By Andreas Kolbe
With contributions from Jake S, Nathalie Collida and Triptych
The Wikimedia movement’s 10th Wikimania conference at the London Barbican (6–10 August 2014) concluded on Sunday. Two years ago, when discussing the London bid for the event, Jimmy Wales had confidently stated,
I spend a lot of time in London, and believe I can help significantly with ensuring a well-funded conference at a great venue, with VIP speakers (academics, politicians, media, entertainment). I have extensive and good relationships with the UK press and believe I can help land great press coverage for the conference. I’m a big fan of this bid.–Jimbo Wales (talk) 16:36, 27 July 2012 (UTC)
Unfortunately for Jimbo, those extensive and good relationships weren’t quite enough to overcome the healthy skepticism of the UK press towards his almost blatant contempt for the EU’s recent “Right to be Forgotten” ruling. This culminated in a frankly embarrassing Newsnight interview with James O’Brien, in which Wales insisted, apparently without irony, that requests for Google to remove links – not actual web pages, not actual source material, just links – to pages covered by the ruling (which includes libellous attack pages, revenge porn, and old police blotters) should, at minimum, be adjudicated by a court of law. In other words, European taxpayers should pay, without limitation, for their already-overburdened court systems to deal with every single revenge-porn complaint Google receives under the ruling, at a time when the economies of half the EU’s member-states are already close to the brink, and with energy prices set to rise precipitously during the coming winter.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the Wikimedia Foundation actually upped the ante by publishing a list of take-down notices received from Google, thus eliminating any chance victims may have had of attaining some privacy. At the same time, they also issued their first-ever “Transparency Report,” in which they proudly tried to put a positive spin on their refusal to grant any of the 304 “content removal requests” they’d received in the past two years.
It’s hard to be certain, but Wales appears to have completely missed the whole point of the last three years for the “UK press,” in which some of their most prominent members were involved in a phone-hacking scandal that ultimately sent one of them to jail for 18 months, among other not-so-nice things. Earth To Jimbo: The UK press is all about privacy now – your timing could, well, maybe use some work.
On the Right to be Forgotten
From a PR perspective, Wikimania 2014 was remarkable for the fact that Wikipedia came in for adverse publicity from media heavyweights that have traditionally been its staunchest allies in the UK. In the run-up to the conference, The Guardian published a profile of Wales that made prominent reference to his past as an “internet pornographer”. Lèse-majesté!
On the day Jimmy Wales welcomed participants at Wikimania, The Guardian lamented that Wikipedia is populated by “self-selecting cliques” that pay more attention to the site’s coverage of female porn stars than to its listing of women writers. “Something is very wrong here with the imbalance of expertise,” the Editorial stated sagely. It’s hard to disagree, but why did The Guardian notice only now?
The Editorial continued, “The deep problem for Wikipedia is that an encyclopedia must not just be accurate in its treatment of factual subjects. It must also have sound judgment about what matters. […] Online discussion works very well to produce answers to questions that have clearly right answers. […] But much of the world’s most valuable knowledge is not of that sort, and is lost when it is treated as if it were. […] The dream of freedom became rule by a thousand Gradgrinds.” On another Guardian page, Anne Perkins opined that Wikipedia was written “by young white western males with a slight personality defect”.
The day after, as Wikipedians began to fill the Barbican, The Guardian’s Julia Powles addressed the “Right to be Forgotten” debate directly, stating flatly, “Jimmy Wales is wrong. […] Without the freedom to be private, we have precious little freedom at all.” Hear, hear.
Dan Gillmor, who was a speaker at Wikimania, remained more cheerful about Wikipedia and its imperfections, valuing its social dimension, though even he allowed that it is “sometimes wrong”, “sometimes crazy”: “Wikipedia is a fabulous place to start when you want to learn about any number of things. But it’s also the worst place to stop if you plan to use the information anywhere else […] or base an important decision on what you’ve read.”
Not man enough
On August 6, James O’Brien interviewed Jimmy Wales on BBC’s Newsnight about Google’s objections to the “right to be forgotten”, an issue where Wales, as a member of Google’s advisory board, now obviously differs sharply with several notable Guardian journalists. This includes technology editor Charles Arthur, who, along with Andrew Orlowski and others, has pointed out that despite the appearance Google is aiming to create, the company is in fact not required to remove links at all, as it can simply bounce requests up to the relevant country’s information commissioner to let them take the decision.
The ebullient O’Brien told Wales mockingly that he spoke as if Wikipedia were a “sacrosanct institution, an inviolate portal” in which “everything posted is true”.
“I could go on Wikipedia now and describe you as believing in fairies and a man whose – I don’t know – favourite drink is the blood of freshly slaughtered kittens. That’s neither history nor truth, but it could be on Wikipedia,” O’Brien said.
“Not for more than a few seconds”, Wales replied, laughing heartily. But O’Brien was not in a joking mood. He countered, “You say that. I have personal experience of …”, and then changed tack when Wales would not stop laughing: “It’s not funny, if you’re sort of an ordinary person and you have a degree of public profile, and people have deliberately altered your Wikipedia page. I have spoken publicly about my children having been born as a result of fertility treatment. And my Wikipedia page, which I didn’t even know existed, contained a phrase along the lines of ‘he wasn’t man enough to impregnate his own wife’. That was there for weeks, months possibly, until my wife found it. Shouldn’t that be your priority?”
He added, “That’s neither truth nor history, and it’s on Wikipedia.”
Reference to the edit history of James O’Brien’s Wikipedia biography shows that the sentence in question was indeed present on the site, remaining unchallenged for a period of more than three weeks, and was reinserted several times after that (along with numerous other violations of Wikipedia’s biographies of living persons policy) without being promptly reverted.
In response, Wales suggested that biography subjects should keep an eye on their own articles and notify Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation in case there were any problems. In doing so, he essentially conceded that Wikipedia’s own quality control mechanism is impotent, and tried to shift part of the burden for ensuring that facts are accurately represented in Wikipedia to the biography subject.
O’Brien seemed unimpressed.
Wikimedia: abandoning its commitment to net neutrality?
Meanwhile, Accessnow.org, a non-profit “mobilizing for global digital freedom” and allied to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, castigated the Wikimedia Foundation on August 8 for having abandoned its commitment to net neutrality and “turn[ing] its back on the open internet”. Comparing Wikipedia Zero to Facebook Zero, Accessnow.org said,
Wikimedia argues that unlike Facebook Zero, its service is non-commercial, and therefore deserves a special Wikipedia carve-out because no money is changing hands in exchange for prioritization over other services. No money, no net neutrality violation.
This reasoning fails to pass the smell test. […] Wikimedia is using its well-known trademarks as currency in deals with telecom partners as it seeks to acquire more users via Wikipedia Zero.
Current users understand that the revolutionary nature of the internet rests in its breadth and diversity. The internet is more than Wikipedia, Facebook, or Google. But for many, zero-rated programs would limit online access to the “walled gardens” offered by the Web heavyweights. For millions of users, Facebook and Wikipedia would be synonymous with “internet.” In the end, Wikipedia Zero would not lead to more users of the actual internet, but Wikipedia may see a nice pickup in traffic.
As the Wikimedia Foundation claims to know, the diversity and plurality of knowledge the internet can deliver is, in essence, what makes net neutrality so important; equal treatment of data results in equal access to all. It’s hard to see how zero-rated services can comport with this principle.
In addition, suggesting that free access to Wikipedia or Facebook is the solution to limited internet access in the developing world is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. It leaves the underlying, complex causes of the digital divide untreated. […] The long-term effect of these services will be a decline in innovation and competition online – with a particular bias against homegrown services in favor of companies based thousands of miles away in Silicon Valley – and, ironically, a reduction in access to information and knowledge.
Wikipedia Zero and similar services are playing into the hands of incumbent telecoms, who already have a stranglehold on markets around the world. Zero-rated offerings make these telcos’ services more attractive, solidifying their already overly-dominant positions in most markets, and further advancing the idea that websites should have to pay extra to reach users […]
Wikimedia has always been a champion for open access to information, but it’s crucial to call out zero-rating programs for what they are: Myopic deals that do great damage to the future of the open internet. As more and more users come online and with active battles around net neutrality being waged around the world, it is the responsibility of respected leaders like Wikimedia to ensure that new users discover an internet that actually represents “the sum of all knowledge.”
See also comments on Norwegian telecom company Telenor’s involvement in Wikipedia here.
I arrived at the Barbican around lunchtime on Saturday, just in time to hear the Wikimedia Foundation’s Senior Designer Brandon Harris address the audience assembled in the Barbican’s main auditorium. Speaking with a grim intensity, he told attendees that thanks to the “weapon of mass instruction”, some girl would “unlock” the cure for cancer, “set the right prions working, the right chemicals, who knows”. “We” would “colonise Mars”, “end oppression”, “abolish war”, and “slay our dragons … dead”. I think he also said something about reaching the stars.
Inane babble was what I most dreaded about going to Wikimania, and this seemed to be a prime example of it – for surely, oppression, war, and the components of human nature that are causing them, are a little more complex and intractable than Mr Harris was trying to make out. Indeed, one need only look at the talk pages of Wikipedia itself to see that if anyone has a solution to humans’ propensity to engage in fierce arguments, it’s not Wikipedia!
Wikipedia users seem to have spent a large proportion of their free time these past few weeks arguing over a long-time contributor’s statement that the “easiest way to avoid being called a cunt is not to act like one”, and debating whether or not the female user who had started the discussion in question had a right to be upset about the comment, bearing in mind different usage patterns of the word in the US vs. the UK and Australia. The “Cuntgate” controversy has now been exported to Twitter.
Another significant argument concerned the community’s rejection of new software features introduced by the Wikimedia Foundation, a matter that resulted in the Foundation’s Deputy Director Erik Möller being hauled before the Arbitration Committee, Wikipedia’s Supreme Court. As the conference was underway, the Media Viewer controversy gripped the German community, with volunteers complaining about being oppressed by the Wikimedia Foundation’s programmers after the Deputy Director created a “superprotection” level putting certain software settings beyond ordinary administrators’ reach … ending oppression indeed. Abolishing wars? Deputy Director Möller’s account has now been blocked for a month on the German Wikipedia by a local admin, for failing to respect community consensus.
As I left the auditorium after Mr Harris’s speech, I noticed that the macaque “selfie” the Wikimedia Foundation has turned into a symbol of its determination to retain content on Wikimedia servers in the face of any calls to remove it had also been used as a sort of conference mascot, with prints of the image displayed in numerous places around the Barbican’s conference space. Even at the registration desk there was a copy of it, inviting attendees to take a selfie of themselves next to the image. As followers of the Wikimania Twitter stream could observe, Jimmy Wales led by example – and was rightly called out by some users on Twitter and, indeed, Wikipedia, for what appeared like tactless gloating.
The back story of this image is probably known to all who take an ongoing interest in Wikimedia affairs. In short, a rare Indonesian black macaque monkey was, after three days of trust-earning by photographer David Slater, tempted into pressing the cable release on Slater’s camera, thus producing a rather striking “monkey selfie.” Slater, who had travelled all the way from the UK at his own expense to photograph this threatened species, provided the camera, positioned it, and set up the shot. But because he didn’t personally press the shutter button, Wikimedians claimed the resulting image was not his own work – and therefore, by some leap of logic, it belonged in the public domain. They then proceeded to not only use it themselves, but also allow it to be used under a free licence by everyone else in the world, potentially denying Slater (not a wealthy man by any definition) tens of thousands of dollars in income.
In the Wikimedia Foundation’s own words:
A photographer left his camera unattended in a national park in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. A female crested black macaque monkey got ahold of the camera and took a series of pictures, including some self-portraits. The pictures were featured in an online newspaper article and eventually posted to Commons. We received a takedown request from the photographer, claiming that he owned the copyright to the photographs. We didn’t agree, so we denied the request.
Obviously, the phrasing of these claims – that Slater “left his camera unattended” and that the monkey “got ahold of the camera” – is problematic. It seems to be based on early reports in The Sun and The Daily Mail (which wrongly describes a shot featuring Slater himself as taken by a monkey as well; it was in fact taken using a self-timer). The story originated with a Caters News Agency press release, which said,
These are the chimp-ly marvellous images captured by a cheeky monkey after turning the tables on a photographer who left his camera unmanned. The inquisitive scamp playfully went to investigate the equipment before becoming fascinated with his own reflection in the lens. And it wasn’t long before the crested black macaque hijacked the camera and started snapping away sending award-winning photographer David Slater bananas.
The first quality paper to run the story was The Guardian. David Slater has confirmed to us that The Guardian interviewed him for the piece, and it contains a perhaps vital detail not found in The Daily Mail report. The Guardian report, published in the evening of July 4, 2011, a few hours after The Daily Mail, read as follows:
Slater said the photoshoot that resulted in these pictures took place after he set up a camera on a tripod. He left the equipment for a few moments and when he returned one of the creatures was, well, monkeying around with it.
“They were quite mischievous, jumping all over my equipment. One hit the button. The sound got his attention and he kept pressing it. At first it scared the rest of them away but they soon came back – it was amazing to watch.
“At first there was a lot of grimacing with their teeth showing.” But then the animals seemed to settle down.
“He must have taken hundreds of pictures by the time I got my camera back.”
This was well before there was any controversy about the image’s copyright status, and contains a clear reference to Slater having set up the camera on a tripod (a tripod is visible in the image featuring him and the macaques), and being an alert observer of the pictures being taken. The photographer was in control of events. The camera was not unattended.
Slater has since provided further details in an ITN interview available on YouTube; an even more detailed account of the images’ genesis dating back to September 2011 is also available on his website. He states that he thought letting the monkeys play with the camera was his best chance of getting a good close-up shot, as they reacted fearfully when he tried to point the camera directly in their faces. (Slater also mentions that a monkey twice did try to make off with his camera, but this was not – and, I would submit, could not plausibly have been – what resulted in the now-famous images. Perhaps the Foundation should not have based its legal argument on newspapers whose reliability in reporting copyright-relevant facts might not be exactly stellar in a light-hearted news story like this.)
It would be one thing if the WMF supported the idea of giving more rights to monkeys and other animals, including intellectual property rights, but that isn’t what they’re doing. Instead, they’re claiming that artwork produced by an animal belongs to all humans equally and freely (and thus can, not coincidentally, appear on their site), and that any humans who facilitate the production of that artwork – no matter how much effort they have invested in doing so – have no rights to that artwork at all. This strikes me as incredibly presumptuous; the Wikimedia Foundation are being jerks about this.
Consider this: it is a lot easier to copy and paste a photograph than it is to travel to Indonesia, hike through the jungle with a large backpack of expensive equipment, and let yourself be groomed by macaques – all to get that shot that will delight humanity. Who has done more here to add to the sum of human knowledge – David Slater or the Wikimedians who decided that they had the right to deprive Slater of the fruit of his labour?
Wikimania was in many ways an inspirational event. There was a palpable sense of enjoyment and celebration in the air, and a happy undercurrent to the meetings and many informal chats and discussions between Wikipedians that took place in the public areas.
People were talking animatedly, happy to have face-to-face contact, happy not to have to use a keyboard to communicate with each other. The weather was kind enough for much of the time, the Barbican’s huge Lakeside terrace and other public spaces were beautiful. I had many stimulating and congenial conversations with Wikipedians I had “known” online for many years, but had never had a chance to meet in person – as well as others I had never come across on-wiki or elsewhere, but who were delightful company.
Three members of this site had secured a 45-minute meeting with Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Lila Tretikov on Sunday morning, and thus gained an opportunity to voice our concerns and ideas about the following issues:
- Medical content, notably the current initiatives to have medical articles peer-reviewed by academic experts (Cancer Research UK is involved, and is now hosting a Wikipedian in Residence), and provide readers with a permanent and prominent link to that peer-reviewed article version. It’s an excellent idea that in the long run could also be transferred to other topic areas. Experts might be more inclined to contribute and review articles if their work is guaranteed some lasting presence. We hope the Foundation will support that effort. As things stand, it is surely unprecedented for a $50 million educational charity to spend virtually no money and no staff time on initiatives to measure or improve the quality of the educational content it provides to the world.
- The ongoing problems with Wikipedia’s biographies of living people, as exemplified by the problems James O’Brien raised in the above-mentioned Newsnight interview. We hope the Foundation and the community will take action to remedy these flaws, which are often extremely distressing to biography subjects. Possible solutions include (1) a tightening of notability criteria (many marginal and little-watched Wikipedia biographies tend to become either puff pieces or hatchet jobs), (2) blanket implementation of the Pending Changes feature for all biographies of living people to ensure that each change made by an anonymous or new user is looked at by at least one experienced user, and/or (3) a special user right for editing biographies of living people, restricted to editors who have a proven track record of responsible biography editing, or possibly even restricted to editors who are prepared to identify themselves to the Foundation.
- Wikimedia’s strange ambivalence about transparency. Wikimedia champions transparency and free speech for the entire world. Movement leaders like Jimmy Wales campaign against the right to be forgotten and excoriate the creation of “memory holes”. Yet Wikipedia’s own content is full of memory holes, and its contributors are obsessed with anonymity. Say a Wikipedian’s real name on Wikipedia, and the information will be “oversighted” immediately as a “personal attack”, making it invisible even to Wikipedia administrators. It is a sobering thought that if any member of this site had identified the abusive editor Qworty on Wikipedia, the information would have been suppressed immediately, and the whistleblower banned. Instead, we went to Salon’s Andrew Leonard, leaving the processing, confirmation and publication of our research to a professional journalist.
- Sexual images – perfectly innocuous searches in Wikimedia Commons, for terms like “electric toothbrush” or “bell tolling”, still prominently return pornographic images, despite the problem being known for many years now.
We look forward to seeing how things progress on these issues.
One of the presentations I subsequently attended was “We Need to Talk About Paid Editing”, chaired by Andrew Lih, William Beutler and Christophe Henner. This one was refreshing. Quite a lot of sense was talked. What became quickly apparent was how different the English Wikipedia is from many other European-language Wikipedias. While the presentation began with an explanation of Jimmy Wales’ bright-line rule, Wikipedians from other language versions were quick to point out that this rule was an anomaly largely restricted to the English Wikipedia, and in fact insane, because its practical effect is to drive company edits underground.
Recall here that in the English Wikipedia, a company employee who registers a User:AcmeLtd. account and then proceeds to edit the Acme Ltd. article is instantaneously blocked for violating the user name policy, and politely asked to come back with another account carrying some innocuous name like RedRider12.
Once they have done so, any edits they make to articles related to their company and its products are unrecognisable in the article’s edit history as coming from a company representative.
Two case studies, one French and one Italian, described apparently fruitful, neutral and transparent collaboration between Wikipedia and telecom companies (Orange and Telecom Italia) in the two countries – one of them with university involvement – making use of image material in the companies’ media archives. Towards the end of the presentation, Andrew Lih acknowledged, with refreshing honesty, that many company articles in the English Wikipedia are of very poor quality. He partly blamed the tendency of users to want to “stick it to the man”, citing articles on high-profile companies that come to be dominated by large criticism sections, while lacking essential encyclopaedic information.
A German user recounted the case of a pharma company that was worried about its Wikipedia entry because it claimed that one of its products caused cancer. This alarming claim, he said, was later found to be wholly erroneous, and there were sources documenting this – but the company was so apprehensive about being seen to delete or even advocate the deletion of criticism of one of its products that they never mustered the courage to edit the article talk page, let alone the article page itself. Instead, they wrote a long letter to Wikipedia with the requisite documentation, but were too scared even to send that, preferring to live with the erroneous claim in the article instead of facing the risk of a public backlash.
This reflects lazy press reporting: the headline “so-and-so deletes criticism from Wikipedia” is an instant sell. But the unfortunate side effect of this is that Wikipedia is given a free pass: oftentimes, the articles that subjects will feel compelled to edit are those that are genuinely unfair to them. Reporters fail to do their job properly if they do not check the article version that the article subject edited, and review it for accuracy and neutrality. If they did, they would find that in many cases it was gross bias or error that led the subject to throw caution to the wind. It’s frequently Wikipedia that draws first blood, and where it is at fault, it should not escape scrutiny and censure.
Wikimania ended with a presentation by Jimmy Wales on “civility”. “There are users who have a reputation in the community for creating good content, and for being incredibly toxic personalities,” Wales said, stating that “these editors cost us more than they’re actually worth”. It was a “big mistake” to tolerate them, he continued, receiving rapturous applause.
Wales was clearly thinking of the editor mentioned above, who sparked Wikipedia’s “Cuntgate” and has been a recurrent topic of conversation on Wales’ talk page these past few weeks. But in fact, four-letter-word abuse is a staple of many respected administrators whom Wales has never seen fit to criticise.
For example, when it was pointed out to him a little over two months ago that one of Wikipedia’s arbitrators had told another user to “fuck off”, Wales said on his user talk page, with masterful and characteristic equivocation,
Speaking only to the general principle, with no comment of any kind at the moment on any arbitrator’s specific actions, past, present, or future: I expect that arbitrators should hold themselves, and each other, to the highest standards of behavior at all times. I think the community has a right to expect and demand the same. This does not mean that we should go ballistic every time an arbitrator says something firm to someone, or takes an action that gives rise to some minor controversy.
In the true manner of a guru or preacher, Wales proceeded to talk to the assembled audience about love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and compassion. An Indian press reporter with whom I had a couple of interesting conversations over my two days at Wikimania recognised the pattern: “It’s like being at a guru’s ashram.” He pronounced himself thoroughly depressed: “People are being manipulated,” he said; “their idealism is exploited.” He saw Wikipedia as a US effort to exercise “soft power” over the rest of the world. Wikipedia’s successful strides towards achieving a kind of information monopoly in much of the developing world, thanks to Wikipedia Zero, can have done little to allay his concerns. (A long-time Wikipedia administrator was somewhat more blunt, opining privately that the word “love” should never be used on stage at an event like this: because whenever it is, it is basically “bullshit”.)
This year’s “Jimbo Award” for the “Wikipedian of the Year” went to Ihor Kostenko, a Ukrainian user who died earlier this year in the country’s Euromaidan protests. Wales seems to have discontinued the $5,000 cash prize associated with the award; it’s perhaps just as well, given past history.
As I travelled to Wikimania, I worried that I might hate it. But my worst fears did not materialise. Yes, people patted themselves on the back a little too much. Too many things were “awesome”; there was too much talk about “openness”, “content” and “data”, and too little talk about the quality of that content. Some male attendees looked worryingly unfit. Some stupid things were said, but I guess they were mostly heartfelt, even if I didn’t agree with them intellectually. It was good fun. Cheers!
Image credits: Flickr/BillT, Wikimedia, Flickr/Sebastiaan ter Burg – licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. David Slater’s copyrighted work, as contained in the derivative work, used with his kind permission.