent users are held for review by more trusted editors. The result has been an encyclopedia taken far more seriously by academics in that country, so Wikipedians on the larger (and looser) English Wikipedia decided to give it a try. First called “flagged revisions” and later changed to the arguably more intuitive “pending changes” (yes, there was a debate about this), a number of articles were protected in this manner. The result was inconclusive: while a clear majority of participants voted to continue employing some form of pending changes, there was no consensus on just how to do it. For now, the project lies dormant.

4. Wikipedia in education — This is not one story, and it’s not unique to the past calendar year: encyclopedias have been staples of term paper bibliographies for decades (at least) but the rise of Wikipedia has turned this on its head. Where teachers were once content to let students cite Britannica on any number of subjects, many (if not most) now ban students from using Wikipedia in assignments. But 2010 may be the year in which educators learned to stop worrying and accommodate (if not love) Wikipedia. Time and debate have allowed more professional educators to see that Wikipedia is a legitimate starting point for research, and Wikipedia’s own imperfections provide numerous teachable moments. ZDNet education writer Christopher Dawson’s well-argued “Teachers: Please stop prohibiting the use of Wikipedia” is a good example of the former, while classroom projects at UC Berkeley and the University of Rhode Island show there is great promise for the latter.

3. Larry Sanger reports Wikimedia to the FBI — The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Wikimedia Foundation sure got to know each other this year. In April, estranged Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger sent a missive to the FBI reporting the Wikimedia Foundation for hosting “child pornography” and other obscene images on Wikipedia sister site Wikimedia Commons. Among the contested images were nude artistic works depicting the underaged and sexually explicit images featuring adults. Wikipedia’s commitment to the free availability of information can be controversial; name a body part or disease and you are going to see a picture of it on that Wikipedia page. There is even a specific policy related to this question, called “Wikipedia is not censored“. But does this mean that anything goes? Even after Sanger clarified that he understood no actual prurient images photographs of child sexual molestation* were in the site’s collection, some images were deleted, and the FBI pursued no action in any case. Although resolved for now, you can bet the controversy over the line between “censorship” and “editorial policy” will come up again.

2. Wikileaks and Wikipedia confusion — You may protest that Wikileaks has nothing to do with Wikpedia. In fact, I wrote “Wikileaks: No Wiki, Just Leaks” over the summer, when the mysterious online outfit published its Afghan War Diary. But the mere presence of the word “wiki” in the the not-a-wiki site’s name has become a potential PR problem for Wikipedia. When Wikileaks re-entered the news with the publication of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables in the fall, Jimmy Wales openly criticized Wikileaks, telling Charlie Rose: “If I had some information, the last thing I would ever do with it is send it to Wiikileaks.” Even Larry Sanger published a critical commentary about Wikileaks on his own site; although Sanger only tangentially referenced Wikipedia in his comment, the press took up that angle regardless. As long as Wikileaks remains a well-known and much-criticized public entity, Wikipedia will have to keep repeating the message that the two organizations have nothing to do with one another. Which leads us to #1…

1. The face of Wikipedia fundraising — It was perhaps fortuitous that the latest round of Wikileaks debate occurred at the same time the Wikimedia Foundation was undertaking the most sustained and visible PR push in its history. Since late November, Wikimedia sites have featured large banners across the top, asking readers to donate money toward its goal of raising $16 million—the largest amount yet requested, though still not quite enough to cover 2011’s expected operating budget. Most banners featured Wales’ face prominently, asking readers to consider his “personal appeal” to contribute. While effective, they’ve also been a source of annoyance and subject of derision. The New York Observer headline, “Staring Contest with Jimmy Wales To Go On Indefinitely”, was among the politer expressions of this viewpoint. On the other hand, they are working: at the campaign’s outset, Wikimedia collected in one week what they took in over a month last year. As of this writing, the organization had just about a million dollars left to go. Not too shabby. And Henry Blodget will get a chance to recycle his call for Wikipedia to deploy advertising next year.

That was the year that was, at Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation. Next year will be another. If you think I’ve missed or messed up anything important, please share in the comments. See you in 2011!

All images via Wikimedia Commons.

*Updated, per comments.

Is “Atlas Shrugged” Getting Fair Treatment on Wikipedia?

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on April 3, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Lead-ins don’t get much more intriguing than the one for an essay by EJ Moosa for a libertarian website (and subsequently picked up by Instapundit), titled “‘Atlas Shrugged’: Why has Wikipedia Removed Key Elements?”:

    What happens when you combine “1984” by George Orwell and “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand? You get a Wikipedia entry that begins to redefine what the key elements are. You get a level of censorship that defies belief. Why is this occurring?

OK, I’m hooked. The article specifically refers to a version of the article about the doorstop of a novel on Monday, so take for instance the last version of the article as it appeared on Sunday night. So what’s the specific complaint? Allegedly, there is

    a major theme that is missing: The Failure of Government.

    Search for the “Anti Dog Eat Dog rule”. Or for the “Equalization of Opportunity” bill. … Any references to them are gone from the Wikipedia entry. Search for any of the legislation passed to control private enterprise. It’s no longer there.

    What is the reason that the references to these failed government actions have been deleted from the Wikipedia page on “Atlas Shrugged”? I have my theories. I would like to hear yours

Using the handy WikiBlame tool, I decided to check the past 1,000 versions of the page for occurrences of the phrases “Equalization of Opportunity” and “dog-eat-dog” (“dog eat dog” as well, just to be sure). In fact these phrases have occured just twice and once, respectively, since July 2007.

Back in August 2008, someone added 3,200+ words of commentary that included mention of both fictional laws, Googling some of the text, was clearly unattributed from CliffsNotes. Even if it wasn’t plagiarized, it was still far too long for a Wikipedia summary, and was therefore reversed (or “reverted,” as Wikipedia says).

Then a few days later, someone added approximately seven hundred words of what appears to be a rant about the Illuminati, which also mentioned Equalization of Opportunity. Somewhere there may be a wiki for ravings about the Illuminati, but Wikipedia is not it. And so it was quickly removed as well.

But here’s the funny thing: after the Moosa essay appeared, someone got in and edited the article in question:

    The “Anti-dog-eat-dog” rule, as passed by the National Alliance of Railroads, is an example of this mooching becoming codified into law.

This time, it’s even cited to CliffsNotes. And so far it has remained. It’s not perfect, but I certainly don’t get the impression that anyone is trying to obscure the meaning behind “Atlas Shrugged,” let alone is anything like censorship happening. EJ Moosa would have been better served actually investigating the situation, rather than just asking questions and reaching for Orwell on his bookshelf.

Far from censorship, I’d say quite the opposite is happening: the article is longer than most at some 7,000+ words describing the novel in a variety of ways. If anybody is keeping this page from telling the whole story about Rand’s magnum opus, the blame lies squarely with her biggest fans.