Wikipedia Owners Back Down on Ban of Veteran Administrator Following Editor Revolt

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales
Jamie McCarthy /Getty

After the Wikimedia Foundation, which owns Wikipedia, took the unprecedented action of banning a veteran administrator from the site for a year, the site’s editing community revolted with mass resignations and repeated efforts to overturn Wikimedia’s actions. The Foundation, at the urging of its board, has relented by referring the ban back to the Wikipedia community-elected Arbitration Committee for review.

The Wikimedia Foundation also agreed it would not take similar actions unless it received the explicit agreement of the community. The concessions came as the conflict between editors holding differing views began to escalate with bans and threats of bans exchanged.

Fram, a Wikipedia contributor since 2005 who had held advanced administrative privileges since 2007, was banned from the English Wikipedia by the Wikimedia Foundation on June 10 over alleged harassment in the first such action ever. The resulting discussion became heated as most users called for the ban to be overturned, accusing the Foundation of undermining the editorial independence of Wikipedia, which has been traditionally self-governing outside claimed exceptional cases. Users also expressed irritation with early responses from the Foundation’s Trust and Safety team as opaque and repetitive.

Co-founder Jimmy Wales and board member James Heilman called for calm after other administrators and users with more advanced privileges began overturning the Foundation’s actions in defiance. Wales later stated the Board of Trustees was working on a solution to the crisis. After three weeks, the board put out a statement, followed by a statement from Executive Director Katherine Maher. Board Chair Maria Sefidari, who was accused of personal ties to someone alleged to have complained to the Foundation about Fram, did not take part in the proceedings.

The statements agreed Fram’s ban would be reviewed by Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, often likened to a Supreme Court, and could be overturned if it decided in his favor. It also agreed the type of action it used against Fram would not be taken again against other users unless the community gave its approval. Such concessions came in after a statement from the Arbitration Committee requesting a return to local community authority over bans like Fram’s and said at least four members of the Committee would resign if this did not occur.

Editors concerned the Board’s statement was too vague or non-committal were reassured by Wales as to its intention. “I will fully support it,” Wales told one user about the response if the Committee decided to lift the ban and restore Fram’s admin privileges, adding staff “would have to defy the board, me personally, ArbCom, and the assembled group of good people in the community. That’s not going to happen.” Wales later stated the Foundation would hand over nearly all evidence concerning Fram, with some names redacted. ArbCom subsequently acknowledged receiving said evidence.

Many users were heartened by the statements and assurances from Wales, though some noted issues. The Foundation indicated not all evidence would be given to the Arbitration Committee for privacy reasons, causing some to suggest any action taken by the Committee might be brought into question. Some administrators remained dissatisfied with the response and resigned, joining nearly two-dozen others who did so over the preceding weeks, most citing the controversy over Fram’s ban. Others requested their positions back.

The statements came after several conflicts had erupted between users of the site over the ban in the previous days. One user, WJBScribe who had overturned a previous Foundation action, used his advanced privileges to restore Fram’s admin status in defiance of the Foundation. This was swiftly overturned by other users arguing this was in violation of local policy, who themselves were criticized over the removal with calls for action against all being made. WJBScribe subsequently resigned.

In one case a user was banned for “invasion of privacy” after asking several Foundation staff about Twitter accounts identifying as them. Said accounts liked a tweet by Maher that many editors believed was a veiled attack on a BuzzFeed journalist who wrote about the controversy. When an administrator lifted the ban without discussion, the administrator who had imposed the ban called for his resignation. One long-time user was banned indefinitely after suggesting users protest the Foundation’s ban by repeatedly linking to the Christchurch shooting video to harm the Foundation’s reputation.

What generated the most intense conflict was an article in The Signpost, a Wikipedia community newsletter. The article, cited approvingly by Slate, interviewed several people who had interactions with Fram and sought to answer whether he had engaged in harassment. One anonymous allegation from a male editor accused Fram of “sexual harassment” and insinuated worse behavior towards women. Fram identified the accuser as administrator Robert Fernandez, known on Wikipedia as Gamaliel, and stated the allegation was a distortion with numerous factual errors.

Objections to the article sparked an edit war as editors removed then restored the quote. Fram also posted e-mails from the article’s author in which the author appeared to make intimidating remarks over Fram “outing” Fernandez. The Signpost article was locked and, ultimately, deleted. Fernandez has previously been involved in questionable conduct such as threatening the job of journalist and Wikipedia critic David Auerbach. He currently serves as a Board member and Communications Chair for the Wikimedia DC organization, which had put out a statement endorsing the Foundation’s increased involvement in regulating the conduct of users.

Both the Foundation and its supporters argued Wikipedia’s community had proven ill-equipped to deal with “toxic behavior” from influential users, called “unblockables” by some editors, and suggested the incident was a “wake-up call” for them. Proposals were raised on training users in better handling harassment to eliminate any perceived need for Foundation involvement. In their statement, the Board argued, despite conceding to community demands, that cracking down on such behavior was still necessary to “allow for more diverse voices” on the site. Efforts to address this alleged lack of diversity have prompted ideological recruitment efforts, new harassment detection methods, and enforcement measures such as that used for Fram, so as to foster a more “inclusive” community.

(Disclosure: The author has been involved in disputes with several of the parties mentioned in the article)

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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