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By Peter Damian

The so-called Precautionary Principle is a fundamental tenet of risk management. The Principle says that if the impact of an event is suitably high, then the default position, the burden of proof, is on those who wish to show the risk of the event is suitably low. A well-known example: there is some uncertainty about whether there will be a catastrophic result of global warming. Global warming is a fact – CO2 emission is causing the planet to heat up. But we don’t know how much it is going to heat up, given the wide range of future predicted temperatures. However, the impact of it heating up, at the upper bound of current estimates, is clearly catastrophic. Therefore take suitable precautions.

Adults and children

Corporal punishment

Earlier, I posted about a problem Wikipedia editor who we called ‘Dennis’. That’s not his real name. Nor is his actual Wikipedia user name his real name. We don’t know who he is at all. We know almost nothing about him except that he is middle-aged, that he has an interest in caning and corporal punishment, and that he is active in the child ‘mentoring’ projects on Wikipedia.

Is ‘Dennis’ guilty of anything bad? We don’t know. All we know is that he has interacted with children on Wikipedia in a way that would not be considered normal, even for a parent or a close relative. He befriended an 11-year old boy who had been bullied by older Wikipedia editors. This is not abnormal, and most adults would do the same if they saw this happening in the street. But then he began an email correspondence with the boy and messaged him, against the parent’s wishes. When the boy told him it was against the parent’s wishes and that they had deleted his email contacts, Dennis suggested that “someone not being in your contacts, doesn’t stop you emailing them (if you know their address), or them emailing you.” That’s unusual, and most adults would recognise this as going well beyond the line.

Dennis’s relaxed manner with children contrasts with his often abusive or surly approach to adults on Wikipedia. In one interchange, discussing the usefulness of parental controls, he pretended to be a child himself.

My parents have a Mac too. Parental Control is set on it to stop them breaking things by accident. (After all, the Parental Control feature is provided to allow you to control parents in this manner, right?) This confuses them greatly when I change the desktop background to be a surprising picture and they can’t change it back. –Dennis101

He seemed to be implying, and could easily be taken as meaning, that he was a young person living with his parents. He seemed to be mischievously endorsing the misuse of parental controls. It is a well-known technique of children’s storytellers to take the point of view of the child, against the parents. But a storyteller is physically distant from the readers. To do this in real life is disturbing. In yet another incident, Dennis followed the 11 year old to another wiki, where he began an article about a children’s TV series. This may have been innocent. But it may not. Most adults have no interest in childish matters, and many adults that do, have ulterior and often undesirable motives. Would I interact with children in the way Dennis does? I wouldn’t. Why not? It gives off a vibe of pedophile grooming at worst, and at best makes me look like an adult who gets off on manipulating children online. More disturbingly, one of the boys, then 14, placed a message on Dennis’s page saying ‘this user enjoys caning naughty boys’. There was nothing on wiki to suggest that Dennis enjoyed caning boys. What had they discussed by email that led to this? Another child made a user box for him saying “This user observed, received, and administered corporal punishment while he was a schoolboy.” It may be harmless, but, being a parent, it sets off my creep alert.

These incidents were not isolated. In a post to the administrator’s section of Wikipedia, Dennis once suggested that he had interacted with pre-teen children on many occasions. The precautionary principle tells us that the impact of Dennis being a child predator is high. Therefore the burden of proof falls upon those who would argue that the probability that he is a predator is low.

The sprawling nature of Wikipedia makes it a dark forest for bad creatures to hide in.

Is it a risk?

But do editors like Dennis pose any kind of risk at all? We don’t apply the precautionary principle in every single case. There is a risk, in the sense that it is theoretically possible, that the world is run by shape-shifting reptiles who assume human form. There is a risk that the world may spontaneously combust on Tuesday. But we don’t bother with cases that are so outlandish and remote that no one would take them seriously. So argued one of the commenters, who I suspect is Dennis himself, on my original post. Wikipedia is not like Facebook, he said. It 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”.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales agrees with Dennis. He said so publicly on 28 August 2013 that it was OK for someone to mentor teens and communicate with them by email. “There’s nothing inherently problematic about that” (my emphasis). When he was emailed about this, he said the same thing. There was nothing inherently problematic about Dennis interacting with minors, he told us, while confusingly also saying that Dennis had been secretly advised not to ‘mentor’ little boys again. For there was no prima facie evidence that Dennis had bad intentions.

Let’s take these objections in turn. Wikipedia isn’t Facebook, to be sure. The key feature of Facebook is that it consists of friendship groups, membership by application or invitation only, with the typical group for a teenage user restricted to people they know in real life. Young people should suspect, and they are taught to suspect anyone approaching them from outside that group. Not so in Wikipedia, where the grounds for an adult approaching a child can be concealed as ordinary Wikipedia business, or (worse) as part of the semi-official process of ‘mentoring’. Wikipedia allows for faceless and unidentifiable contact between an incredibly large number of individuals.

Is Wikipedia is just one of a thousand websites where anonymous adults can interact with vulnerable children? Sure, but most of those websites can be controlled using standard software parental control filters. Wikipedia has a ‘wholesome’ image in the outside world. It is available in schools as a supposed educational resource. It is classified by McAfee as “Minimal Risk Blogs/Wiki, Education/Reference”. A parent has no way of controlling access to Wikipedia. By contrast, sites like 4chan are easily blocked. McAfee classifies it as ‘Web Category: Pornography’. It is irresponsible of detractors to argue that ‘parents should be aware of the risks’, when there is no way in principle that they can be aware that there is any risk at all. Objectors say that “Wikipedia is not and never has been a social network”. But as we have strenuously argued for a long time, Wikipedia is essentially a social network. The sprawling nature of Wikipedia (it is an immense site of 4 million visible pages, and an underlying easily-hidden mess of half a billion revision pages) makes it a dark forest for bad creatures to hide in.

“Wikipedia is not a very good one for that activity compared to the alternatives”, argued our commentator. Why not? Anyone can edit Wikipedia, almost everyone is anonymous, and so long as you are superficially well-intentioned, no one will ask questions. It falls outside standard parental filters as a ‘minimal risk’ educational resource. The untraceability of encounters, guaranteed by Wikipedia’s unofficial ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policies, provide considerable incentives for bad actors. There are two such policies. The first one on pedophiles became semi-official in March 2007 in a secret mail by Jimmy Wales to the Arbitration Committee. The policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was a bad policy in the US military, he said, but it was ‘just about right’ for Wikipedia’s stance on pedophiles[Tue, 20 Mar 2007 13:45:02 +0900 Subject: [Arbcom-l] Wikipedia e-mail – Pedophilia discussion]. He was responding to an extensive campaign on Wikipedia organised from pedophile sites like Boychat, Puellela and Annabelle Leigh.

A similar policy was later adopted for child editors by the Arbitration Committee in December 2010. Committee member ‘Carcharoth’ commented:

My personal view is that children who edit should be able to do so without people realising they are children. The most any editor should need to say is that they are young and/or still in eduction [sic] (to help explain some issues they may encounter while editing). Though on re-reading, this does sound a lot like the ‘don’t say, don’t tell’ [sic] policy in the US military!

This is almost criminally irresponsible. Child editors are easy to identify, even when they don’t say they are children. Their user pages are childish, they write childishly, and about childish things. There are official ‘mentoring’ projects like the Wikipedia Adventure, clearly targeted at pre-teens. They are an easy target for ‘child lovers’, but interactions are impossible to monitor under the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy. You don’t know who the predators are, and you can’t challenge without being disciplined, as our whistleblower ‘Keith’ found to his cost. You don’t know who the targets are, and you can’t even ask them. The policy creates a strong incentive for bad-intentioned adults to approach minors via Wikipedia.

And if something bad happens, the untraceability means you won’t even know if it has happened. I managed to get in touch with the teacher of one of the boys that Dennis had interacted with, who recommended I get in touch with the police. I did, but the British police replied saying that they could not act unless there was evidence of an actual crime. They implied it was the responsibility of the website (i.e. Wikipedia) to implement suitable controls. But Wikipedia won’t (see below). I found the identity of this one boy by accident. About the rest, we just don’t know. We know that in one case Dennis may have actually met up with a child, promising to visit him at school in the West of England. What happened to the child? We will never know.

Is it really harmful? Some adults enjoy the company of children. There is nothing essentially wrong with that. But in real life we have controls over how they interact. The Scouts have the ‘two deep’ rule: no adult-child interaction with fewer than two adults. No adult may interact outside that environment as a result of contacts made within it. There are no such controls on Wikipedia. And we follow the precautionary principle. If the impact is high, then the burden of proof is on those who claim the risk is low, to prove that it is low.

Put it a simpler way. Did we have enough evidence that Michael Jackson was sexually molesting children to believe that he should lose his liberty? Absolutely not. Did we have enough evidence that Michael Jackson was not sexually molesting children to believe that he should have unsupervised contact with young boys? Absolutely not. That is the problem with our editor ‘Dennis’. Sensible precautions suggest that adult-child protection should be carefully monitored, and that the default should be against assuming good faith. It is criminally irresponsible to suggest otherwise. Never assume good faith.

The costs of protection
Another objection to the precuationary principle is that the cost of taking precautions is high, as it is with global warming. To prevent it, we have to stop driving cars and stop heating or air conditioning our houses. For many people, that is too high. But is it really too high to take suitable precautions about child safety on Wikipedia? The child protection policy, which is laughable, could easily be amended to prohibit soliciting identifiable information, or pursuing offline contact. The Wikimedia Foundation’s Terms of Use prohibit solicitation of personally identifiable information from children, but only for an ‘illegal purpose’. This could easily be changed. Yet when I asked the Foundation’s legal advisor last week how such ‘illegal purposes’ were monitored, there was no reply. When I asked Sue Gardner, their CEO, there was no reply. When I asked Philippe Beaudette, their community liason manager, it all went silent.

Why the silence? It is probably because of the strange legal position of Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation. The Foundation maintains the legal fiction that it is simply running a website, and that Wikipedia is a sort of super-blog maintained by thousands of individual and unconnected users. Even to reply to an email about child protection would implicate the Foundation as being somehow legally responsible for the safety of children.

What about Wikipedia? Wikipedia is not a legal entity, but it is an organisation, and its members – the 600 administrators who run the site, and in particular their leaders the Arbitration Committee – could be jointly and severally liable for anything bad that happens. If a child is abused, or injured, or ends up in a shallow grave, the organisation as a whole could be liable for criminal charges, or for a civil action by parents. This is why the Arbitration Committee are desperate for the Foundation to take on responsibility. One of them made the point pretty forcefully.

I have already made abundantly clear to my fellow arbs that I will never get involved in child protection issues because of liability concerns and general qualms (we are a bunch of dedicated people who try to do what’s best for the encyclopaedia, but we lack both proper training and resources to deal with such investigations).My only involvement in the topic area has been to push for the foundation to take overSalvio 09:49, 8 July 2013 (UTC)

Or is it just that the whole idea of the precautionary principle, of proving good faith, runs counter to the whole Wikipedian ideology, of merely assuming good faith? Only the future will tell, and it will take only one, regrettably sad, incident to change the future forever.


Image credits: Logic Museum and Wikimedia Commons.

13 comments to ASSUME BAD FAITH

  • It’s really an astounding indictment that the Wikimedia Foundation declines to address the problem of online protection of children on their sites; choosing instead to repeat that they have a child protection policy that is rigorously enforced, when the very enforcement channel (the Arbitration Committee) has repeatedly shouted that they are not properly equipped to manage the policy!

  • lilburne

    Is there anything that those wastrels actually do to earn their keep?

  • Skeptic

    Isn’t it convenient that, according to you, it’s the very nature of Wikipedia that makes it both an extremely attractive and fruitful place for pedophiles to groom children, and also ensures that it is completely impossible to even verify if it’s happening?

    Isn’t it convenient that, under your bizarre take on the precautionary principle, it’s the people who think the idea that Wikipedia is an attractive hunting ground for pedophiles is a shaky assertion at best, who have to somehow prove that it isn’t (how, exactly?), rather than the other way around?

    I think you need to take the British police’s advice, and just stop reheating and rehashing this same nonsense about “Dennis” in the apparent belief it gets any more coherent each time, and just move on to other things unless or until you actually turn up some actual evidence to support your obvious belief that the FBI et al are all missing a trick by completely overlooking Wikipedia as the most dangerous website for vulnerable children on the internet.

    Frankly, claiming that it’s the very nature of Wikipedia that stops you from finding any proof that would remotely justify the sort of ‘precautions’ you keep blogging about, like these ridiculous Boy Scout analogies, is just laughable to the people who actually know how the site works (but they’re presumably not the intended target audience of these ridiculous scare blogs though, I guess).

    If it’s so easy to find vulnerable kids on Wikipedia, then why not do it yourself – if as you claim they’re easy to spot, then it won’t take you long to draw up a list of, say, 100 minors active on Wikipedia.

    Then all you have to do is use a bot to post a simple query to all of them, asking them if they’ve been contacted in an inappropriate way, or for inappropriate means, either on Wikipedia or via details they submitted to Wikipedia.

    That is an easy exercise, which, if Wikipedia is truly a dark forest with inumerable bad creatures lurking within as you claim, would no doubt quickly yield the account names of some actual pedophiles. Then, in true ‘Keith the banned whistleblower’ style (seriously, you’re going to keep repeating that nonsense as if it were remotely true as well?), you can blog about them here, and see what comes of it.

    I’m guessing that you’re either not going to bother doing even a simple exercise like this, or you will but then won’t reveal the results if, as I predict, it won’t elicit a single shred of evidence that Wikipedia is being used by child predators to find their victims.

    • Skeptic misses the point, of course, asking Wikipediocracy “to draw up a list of, say, 100 minors active on Wikipedia.” What would be the point of that? We’ve already shown that when one or two susceptible minors are pinpointed and the Wikimedia Foundation apparatus is notified, nothing is actually done. Finding another 98 or 99 would be as proportionally a futile exercise.

      • Skeptic

        What rubbish. You’ve showed nothing, which is why nobody is interested, not the British police, not the press, nobody. This has to be the quietest ever comments section on a Wikipediocracy blog, so perhaps even your die-hard supporters know it’s full of crap.

        The point of doing what I suggested would be of course to help you show a skeptical world that when you post blogs like this, you aren’t just scaring people about claimed risks and dangers of Wikipedia that in reality you’ve just made up, for no higher purpose than it serves your general mission of finding any stick you can to beat them with.

        You claimed it’s easy to spot minors on Wikipedia, you claimed this means there are child predators out there using it to contact them, and you claimed that it’s the site’s own policies and practices that encourage this. So, doing what I suggested, to find some actual evidence this was happening, would go some way to validating the ridiculous criticisms and ‘recommendations’ it makes.

        The press was full of stories this week reporting how vulnerable children are being blackmailed by internet predators, and you’re flippantly passing up the chance of being able to prove that at least some of those interactions are initiated through the risks and flaws of Wikipedia/the WMF.

        In a week like that, to not want to do what I suggested, shows me that either you’re either not really interested in child protection at all, or you know that when you post blogs like this, they are in reality 99% bull crap.

        The reality is, out of Wikipedia and Wikipdiocracy, it’s clearly Wikipediocracy that’s the better place to come if you’re an internet child predator. Your forum is the only place I know of that is actively curating a list of under-age Wikipedia users. Your forum is the only place where people like this “lilburne” person who has commented above, is actually posting instructions for how to find “1000s of videos being traded of children who have been talked into performing sex acts on webcam”.

        That’s some precautionary principle in action eh? In my experience, having read the internal areas of Wikipedia for years, you won’t find predator helpful content like that anywhere on Wikipedia, despite what blogs like this try to scare people into believing.

        By posting blogs like this, you’re dishonest hypocrites at best. At best.

  • Skeptic

    Come to think of it, Wikipediocracy is the only place I’ve ever seen that actually lists the names and ages of young Wikipedia editors. Which, if they were actively using Wikipedia to find victims, child predators would surely find useful. What does the precautionary principle have to say about that? Do the owners of Wikipediocracy know who compiled those lists? What would this Peter Damian fellow have to say about the possible motives of the people who would compile such lists, or indeed the people who allow them to be compiled and disseminated on their website by anonymous internet user names? Is what is good for the goose, also good for the gander? Are we going to see Boy Scout procedures adopted for the Wikipediocracy forum and its posters? Or is everyone on Wikipediocracy just inherently trustworthy, unlike the ‘bad forest’ that is Wikipedia?

  • Skeptic

    I also note with some amusement how the comment on “Dennis”‘s talk page from another user, dated 19:52, 1 September 2013 (UTC), could be interpreted by somone of the Peter Damian the precautionary parent mindset. I look forward to the Wikipediocracy blog that outs that particular Wikipedia editor as someone who has pretty much admitted with that post that they’re using Wikipedia to snare younger editors, and the outcome of the police report.

    • Ah, Skeptic. So it has come to this. Your bitterness is displaced, old chap. Your IP address was blocked at Wikipedia on the 22nd of August, not here. We don’t squeeze critics as astringently as they do at Wikipedia.


      • Skeptic

        Really? I criticised Wikipediocracy on Wikipediocracy, and the next thing I know some anonymous coward is claiming to know my IP address, and has been plugging it into other sites to find out all they can about it. Yeah, what you do is nothing like how Wikipedia treats critics. You’re evidently much worse. What a brilliant example for all those out there as to what the real nature of this site is. If you don’t like anonymous critics on your site, then disble anonymous commenting, it’s a simple as that.

  • neved

    Skeptic, it is easy to find minors on Wikipedia. I found the 19 minors in less than a minute with a simple search:http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special%3ASearch&profile=advanced&search=%22I+am+a+teen%22&fulltext=Search&ns2=1&redirs=1&profile=advanced

    Most kids and minors who’re editing Wikipedia are vulnerable, and many have emotional and/or mental problems. An ordinary kid with no problems enjoys many friends in his real life, and usually will not end up editing Wikipeda.

  • Skeptic

    Are you serious? You didn’t find 19 minors, vulnerable or otherwise. All you have done is generate a list of 19 Wikipedia user pages which contain the phrase “I am a teen”. Given how often it is claimed by Wikipediocracy that Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia but a massive social network, and that its user base is almost exclusively comprised of children, don’t you think that’s a little bit on the low side for such a broad search? Not to mention some of those clearly aren’t even teens (and also given that teen is very ambiguous, and could mean anything from 13 to 19).

    Rather than spreading fear in the sort of people who are going to believe you when you make garbage Wikipediocratic like claims like ‘I just found 19 vulnerable minors just like that’, why not ask yourself, given the choice, is a child predator going to waste their time on fools errands like this, taking their chances that opening a conversation through Wikipedia with say, User:Magic65 who is a teen and likes writing articles about horses really is a vulnerable 13yo girl who might be willing to let them connect to their webcam? Or are they going to go to a site where they can actually search/vet user profiles using actual date like real ages and sexes?

    Even so, now that you’ve found what you claim is 19 vulnerable minors on Wikipedia, why don’t you conduct the experiment the good people at Wikipediocracy seem terribly unwilling to conduct. Granted, 19 is a very small sample size, but given the scary (or is that precautionary?) tone of this blog post, given what it alleges about Wikipedia, wouldn’t you say that if you contacted all 19 of those users, you’d find, at very least, one who would confirm to you that yes, they have been contacted in an inappropriate way, or for inappropriate means, either on Wikipedia or via details they submitted to Wikipedia.

    • Wer900

      Skeptic, there’s plenty of evidence regarding Dennis and others that I will not get into right now, because for whatever reason we Wikipedia editors are enjoined to protect his “privacy” and “cannot make false accusations”. And if adults are posing as minors on Wikipedia, then you’ve invalidated your own point regarding whether or not there is a danger to children. Tell me, why would adults pose as children if not for reasons of child predation?

      Even if the majority of the editor base is not made up of minors (a substantial portion definitely is made up of them and young adults), you seem to be ignoring the fact that there is a significant contingent of vulnerable young persons on Wikipedia, emotionally damaged, who are taken advantage of by Dennis and his acolytes. There are plenty of horror stories on Wikipedia, not necessarily involving Dennis: a 14-year-old girl was working with WikiProject Pornography; a 17-year-old gives far too much detail about his own life to be secure, to the point where he has revealed his own identity; and of course, the Dennis story above.

      Is this somehow not cause for alarm for you? You are not skeptical of anything at all, you are following the logic of the Reddit/basement-dweller “skeptic” who claims that they “examine all claims for logic” when, in fact, the logic used makes fatally flawed assumptions and is often not logic at all, never confirming or refuting any points. In fact, though, your arguments are self-defeating; if “teen” covers such a broad spread of ages, all of which can be easily predated upon, why are you assuming that we should not take a precautionary attitude? Why should we assume good faith when a good number of Wikipedia insiders have been complicit in allowing inappropriate contact to happen, in some cases even actively supporting them?

      It’s a depressing encyclopedia we inhabit, where the first instinct is to shoot the messenger by ArbCom firing squad rather than take the same action against the real dangers to the encyclopedia. What’s more important——the protection of the interests of a small group of insiders who benefit from an iron grip on information release (information must be free, &c) or the saving of children from this group?

  • Skeptic

    I think you need to make your mind up about what it is you are arguing for.

    First off, if you have evidence of Wikipedia being abused by child predators, and of people covering that up, as you claim, then why not publish it here? That’s what this site is supposedly for, after all.

    As an aside though, only on this site will you find the sort of person willing to argue that publicly making false accusations that someone is a “child predator” is something that shouldn’t be discouraged by a website as a matter of policy.

    Just like it’s only on this site you’ll find lists of the youngest Wikipedia editors, or instructions where to find child porn on the net, or any of the other things hosted here that apparently aren’t covered by the precautionary principle put forward here.

    On the other hand, if this is all you have to persuade me that these ridiculous precautions are warranted, you’re going to have to come up with something a little more concerning than what you’ve offered.

    Am I really supposed to be concerned by the simple fact that an unknown number of Wikipedia users are vulnerable minors who might be targetted? All that makes me wonder is why you’re singling out Wikipedia, in a case where a vulnerable child is being given unsupervised access to the internet at all, with all the obvious dangers that poses.

    There’s not a single thing on this website for example that would stop a vulnerable minor signing up and interacting with the sort of people who like to do things like complile and disseminate lists of the youngest Wikipedia editors and talk about what child predators get up to on the net.

    This would already seem to meet your idea of a scenario concerning enough to implement the precautionary principle based on the assumption of bad faith. Once you learn the backgrounds of some of the people behind the site, once you find out why they are banned from Wikipedia, once you get a feel for how they operate, what they do to critics (see above), what their general motivations are, then that concern should only increase.

    And am I really supposed to be concerned that Wikiproject Pornography had a 14 yo girl as a member? The scaremongerers on this site might like joe public to think otherwise, but a ‘wikiproject’ is simply a coordinated group of people interested in improving articles on a given topic.

    There’s no real way you can turn that into a real concern without making yourself look slightly ridiculous, prudish, or just hopelessly out of touch with the world today, digital or otherwise.

    Just like, without any real evidence to back up any of the claims made about how Wikipedia specifically is being used by child predators to target vulnerable minors, either at least as often as other sites, (or as is alleged, more often because it’s so easy to do), you just end up looking rather ridiculous when you claim you need BSOA style controls on it, and no other sites, under the ‘precautionary principle’.