Wikipedia Editors Revolt over Site’s Ban of Veteran Administrator

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia
GIUSEPPE CACACE/Getty

In an unprecedented move mid-June, the foundation that owns Wikipedia banned one of the site’s long-time administrators for one year over unspecified complaints of harassment. Many of the site’s most influential users accused the Wikimedia Foundation of undermining the editorial independence of the traditionally self-regulating online encyclopedia and called for the ban to be lifted, including by attempting to remove the ban themselves.

The administrator, Fram, was known for holding error-prone Wikipedia editors to account and criticizing governing institutions such as the Wikimedia Foundation itself, leading to accusations the ban was about silencing a fierce critic. Discovery that one apparent complainant was closely tied to the foundation’s Chair intensified these accusations.

At the core of the conflict between Wikipedia editors and the Wikimedia Foundation is a question of jurisdiction. Wikipedia and associated sites have traditionally created their own policies and elected administrators from within the community to enforce those policies. The foundation has in recent years become more involved by permanently banning select users from all foundation-owned sites in what it deems extraordinary cases of last resort citing its Terms of Use. Such bans were tolerated due to perceptions they involved serious legal issues.

In an unannounced shift this year, the foundation allowed itself to impose time-limited bans at individual sites for less severe cases, something usually handled by local users. English Wikipedia users only learned of the new approach June 10 when the foundation imposed a one-year ban on Fram, who was active on Wikipedia since 2005 and an administrator since 2007. He has no prior sanctions. Detailed reasons have not been provided to the community and the ban cannot be appealed, nor can it be removed by anyone but foundation staff.

Fram’s ban has prompted lengthy and heated debate within Wikipedia’s community. Proposals to lift the ban have received support from dozens of the site’s editors, including administrators and former members of the community’s Arbitration Committee, which has been likened to a Supreme Court for the site. Similar support was given for declaring “no confidence” in the foundation’s banning process. A proposal was even made to ban the foundation’s official account on the site, receiving a slim majority of support before being rejected as an invalid proposal. Editors have also talked of going on strike or flooding the foundation with reports about Terms of Use violations, including minor vandalism. One administrator turned off an anti-spam bot he operates.

An administrator and former member of the Arbitration Committee, Floquenbeam, responded to opposition to Fram’s ban by removing a block on Fram’s account used to enforce the ban. The foundation’s official account overturned that action and stripped Floquenbeam of his privileges. Soon after that, however, another administrator removed the block again. Another user then used his own advanced privileges to overrule the foundation’s removal of Floquenbeam’s administrator privileges. The three all received praise and “rewards” from other editors and administrators for their “bravery” in defying the foundation with one likened to China’s Tank Man of Tiananmen Square.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and foundation board member James Heilman quickly advised staff to avoid taking any further measures against those users who overturned foundation actions or to reinstate the block so as to prevent further escalation. Foundation staff acquiesced, but reiterated Fram was still banned even without the block in place and that any edit to the site would lead to him being locked out of his account on all foundation sites for the remainder of his ban.

Criticism of the ban had intensified when Fram posted on another foundation-owned site what little he was told about his ban. According to Fram, he first received a warning from the foundation last year about “several conflicts . . . over the years with other community members as well as Foundation staff” with Fram emphasizing the mention of foundation staff. The foundation purportedly cited only three actions by Fram, which they indicated were not the full extent of the conduct informing their decision, but stated no further evidence would be shared with him.

One cited action was Fram cursing at the Arbitration Committee over messages they sent following a series of hacking incidents, messages interpreted as requiring administrators who get hacked to adopt two-factor authentication to regain their privileges. The committee apologized, stating it was meant to be a suggestion. Most contentious was a purported warning to Fram about interactions with editor Laura Hale. Fram got Hale banned from using Spanish-language sources in 2014 due to repeated translation errors.

He continued addressing errors or low-quality content she introduced when Hale demanded he leave her alone. She then temporarily retired a few months before his first warning. According to Fram, in March the Foundation warned him away from Hale citing two edits they themselves acknowledged addressed legitimate issues. The warning was phrased as a vague request rather than a requirement and a month before his ban Fram cast a deciding vote on a discussion about deleting an unmaintained navigational portal Hale created as part of a general effort by editors to delete such portals.

Members of Wikipedia criticism site Wikipediocracy dug into Hale’s background and found she had a close personal relationship with María Sefidari, chair of the foundation’s Board of Trustees, and alleged they were romantic partners. After editors raised the potential conflict of interest, Sefidari denied any role in the ban and compared those suggesting it to GamerGate, the anti-corruption movement in gaming falsely branded as a harassment campaign by the left-wing press. This inflamed several editors and members of Wikipediocracy, a site that had doxed GamerGate sympathizers who edited Wikipedia. They accused Sefidari of covering up legitimate concerns with accusations of misogyny.

Revelations about Fram’s ban since it was imposed have only heightened wariness among Wikipedia’s editors. Several have characterized it as a massive expansion of the foundation’s power that moves the site towards an unaccountable, secretive, and arbitrary top-down approach similar to that of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Others have interpreted the foundation’s actions as undermining the ability of volunteers to police their own conduct. Former Arbitration Committee member Risker expressed her concerns by stating:

It comes across as a FUD campaign: we’ll temporarily ban people who did something wrong according to rules we haven’t shared, but we won’t tell you what they did, what can be done to prevent similar actions, or whether we’ll change the [unshared] rules again without telling you. . . . Bluntly put, I feel much less safe working on a Wikimedia project today than I did a week ago, because one of the most fundamental understandings I had about working here has now been proven wrong.

Such concerns were amplified by Fram revealing an excerpt of one e-mail from the Foundation. It described actions many editors and administrators observed as routine when correcting sub-par editing, but which the Foundation argues can “feel” like harassment to those editors and be a cause for a ban. Plans to introduce a “universal code of conduct” also came to light during the discussion after an editor noticed a YouTube video published shortly after Fram’s ban where a Wikimedia staffer mentioned the plans. Many editors were, again, unaware of the impending changes.

Foundation staffers responding to the community have proven unable to resolve complaints, holding out the possibility of carrying out similar bans in the future and indicating they would likely continue to be conducted in the same secretive manner, though offering to communicate more with the community about any changes they implement. Several administrators have resigned their positions in response to the controversy citing either concerns about the foundation’s actions or frustration with prominent users flouting its authority. A current member of ArbCom stated he was considering resigning because of the foundation’s lack of transparency.

Ira Brad Matetsky, known as NewYorkBrad on Wikipedia, submitted what he described as a compromise resolution where the foundation rescinds the ban with Fram agreeing to avoid specific editors who they believe he treated poorly and agreeing to adopt a more civil tone. Matetsky, a corporate lawyer whose nine years on the Arbitration Committee entail the longest time served of any member, has received overwhelming support for his proposal from around 90 other users. The foundation rejected the proposal.

Underlying the Foundation efforts to more tightly police Wikipedia’s community is a widespread perception that “toxicity” is inhibiting inclusivity. Despite the generally left-wing political bias of Wikipedia, it is routinely criticized by progressive media for having a “gender gap” in contributors and other diversity issues. This has lead to outside calls for tougher action on harassment and incivility, sparking conflicts on Wikipedia itself in response to efforts at meeting these calls of which the current conflict is by far the most intense yet, but likely not the last.

T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.

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