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Wikipedia punishes child safety whistleblower

By Peter Damian

Retaliatory treatment of whistleblowers nearly always attracts public interest. The recent sacking of a Ryanair pilot, for “gross misconduct” after speaking out on a TV documentary about safety fears, was widely covered in the press. Stories about the climate of fear surrounding the exposure of child predators in the BBC and in the Roman Catholic church have been extensively covered in the mainstream media. The plight of Mike McQueary, who was made a scapegoat after his allegations of child sexual abuse at Penn State University, made headlines across the United States. Whistleblowing is big news. And rightly so – if people are afraid to expose evil, evil will flourish.

Yet there has been no press coverage about the punishment last week of a whistleblower in the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia. Last week, a long-serving editor who we will call “Keith”, who had made hundreds of contributions to articles about set theory, mathematics and statistics, was punished by the encyclopedia’s powerful Arbitration Committee, for raising complaints of a serious nature about child protection and predatory editors. Despite his considerable contribution to Wikipedia, he was indefinitely blocked from editing the site. This was not covered by any mainstream media.

“… the only place in their lives where their age doesn’t matter.”

The Wikipedia Adventure
Wikipedia rarely features in media coverage of online child protection. Articles like this mention the usual suspects like Facebook and Twitter. They never mention Wikipedia, probably because of its image as a scholarly enterprise whose contributors include teachers and scholars like Keith. Yet a substantial minority of Wikipedia editors and administrators are children, and the Wikipedia itself deliberately targets young editors. “There’s a recurring motif inside Wikipedia of preteen editors who’ve spent their lives so far having their opinions and ideas discounted because of their age, but who have nonetheless worked their way into positions of real authority on Wikipedia,” said Wikimedia Foundation chief executive Sue Gardner earlier this year. “They love Wikipedia fiercely because it’s a meritocracy: the only place in their lives where their age doesn’t matter.”

Leaked emails from an earlier landmark case, decided in secret by the Arbcom, show strong support for her position. When arbitrator “Risker”, whose daytime job is as a risk officer at a Toronto hospital, proposed emailing a 13 year old editor, telling her that Wikipedia was “not intended to be a site edited by children”, there were strenuous objections. “Children who edit should be able to do so without people realising they are children,” said another anonymous arbitrator known only by his online nickname “Carcharoth”. Arbitrator “NewYorkBrad”, in real life a litigation partner at a New York law firm, agreed. “It is a debatable statement, depending on what ages are considered ‘children’, and if this e-mail winds up being circulated, will lead to comments along the lines of ‘why is anyone under [number] years old allowed on Wikipedia at all given that they admit the[y] can’t contribute anyway?’” Another arbitrator is involved with a project called “The Wikipedia Adventure“. It is branded as “An interstellar trek through Wikipedia”, in a cartoon style clearly aimed at pre-teen editors, with a set of six ‘missions’ to introduce them to the Wikipedia editing environment and culture. The project was supported by money the general public had donated to Wikipedia.

No safeguards for children
Editors like Keith are concerned about a lack of even rudimentary safeguards for children on Wikipedia. The project is almost dominated by children, yet when you compare the controls in place at other organisations where adults work with children, such as the Boy Scouts of America, it falls seriously short in every respect. The most elementary and basic form of control used by all responsible organisations is identification for adults who work with children. Scouts Canada has a volunteer screening checklist that requires the applicant not only to identify themselves, but to provide reliable references. The State Government of Victoria requires that applicants working with children must verify their identity: “The identification process is an important part in preventing applications being lodged under false names.”

So how do you verify the identity of a Wikipedia editor who works with children? You can’t. Wikipedia allows (and jealously protects) pseudonymous editing, seeing it as essential to freedom of speech. Yet the notion of anonymous people giving childcare is unthinkable in real life. Imagine a paunchy 50-year-old stranger wandering up and eagerly joining the conversation of two 12 year olds playing outside a suburban house. One of their parents comes out: “Who are you?”  “Oh, I’m Dennis101,” replies the stranger. “No, I mean your real name?”  “Oh just … Dennis101. No need to bother about my other name. I love to mentor children. The boys and I are planning on hanging out unsupervised later. Is that OK?” It is unthinkable. Except that it is quite unremarkable on Wikipedia.

Keith was particularly concerned about an 11-year-old boy who was fascinated by social networking sites, particularly by wikis. He had been rejected by Wikia (the for-profit version of Wikipedia launched by Jimmy Wales) as he was under 13. Yet he was accepted by the English Wikpedia. Within days of joining he was subjected to locker room talk of adult members. The 11 year old was perplexed. “Isn’t f***ing a bit bad word?”  They dismissed him in a way close to bullying. “We are grownups, and friends after a fashion. We can use whatever language we like. Please go edit some articles”, was the reply. To be fair, they clearly found the presence of young children irritating, but this reflects the way Wikipedia is unable to segregate and strictly limit the interaction between different age groups as you might find in a school, or in the scouts.

The boy was eventually blocked for irritating behaviour that was perfectly understandable in an 11 year old. When he told the people on his talk page that the block had made him cry, an adult user showed him some kindness – an older, probably middle-aged editor we shall call “Dennis101”. We know almost nothing about Dennis except that he has an interest in caning and corporal punishment, and is active in the child ‘mentoring’ projects on Wikipedia. He recommended another Wikipedia site to the boy, and joined him there. There was nothing to stop him emailing and messaging the child, as Keith claims he did. Even when the parents deleted the child’s contact list, Dennis101 suggested that “someone not being in your contacts, doesn’t stop you emailing them (if you know their address), or them emailing you.

In responsible organisations, such one-on-one contact between adults and youth members is prohibited by the so-called ‘two adults’ rule. There is no such thing on Wikipedia. Does its online “virtual” environment make it different? Not at all. “The policy of two-deep leadership extends into cyberspace. Another adult leader should be copied on any electronic communication between adult and youth member,” say the Scouts.

The punishment of whistleblowers
This incident, and others involving mentoring of young editors made Keith suspicious, and he eventually reported it to the arbitration committee. This would have been welcomed in a responsible organisation such as the Boy Scouts of America, which imposes mandatory reporting of any such incidents: “No person may abdicate this reporting responsibility to any other.” But he heard nothing, despite badgering the members of the committee. Eventually he became so frustrated that he raised the matter in public, “on wiki”. This was unacceptable. Wikipedia gives priority to protecting the anonymity of volunteers over any other concern, even child protection, and mentioning “Dennis”, even by his online handle, was seen as a form of harassment. After a short case, he was banned by the Arbitration Committee “for on-Wiki discussion of child-adult contacts, rather than only forwarding information confidentially to ArbCom as specified by WP:Child Protection”.

Evil will flourish without protection for those who cast daylight upon it. This is why the plight of those who blow the whistle in cases ranging from airline safety to child abuse receives such attention in the mainstream press. Why is the plight of those who raise concerns about child protection on Wikipedia so shamefully neglected? Wikipedia is institutionally incapable of dealing with these issues. The Wikimedia Foundation have abrogated any responsibility, and the Wikipedia community is too dysfunctional to address these issues. It is wide open to manipulation by those who would cynically exploit Wikipedia’s culture of anonymity.

Responsible organisations protect whistleblowers, in order to protect children. Wikipedia by contrast tries to protect the target of the whistleblower: damn the whistleblower, and damn the children.


Image credit: Wikimedia/Nevit Dilmen,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported


16 comments to Wikipedia punishes child safety whistleblower

  • Wer900

    Great article. The whole saga with Kieth was extremely sad, and was a real loss for whistleblowers. Most of what goes on on Wikipedia happens in “seekrit”, via IRC channels and email, so that misdeeds can be carefully hidden.

  • David KD

    Any excuse will do for ArbCom to get rid of vocal critics.

    Let’s get real. This editor was banned because ArbCom doesn’t like critics. Simple as that.

    ArbCom is a joke.

    • Michaeldsuarez

      I believe that this blog entry is being dishonest to you, and Jimbo Wales feels the same way. Kiefer.Wolfowitz wasn’t banned for being a critic.

      • Delicious carbuncle

        I agree that it oversimplifies KW’s ban, but it is hard not to notice the coincidence of that ban and KW’s actions immediately before it was enacted. He wasn’t banned just for being a whistleblower, but it contributed both to the ban and the timing of the ban.

        The rest of the piece seems to be a very fair telling of an actual situation – or do you think that part is “dishonest” as well?

      • John Lilburne

        Wales is wrong. KW’s blocks throughout this year have been related to complaints about inappropriate behaviour both on WP and on the WP IRC channels. The misdirection that is being applied here is to say that he was banned for saying “this creep is behaving inappropriately” rather than “this editor is behaving inappropriately”

        IOW WP is purely concerned with the form over substance.

  • Jimmy Wales calls this blog post “utterly dishonest” (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_talk:Jimbo_Wales&diff=prev&oldid=570365233 ), which means of course that it is “mostly true”.

  • Bob Beckles

    This is the stupidest thing I have ever read on Wikipediocracy, and that’s saying something. As has already been spotted, the idea that “Keith” was banned for being a whistleblower, either in whole or even in part, is total and utter bullshit. A fact easily verifiable by going to the primary source, the arbitration case pages. Which perhaps explains why journalists wouldn’t ever run with ‘stories’ like this. And if not for that reason, then for the fact it contains claims and assumptions that you could drive a truck through. For a start, it doesn’t explain why the issue is Wikipedia specifically, rather than the internet in general. While lambasting its open nature, it conveniently ignores the aspects of Wikipedia that make it an inherently bad place to go looking for vulnerable kids. There are no private chat facilities for example – all communication on Wikipedia is visible to everyone – so if you want to initiate contact with a child you have to do so infront of the entire internet. The content of exchanges is not even restricted to just selected users of the site, unlike much of Facebook for example. That’s not something a peodophile is likely to be comfortable with, even under the cloak of anonymity, given the alternative vectors available. Sure, someone can email a user using a third party email account, but preventing a child from giving out their email address on the internet, or screening a child’s third party email inbox for unsolicited contact, is hardly the responsibility of Wikipedia. All Wikipedia can do in that case is all that anyone who is not the parent can, offer advice and education. This blog also conveniently ignored the fact that the principle of anonymity means that Wikipedia has none of the features that would make it an attractive place for someone looking for kids to groom – you are not required to enter an age, sex, location or profile pic in order to edit Wikipedia. Posting of profile information that would be useful to peados is either discouraged or actively removed, depending on the risk it poses, under the existing policies that this post so freely criticizes as wholly inadequate. By contrast, the ‘protection’ proposals in this blog are no more thought out than the existing requirement that Facebook users must be over a certain age, which of course has been a complete success, not. And finally, it ignores that basic fact that Wikipedia is not and never has been a social network. If you register on the site and simply go around trying to make friends with kids, you are going to get noticed. If you try to hide that by actually editting articles, you will only increase the chances that someone will notice your other ‘activities’. If the steps on Wikipedia that come after that are currently failing to protect children, no actual evidence has been provided here to that effect. Much like previous blog posts, the presentation of actual evidence of anyone actually abusing Wikipedia for their own peadophilic purposes is omitted. Due to the small size of Wikipediocracy’s legal fighting fund I would imagine. The only danger arising from Wikipedia as presented here is based on the rather ludicrous assumption that any contact between adults and children on the entire internet needs to be between screened and verified persons. Which is absolute nonsense. The inescapable truth is that Wikipedia is just one of a thousand different sites where anonymous adults can interact with vulnerable children, and it is not a very good one for that activity compared to the alternatives, not least the thousands of unregulated chat rooms and forums. There is talk over on this forum of there being 20 reported concerns in a year. WTF? 20 in a year? On a site where there is no identification or controls? Does that sound like it remotely compares with the level of concern with other sites that is so high it leads the FBI to start posing as kids online? The basic premise that Wikipedia, and only Wikipedia it seems, needs to implement BSOA style screening and verification systems and rules, in order to protect children from danger, is frankly laughable. “Keith” was only making these ‘complaints’ and ‘suggestions’ as part of a pathetic last gasp epic troll, knowing surely as he did, that he was facing the thick end of a ban for numerous unrelated things which had all come back to haunt him. As an aside, having observed him for a while, I can say that he is the sort of person I definitely wouldn’t want my children learning from, yet I don’t see any proposal from him that would prevent that. I rather got the impression that he liked an audience infact, and didn’t much care who was reading his nonsense. The only reason it’s being recycled verbatim on Wikipediocracy without even the basics of the idea being challenged, is the fact that this site’s entire raison d’etre is not journalism or even honest activism, it is simply geared to killing Wikipedia, by fair means or foul. The irony is that there are most likely already several minors registered on the Wikipediocracy forum right now, as well as a whole bunch of adults, who are all as anonymous to this site’s owners as the average Wikipedia user is to Jimbo Wales. And not for the first time, a blog post on this site is illustrated with an entirely unrelated image, this time unbelievably of a minor in their PJs. In a post about peados on the internet? Jesus. In the unlikely event that the Wikipediocracy forum ever gets as popular as Wikipedia, will we see BSOA style controls implemented? Of course not. This whole post was total rubbish from start to finish. Not even a complete and utter rewrite would turn it into something the mainstream media would even think twice about publishing. As an aside, in my personal experience, the adults you meet in the scouts were not even the problem (even though it was pretty obvious they were all wierdos to say the least). Until I’d been put in a social setting with older scouts, I’d never drunk beer, never vandalised property, never had fun with fireworks, and yes, never even seen porn (my inabiliy to find it being down to the fact the internet didn’t exist back then, ironically). And I’m talking from age 11. Obviously that’s not something that any adult-child policy is going to stop. It’s hard to see how my own kids would get the same experiences by editting Wikipedia from that age.

    • no

      tl;dr bro. At least throw in some paragraph breaks.

    • W. P. Beans

      This is a blog post not an armed assault. If anyone’s aim was “killing Wikipedia, by fair means or foul” they would simply DDOS bits.wikimedia.org. Oh. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything about that. Too late now.

  • DKqwerty

    “The project is almost dominated by children”{{Citation needed|date=September 2013}}

  • Whatever

    Most of the time when someone complains they have been banned because Wikipedia couldn’t handle their powerful truths, it is actually because they were being a gigantic asshole.

  • John Doe

    One of the supposedly legitimate reasons for banning Keifer. Quite clearly, Beeblebrox was showing Keifer what level of civility is completely tolerated, and when Keifer replied with the same personal direction, it’s used as “evidence” against Keifer.
    I bet if Beeblebrox was the whistleblower he would be the one banned. They can definitely dig up enough against him when if time comes.

  • Jamie Smith

    How Ironic that just this week the Wikimedia Foundation banned “Dennis” globally – across all sites – for inappropriate behavior rising to the level of possible criminal liability.

    In the end, “Keith” was right…

  • […] a good place to start are two Wikipediocracy blog articles that were written about him: Wikipedia punishes child safety whistleblower and ASSUME BAD FAITH. Demiurge1000 exhibits a rather bizarre personality. Because so much of what […]