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 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.