The Wikimedia Foundation, which owns Wikipedia, recently announced that it will impose a “universal code of conduct” on the site and others owned by the Foundation to make them “safe spaces” and improve the “diversity” of the community. The move comes a year after the Foundation took the unprecedented step of banning a veteran administrator, breaching the traditionally self-governing nature of Wikipedia’s community and sparking a revolt that ultimately saw the ban overturned.
Though greeted favorably by left-wing media outlets, the code of conduct announcement sparked outrage and concern among Wikipedia editors, many citing what they believed had been an understanding with the Foundation following the editor revolt last year about not encroaching on community autonomy.
Last month the Foundation published a statement noting the Board of Trustees had approved new standards for “trust and safety” on all Foundation-owned sites, including Wikipedia. The Foundation claimed the new standards provide “direction and priority to address harassment and incivility” on the sites and “create welcoming, inclusive, harassment-free spaces” for their contributors. Boased on the demands of the board, the Foundation was instructed to develop a binding universal code of conduct to apply to all Foundation sites and to take action to enforce those policies.
Procedures for community review of actions enforcing the code of conduct were also part of the proposed changes, but cases involving “legal or other severe risks” would not be subject to review. In the “Statement on Healthy Community Culture, Inclusivity, and Safe Spaces” put out by the board, the code of conduct would be presented for approval by the end of August and enforcement procedures by the end of the year. Before the policies are approved, the board directed the Foundation’s Trust and Safety Team to enforce interim policies, collaborating with the unpaid volunteers who normally oversee the community where possible.
Left-wing media has favorably and uncritically reported on the announcement, after long promoting narratives about Wikipedia’s “gender gap” and other claims of lacking diversity, which journalists have sought to blame on the “toxicity” of the community. Foundation staff has spent years working to address this criticism from left-wing journos by providing grants and other support to diversity initiatives such as “edit-a-thons” organized by left-wing organizations, particularly feminist groups. However, the press continued attacking Wikipedia over the supposed harassment and incivility in the community, blaming it for what they felt was the site’s insufficient progress on diversity.
Direct intervention by the Foundation against alleged misconduct in the largely self-governing community had previously been reserved for extreme cases with these “SanFranBans” (a reference to the Foundation’s San Francisco headquarters) mainly limited to pedophilia or cross-site harassment and entailing a permanent irrevocable ban from all Foundation sites. However, the basis for such intervention continued informally broadening in scope until last year. Last June, volunteer Wikipedia administrator “Fram” was banned by the Foundation despite having no prior sanctions. Unlike past Foundation bans, Fram was only banned from the English Wikipedia and only for a year.
While the ban was imposed under a process adopted that year, it retained elements of Foundation bans that were previously criticized, particularly a lack of transparency and refusal to show the accused all evidence informing the decision. As Fram was a respected administrator on Wikipedia who regularly criticized the Foundation and Wikipedia’s community-elected Arbitration Committee, likened to a Supreme Court, editors revolted against the decision and alleged ulterior motives behind the ban. Many of Fram’s fellow administrators resigned in protest as others sought to overturn the Foundation’s ban in defiance using their advanced privileges, knowing this would get them stripped of their positions.
The revolt ultimately succeeded in forcing the Foundation to reconcile with the community and it agreed to allow the Arbitration Committee to review Fram’s ban under certain restrictions allowing them to see most of the evidence. In an abnormally secretive case for the Committee, it concluded the available evidence was not sufficient to support the ban and overturned it. However, it still ruled Fram’s conduct showed a “pattern of borderline harassment” towards other contributors by “excessively highlighting their failures” and “hounding” them, citing these concerns to justify not restoring Fram’s privileges as an administrator. Administrators reviewing pubic allegations against Fram said his actions appeared routine for those dealing with persistent misconduct.
As part of the resolution to the community revolt, the Foundation engaged in a community consultation on the new procedure used against Fram to determine if its continued use would be permitted. Following wide-ranging participation, the result was the Foundation agreeing to no longer impose bans like that imposed on Fram “until and unless” the community approved it or if directed by the Foundation Board. Many who had objected to Fram’s ban took this decision as foreclosing any prospect of similar Foundation bans in the future.
However, in announcing its plans last week for a universal code of conduct, the Foundation Board also passed a resolution stating “Wikimedia Foundation staff are empowered” to enforce “as needed” any such code of conduct and that “the role of staff may extend beyond the ‘most severe cases’” citing a board statement last year specifically responding to the revolt. In that statement, the board had suggested the Foundation’s “Trust and Safety” team only take action against severe cases until an agreement with the community was achieved.
Some editors suggested the recent move to impose a code of conduct showed the Foundation trampling over the community’s clear opposition to deeper involvement in site governance despite the months-long revolt that engulfed the site over Fram’s ban. One editor expressed dismayed confusion in a message to Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales citing how he was one of several board members who intervened to cool down tensions during last year’s revolt and had argued against the Foundation’s intervention.
Many editors said in a community discussion that they would adopt a “wait-and-see” approach on the move, but others were more blunt with one stating “the Wikimedia Foundation has, by way of hamfisted and tone-deaf decisions, lost the community’s confidence.” A member of the Arbitration Committee who last year supported a statement opposing the Foundation’s intervention against Fram, declared that if the Foundation was signaling it would take action against individual contributors to enforce this proposed code of conduct the result would be “a disaster, and a violation of all agreed working arrangements” between the community and the Foundation.
Concerns about imposing a “universal code of conduct” are not new on Wikipedia. During last year’s revolt, editors raised concerns about various obscure campaigns being pursued by the Foundation that they feared could result in similar actions as that against Fram. At the time, a video on YouTube had been discovered in which Foundation employee Sydney Poore mentioned the code of conduct plans. Then, editors expressed serious concerns about the proposal and particularly expressed concern at it being tied into progressive identity politics.
While some editors during the revolt signaled support for a universal code of conduct by citing cases such as administrators at the Azeri Wikipedia encouraging Armenian Genocide denial, others raised fears that a code of conduct would increase the risk of identity politics prejudicing ban decisions. These concerns are not baseless as over the years parts of the open source coding community have been thrown into divisive ideological battles due to feminist activists imposing “codes of conduct” as occurred in the FreeBSD and GitHub communities. As with the Foundation those activists claimed codes of conduct were necessary to address problems with “toxicity” and “diversity” in the community.
Despite Wikipedia’s left-wing bias being so extreme that even its co-founder has accused the site of abandoning its neutrality policies, left-wing activists and media have continuously attacked the site over its claimed lack of diversity. Such criticisms were at the source of the editor revolt last year and serve as the motivation for the efforts to impose a code of conduct. It also is likely to be a tool used by the most radically left-wing of the site’s users to slant the online encyclopedia even further towards their political views.
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.