Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales creates censorship controversy, surrenders editing privileges

Here’s an interesting story on Making Light, with more details at the “Fandom Wank” blog.

Last month, Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia, founder of competing crowd-sourced encyclopedia Citizendium) reported to the FBI that Wikipedia was hosting images that could be considered child pornography. (Later, Wiki admins noted that they had checked with their legal department and been informed the images did not violate federal law, nor had they heard from the FBI in response to Sanger’s complaint.)

A couple of weeks ago, Fox News picked up the story and began asking corporate donors to the Wikimedia Foundation “if they were aware of the extent of graphic and sexually explicit content on the sites.”

Subsequently, Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales began unilaterally purging possibly-questionable content from the site—including “19th century artworks, diagrams and sketches meant to explain sexual acts, and so on”—and all hell broke loose.

To try to defuse the controversy, Wales voluntarily surrendered most of his editing privileges over Wikipedia. Still, this raises important questions as to what level of ownership and responsibility administrators should have over user-curated media, and to what extent local community standards should be observed.

Community standards are different enough all over the world that practically any given content will be offensive somewhere. Some places, such as China and Australia, are erecting firewalls to try to block “offensive” content out. Others, such as Italy or France, have been known to prosecute or sue foreign companies hosting content they find offensive. Is Wikipedia between a rock and a hard place?

Related: The Great Wikipedia Webcomics Purge of 2007

12 Comments on Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales creates censorship controversy, surrenders editing privileges

  1. I can’t really blame the guy for “censoring” such pictures. Child porn is one of the few things that everyone will make people agree to crush the supposed offender, no matter how obviously fake the allegation is. Even just the allegation is harmful. Normal porn, ok; violence, ok; but not child porn.

    I don’t think wikipedia really wants to get in some stupid and expensive legal battle over it. Furthermore, this wouldn’t be an issue if the competing guy wasn’t a tattle-tale. It sounds like he’s jealous of wikipedia and wants to take them down a notch. The “censorship” is more likely a fear-filled reaction than actual censorship.

  2. Jimbo Wales should resign. He has backflipped over a fundamental Wikipedia editing policy: ‘Wikipedia is not censored’.

  3. Greg Schofield // May 10, 2010 at 9:36 pm //

    Ben, it used to be witchcraft, now it is child-porn. Forget the legalities, forget everything, it is enough merely to make the accusation.

    The legal department gave Wikipedia an all-clear. That is the important part in all this. So there are some naked cherubim in some paintings. Nakedness, despite American Puritanism, is not porn.

    When you do come across some real child porn (a site reference was sent to me some years ago), try reporting it as I did. No-one was interested, in fact I spent seven hours on the phone to various “authorities” before I could get anyone to simply look at the site (and that was a civilian working for the Australian Federal Police on “internet fraud”). Later I believe it became a Interpol bust of a Polish server and a lead to hundreds of potential paedophiles.

    The whole thing is just scaremongering. No one need do anything other than exercise minimal responsibility, report suspected sites and have a professional team of investigators deal with the problem quietly, if it exists.

    Funny thing is that the last thing seems in very short supply.

    For my money the best thing to do when someone makes a public accusation of this type – sue the pants off them for defamation and don’t censor a single thing (as this makes it look like you were hosting such material).

  4. “Subsequently, Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales began unilaterally purging possibly-questionable content from the site—including “19th century artworks, diagrams and sketches meant to explain sexual acts, and so on”—and all hell broke loose.”

    This is going too far and is way beyond child porn accusations. Yes there are still US states in which almost everything except the missionary position are illegal, but does that give anyone the right to censor an interrnet site, and thus, an international site/product? There are also places in the US where fat people are not allowed to wear shorts legally, so shall we comb through the net and make sur we purge it of all offending pictures? Censorship is never good. All it does is it opens the door to hypocrisy and discrimination.

  5. @Greg

    Yes, that’s exactly the point I was making: “child porn” is today’s witch hunt. That’s why I can’t blame him for “censoring” some pictures Anyone or any organization would be afraid of accusations of hosting child porn, whether the accusation is real or fake. However, I didn’t say it was the right move–just understandable.

  6. @Ben: The images Wales removed went far beyond child porn, though, which is why there were so many objections.

  7. Greg Schofield // May 11, 2010 at 12:16 am //

    Sorry Ben, your piece was perfectly clear; mine, however, was not.

  8. Nothing unusual here. Wikipedia’s editors consistently edit (or “revert” in Wikipedia’s parlance) contributions which go against their personal or religious beliefs. Censorship is alive and well at Wikipedia!

  9. The criticism of Wikipedia and Wales here is wholly unjustified. Were there mistakes made in the children’s photos period ? yes of course. But they are mistakes any large company would be likely to make. Wales has done an incredible job and should stay exactly where he is and continue to do a great job.

    Is there censorship ? Censorship is an action by a government. A private business is free to include or exclude whatever it likes. Wikipedia is doing nothing whatsoever that other encyclopaedias are not doing. Tony’s claims are totally baseless.

  10. I have tried several times to post a mass of information at Wikipedia to back up my claims (giving correct citations, references, etc) but I have been “reverted” to the extent that I have been “warned” off by Wikipedia’s admin. Howard is totally wrong in his judgement that censorship is only such when carried out by a government. Censorship by by zealots in the broadcast, print and web media is just as unacceptable. It is no fault of Jimbo Wales that Wikipedia has reached the point where it is now run by a cabal of nit-picking egocentric editors who make it their sole job to cut out anything that does not go along with their prejudices (mainly right-wing). Also,Howard, Wikipedia was not set up by Wales as a “private business”, but as an truly open information tool, owned by its users, and certainly not intended to be subject to censorship. I regret to say that, in my opinion, Wales has lost control of the beautiful monster of his creation.

  11. This is nonsense. Idiotic and inaccurate editing is blocked. Thank goodness.

  12. And your point is….?

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