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What should we do about Wikipedia’s porn problem?

By Larry Sanger (see Wikipedia’s forgotten creator)

 

I want to start a conversation.

I. Problem? What problem?

Dr. Larry Sanger

Dr. Larry Sanger

So, you didn’t know that Wikipedia has a porn problem?

Let me say what I do not mean by “Wikipedia’s porn problem.” I do not mean simply that Wikipedia has a lot of porn. That’s part of the problem, but it’s not even the main problem. I’m 100% OK with porn sites. I defend the right of people to host and view porn online. I don’t even especially mind that Wikipedia has porn. There could be legitimate reasons why an encyclopedia might want to have some “adult content.”

No, the real problem begins when Wikipedia features some of the most disgusting sorts of porn you can imagine, while being heavily used by children. But it’s even more complicated than that, as I’ll explain.

(Note, the following was co-written by me and several other people. I particularly needed their help finding the links.)

Here is the short version:

Wikipedia and other websites of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) host a great deal of pornographic content, as well as other content not appropriate for children. Yet, the Wikimedia Foundation encourages children to use these resources. Google, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and many other high-profile sites have installed optional filters to block adult content from view. I believe the WMF sites should at a minimum install an optional, opt-in filter, as the WMF Board agreed to do [*] in 2011. I understand that the WMF has recently stopped work on the filter and, after a period of community reaction, some Board members have made it clear that they do not expect this filter to be finished and installed. Wikipedians, both managers and rank-and-file, apparently do not have enough internal motivation to do the responsible thing for their broad readership.

But even that is too brief. If you really want to appreciate Wikipedia’s porn problem, I’m afraid you’re going to have to read the following.

Here is the longer version:

The Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) and its project communities have recently stopped work on an optional, opt-in filter that the Foundation’s Board approved [*] in 2011. “Opt-in” means the filter would be switched on only for users who choose to turn it on. It would hide certain content behind a warning, and even then, the content would still be accessible to all users. It is accurate to call this proposed filter “weak”.  Nevertheless, after a period of community reaction, some Board members have made it clear that they do not expect this filter to be finished and installed. WMF director Sue Gardner implicitly endorsed their description of the situation at the end of this discussion [*] (at “I wish we could’ve talked about the image filter”).

Yet, Wikipedia and its image and file archive, Wikimedia Commons, host an enormous and rapidly growing amount of pornographic content. This includes (or did include, when this petition was drafted):

WARNING, THE FOLLOWING ARE EXTREMELY EXPLICIT
• articles illustrated with pornographic videos (“convent pornography” [*], “The Good Old Naughty Days” [*], “A Free Ride” [*])
• videos of male masturbation [*] and of ejaculation in two [*] formats [*]; pictures as well: ejaculation [*]
• illustrated articles about various extreme and fetishistic topics (cock and ball torture[*]hogtie bondage [*]fisting [*]autofellatio [*]pearl necklace [*]hentai [*])
• photo categories for the “sexual penetrative use of cucumbers” [*] and other vegetables, practices like scrotum inflation[*], pictures about penis torture [*]
(Note, [*] indicate links to archived versions of pages, for reference in case these pages are edited.) Some searches produce unexpected results [*]. For example, an image search for “male human” [*] in the “Simple Wikipedia” (touted as a children’s version: “The Simple English Wikipedia is for everyone! That includes children and adults who are learning English”) shows dozens upon dozens of pornographic and exhibitionist images. Almost all the most frequently viewed media files on Wikimedia servers [*] are sexually explicit files, which puts the lie to the oft-repeated claim that pornography is rarely viewed on Wikipedia.

Many parents and teachers are neither aware of the adult content on Wikipedia sites, nor that it is accessible to school-age students, nor that this content is in fact quite popular.

With so much adult content, so often accessed, you might think that Wikipedia is adults-only, and that children don’t use it. But of course, they do. We are told that today’s children are “Generation Z” who get much of their information online. Even pre-teen children are heavy users of Wikipedia, which is often ranked in the top five of all websites in terms of traffic. In fact, 25% of the contributors to Wikipedia are under the age of 18, according to a 2010 survey, and about 12% of both readers and contributors said they had only a primary education.

Youth readership is something that the Wikimedia Foundation appears to condone, at the very least. For example, Jimmy Wales has addressed audiences of school children about Wikipedia, and one of their Wikipedian in Residence programs is at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis [*]. Wales expressed a common attitude about children’s use of Wikipedia in an interview in which he said that if “a 10-year-old is writing a little short paper for class, and they want to say that they got some information from Wikipedia, I think we should be just glad that the kid’s writing and actually thinking about giving credit — due credit — to people who have helped. And I think that’s wonderful.” (Libertyfund.org, at the 20:19 mark; cf. this BBC story)

If it is meant to be used with children, you might wonder whether Wikipedia and its sister projects really intend for their service to include pornography. Of that, there is no doubt. Wikipedia declares officially that it is “not censored” [*] (originally, this was labeled [*] “Wikipedia is not censored for children”) and its official policy page [*] on “offensive material” also makes it clear that pornography is permitted. To learn about the attitudes of many Wikipedians in the trenches, see the “Wikipedia:Pornography” [*] page and follow the links, or just try this search.

Moreover, in case there were any doubt, the Wikipedia community actively permits children to edit such content. The issue came up last year when a user who said he was 13 years old joined a Wikipedia volunteer group, WikiProject Pornography [*]. This raised eyebrows; someone proposed to restrict editing of articles about pornography to adults. Wikipedians discussed the matter at great length, took a vote, and a solid majority rejected the proposal [*].

This might look like a liberals vs. conservatives issue, at first glance; but I believe it is nonpartisan, more of an adolescent-minded-young-men vs. grownups-with-children issue. Nobody thinks of Google as being conservative just because they have SafeSearch (which is opt-out, i.e., turned on by default).

The WMF is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization with an educational mission. The presence of enormous amounts of unfiltered adult content, the “educational” purpose of which is questionable for anyone, directly conflicts with the goal of supporting the education of children.

That is Wikipedia’s porn problem.

II. Is inaction acceptable?

The official Wikipedia position on this problem appears to be: do nothing, and heap scorn upon anyone who suggests that something needs to be done. That also seems to suit many techno-libertarians, especially young males without children, who are the most enthusiastic consumers of porn, and who often dominate conversations about Internet policy.

I think inaction will prove unacceptable to most parents. At the very least there should be a reliable filter available, which parents might turn on if their younger children are using Wikipedia. I know that I would use it with my 6-year-old; then I might let him look at Wikipedia, if it were reliable. It’s hard to look over your children’s shoulder every moment they’re online. Wikipedians often glibly advise parents to do just this: if Junior is using Wikipedia to view porn and learn all about creative sexual fetishes, it’s your fault. You should be monitoring more closely. This obviously doesn’t wash, when it is well within Wikipedia’s power simply to add a filter that parents could turn on.

It is also unacceptable for most teachers and school district technology directors. How, really, can you defend giving kids access to a website with so much porn, when it is so obviously counter to CIPA rules, and when their parents would in many cases object (if they knew of the problem)?

What about you? If you agree, I’m going to make it easy for you to comment. I know that some Wikipedians might want to respond in a very hostile fashion–I’m no stranger to such disputes, myself–and this would put off a lot of people from commenting. But since this is my blog, happily, I can make up the rules, and so I will. I particularly encourage participation by parents, teachers, and women generally. I would especially like to hear from people who support the idea that Wikipedia tackle this problem. If you are opposed, that’s fine, but I will post your contribution only if you are polite and well-reasoned. I will not post anything that is personally insulting, and I also reserve the right not to post “flame bait” and merely silly or stupid remarks (and on such matters, my judgment is final). I will also pull the plug on any opponents who attempt to dominate the conversation. We already know there will be significant opposition, namely, from some Wikipedians and some of Wikipedia’s supporters. The purpose of this post is to get people talking about whether Wikipedia should be doing something about this problem.

III. What should be done?

There are a few things we might do.

First, we might blog, tweet, and post on Facebook about the problem. For better or worse, we’re all connected now, and getting the word out there is simply a matter of using social media. One person’s comment won’t amount to much–even this one won’t, probably. But a lot of people together can create a groundswell of support. So add your voice.

Second, we might contact leading Wikipedians, including Sue Gardner and other members of the WMF Board of Trustees. And don’t forget the many leading members of the Wikipedia project itself, such as the “checkusers” and the active administrators. If these people hear from readers not in the community, it can really make a difference. If enough of us write, Wikipedians might finally get the idea that there are a lot of readers out there who want a voice in determining what options are available to users.

A few months ago, I repeatedly (just to be sure) mailed Wikimedia chief Sue Gardner about Wikipedia’s porn problem. In 2010, she and I had a very productive and polite exchange, by both email and phone, about these issues. But recently, she has not responded. That was disappointing, but I believe I understand. My guess–it is only a guess, and I will correct this if I learn differently–is that Sue has been beaten down by her dysfunctional community. She has given up. I think she wants a filter installed, but it is politically impossible, and she fears for her job if she takes a hard-line stand. That’s my guess. If I am right, then external pressure will wake up the Wikipedia community and make it easier for her to insist that the community do the right thing.

Third, talk to the press. If you know reporters, or people who have lots of followers online, ask them to report about this story. It’s a big story. Why isn’t it big news that Wikipedia has given up its 2011 commitment to install a porn filter? Surely it is. It’s time to ask the Wikimedia Foundation, as well asthe leading Wikipedians, some hard questions. (And reporters, do be sure to ask questions of leading Wikipedians; I say that because the WMF does not control Wikipedia or Commons. If they did, they would be legally liable for a lot more than they are now. The people really making the decision, arguably, are the adolescent-minded Wikipedia admins who see nothing wrong with the current situation–not necessarily WMF employees.)

The fourth option is the “nuclear” option: we might boycott Wikipedia. Now, I’m not calling for a boycott–yet. If anything, I’d like to kick off a public discussion about whether we should boycott Wikipedia. I have been talking about this with some online acquaintances, and I am honestly torn. I don’t want this to be a mere publicity stunt: I want to call for a boycott only if it could possibly have a positive effect. I also don’t want to call for a boycott if I don’t know that there will be a significant groundswell of popular support. And I don’t want this to be about me. I want it to be all about making Wikipedia more responsibly managed and more useful for children–kids are some of its most important users, even if Wikipedians loudly insist that it is not “censored for children.”

But if Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation do not take decisive action between now and end-of-year fundraising time, I might very well call for a boycott. For now, let’s get the word out, start a conversation, and see if we can make a difference without taking such drastic action.

Please feel free to repost this online.

UPDATE: in a response to me, Jimmy Wales has reiterated his support for a Wikipedia porn filter. But this wouldn’t be the first time Jimbo has supported a Wikipedia proposal that never saw the light of day. Let’s make him put his money where his mouth is.

 

Photo credit: Image used with permission from Dr. Sanger’s Twitter profile

Photo credit:  아침꿀물  on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

18 comments to What should we do about Wikipedia’s porn problem?

  • ericbarbour

    No feedback yet?

  • Oz

    Why don’t they just create a new branch of Wikimedia that is specifically designed for porn enthusiasts, and plaster it with parental guidance warnings? If that is unacceptable to the porn faction, then it’s time to ask what their actual objectives are.

  • Cla68

    Kim Komando mentioned this post today on her radio spot. Right on.

    • Hersch

      And thereby hangs a tale, no doubt. Could you explain to us uninitiates who Kim Komando is?

      • Cla68

        She said something along the lines of, “I have previously warned you about Wikipedia’s problem with hosting adult content that kids can have access to. Well, a new article by Larry Sanger, one of Wikipedia’s founders, explains why Wikipedia has not addressed the issue. According to Sanger, Wikipedia’s administration came up with a proposed adult-content filter, but Wikipedia’s culture of libertarian anti-censorship, led by the many young men who participate in Wikipedia, rejected the idea. Thus, adult-content remains easily accessible to your kids. As I said before, you need to monitor your kids’ Internet use.”

  • Oz

    Larry said “groovy.”

  • Guyovski

    I think it might be a mistake to solicit political support from the parent lobby on the basis of its fears for the safety of its members’ own children. It polarizes the discussion and makes the “young males with no children” dig in their heels because they are being named as the enemy. I am a middle-aged man who never married or had children, and I support the general objectives expressed in your article, but I also resent the excessive leverage that the parent lobby has in society and the way that leverage squeezes out my concerns in the public space. Surely you could try to avoid alienating me by not playing the parent card.

    • “Young males with no children” aren’t the enemy–perish the thought!–but most of the enemy are young males with no children. And it’s frankly silly to suggest that “the parent lobby” not be consulted in this case, because it’s parents with young children who are most naturally interested in this issue. Trying to get parents interested in this issue, whether “lobbies” are involved or not (we’re not talking about legislation, here, remember–just a voluntary, opt-in filter), does not involve “playing the parent card.” There’s no need to think of this in terms analogous to race relations, as you suggest. I don’t.

  • David Wainwright

    Larry, I’m not married and do not have any children, but I agree with your concerns. There is no legitimate reason why filters can not be implemented. This is yet another example of Wikipedia choosing ideological purity over common sense. Most major Internet organizations and companies (e.g., Google) do not support censorship, but they do support optional features that parents can use if they wish to protect their children from offensive content. However, because of Wikipedia’s doctrinaire adherence to “Wikipedia is not censored”, even voluntary restrictions on children’s access to pornography is censorship.

    I used to edit extensively at Wikipedia, and I spent a lot of time working on Wikipedia guidelines, but I have stopped largely because of the organization’s quasi-religious devotion to badly-conceived policies. I was not involved with porn articles at Wikipedia, but I did deal with a lot of BLP, notability, and copyright, and any attempt to fix serious problems at Wikipedia results in some variant of the following replies: “This policy has worked well for years.” or “Wikipedia must be free. That’s what makes this project special.”

  • Mangoe

    And all this doesn’t even begin to touch the various activists pushing their own curious sexual agendas, such as Haiduc, who finally managed to get himself banned after years of curious edits about pre- and peri-adolescent sexuality. It can show up in any article: my main battle with Haiduc concerned an image he was dead-set on inserting in “apple”.

  • LeChuck

    “Wikipedia and other websites of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) host a great deal of pornographic (sic) content”

    “…No, the real problem begins when Wikipedia features some of the most disgusting sorts of porn (sic) you can imagine, while being heavily used by children.”

    It may be because I’m not a Southern Baptist, but I don’t find these images in any way disgusting. Can you explain WHY exactly they are such a grave danger to children? They are, after all, used in context to illustrate and explain the articles which they accompany.

  • Person

    All of this is written on the assumption that pornography is harmful to children. Now is it? Perhaps it may seem so if we follow what a lot of our society says; the laws and such that forbid showing pornographic content to children, etc. and other things like that. But nowadays perhaps some of us are starting to realize that in fact, the idea that pornography is harmful to children is misguided. The fact is, most people get exposed to pornography at around 13 already. In fact, perhaps these images are much more educational than sex education offered in schools. Certainly, a lot of what is produced by the pornographic industry can be very misleading about what happens in real life – but that is not all of it, and even then it’s not like they really do much harm in the end.

    In the end, the people who are complaining about this are people who just think pornography is immoral, that sex outside of marriage is immoral, etc. You can say “you don’t have a problem with pornography websites,” but that’s just a cover for making arguments that don’t make sense except by starting with the assumption that pornography is inherently bad in some way

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