By Yerucham Turing
A conference dedicated to talking about Wikipedia took place this weekend (May 30 to June 1) at the New York Law School in Tribeca. While the conference advertised itself as being “open to all participants” and welcoming “the skeptical”, one notable and vocal critic of the Wikimedia movement was very abruptly blocked from attending the conference. The critic of Wikipedia’s governance, Gregory Kohs, is the founder of MyWikiBiz, which since 2006 has been the first and longest-running enterprise dedicated to paid editing and content improvement focusing on Wikipedia. (When MyWikiBiz was founded, Wikipedia had no prohibition against editing its content in exchange for payment. Indeed, Wikipedia still has a Reward Board where cash is paid to writers.) Kohs had hoped to participate in the WikiConference in a session devoted to the pros and cons of paid editing, but the conference organizers headed him off at the pass only 18 hours before the conference began.
Kohs registered for the conference in late January, and he submitted for consideration by the selection committee a proposed presentation entitled “Confessions of a paid editor”. Proposals were to have been cut off on March 31, but on April 6 the deadline was extended to April 15. In all, three proposals were submitted related to the subject of paid editing on Wikipedia: the January 29 proposal from Kohs; a proposal from Susan Hewitt entitled “Why paid editing is a really bad idea”, submitted April 7; and a proposal from Dorothy Howard, entitled “Paid Editing Moderated Discussion”, submitted May 21 (more than a month after the already extended deadline had passed). Prior to the April 15 deadline, the only submission that received any “Interested attendees” was Kohs’ proposal.
Ultimately, though, the only paid editing proposal that materialized on the conference calendar as an actual session was Howard’s late submission. Dorothy Howard was one of the “Program officers” of the conference, so it became clear that the session organizers wanted one of their own speaking to the conference attendees, rather than a more highly experienced outsider who might share provocative views. Kohs then asked Howard and other organizers if he might be added to Howard’s moderated discussion roster.
What happened next was alarming, to say the least. Not only was Kohs’ request to participate on the panel refused, the afternoon before the conference kicked off, Kohs received an e-mail from New York lawyer Ira Matetsky, saying that Kohs was forbidden to even attend the conference as an observer. The e-mail stated:
The organizers of Wikiconference USA 2014 have determined that based on a number of considerations, you are not invited to attend the conference. Your name has been removed from the list of registered attendees and will not be included on the list of attendees being provided to the venue.
Please note that this is not any one individual’s decision but a group decision, for which I am acting as messenger/scrivener. The decision is final and is not subject to reconsideration or appeal.
While Kohs had already booked travel and lodging for the conference, this denial of access forced him to cancel his plans to attend. Trying to get more information about what led to the ban from a gathering that was billed as “open to all participants” was no easy matter. It appears to be of some significance that Kohs’ account on the conference website was blocked for “Intimidating behavior/harassment”. Another clue came from Wikipedian Kevin Gorman, who tweeted a hint that Kohs may have been banned under the auspices of the conference’s “Friendly Space” policy (Mr. Gorman has a position on paid editing, and his airfare and lodging for WikiConference USA were paid by the conference budget.) However, this policy had been posted only after Kohs received notice of the revocation of his registration ticket. Kohs questioned the provenance of the after-deadline submission by Howard, and he was told “The panel is not an outside submission, but a planned event at the conference from the start.” ‘From the start’ would suggest that this panel was conceived sometime in January 2014, but no mention of it ever appeared on the WikiConference website until May 13, some four weeks after outside submissions were closed.
Dorothy Howard and other conference organizers were contacted on Friday morning, to allow them an opportunity to respond to the mysterious circumstances under which a professional researcher was banned from a conference where his expertise would have been a fitting addition to the presentation calendar. While Howard replied on Friday afternoon that she and others were “discussing how to respond as a group”, nothing further was heard from Howard or any of the other conference organizers.
Image credits: Flickr/Jan Tik,Wikimedia ~ Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic