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
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.
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
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 over. Salvio 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.