Wikipedia's Wales Scales Back Founder Flag After Angering Editors

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-05-17

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has given up his rights to block users, delete pages or protect pages on the online encyclopedia he helped build after drawing the ire of editors who felt he overstepped his bounds.

The hullabaloo, which Wales downplayed in tweets to the media, started when Wales deleted and facilitated the deletion of thousands of images that some deemed pornographic, including images with children, from Wikimedia Commons.

Wikipedia's editors reportedly reacted angrily, protesting that Wales had overstepped his bounds, according to this May 14 Fox News report. But while Fox News reported that a "shakeup is underway at the top levels of Wikipedia," Wales has merely ceded certain editorial controls.

Wikipedia did not respond to eWEEK's requests for comment as of this writing, but Wikipedia spokesperson Jay Walsh wrote in a Wikimedia blog post May 17 that:

"Jimmy voluntarily relinquished some technical user-account privileges he has historically held, but that in no way affects his official status with Wikimedia, nor his editorial position.

There is quite the digital trail on Wikipedia and mailing lists chronicling this minor controversy. More than 300 Wikipedia editors signed this petition complaining about Wales' actions:

"While many of us trust your judgment on such matters, we remind you that volunteers are people who donate their time and skills to Wikimedia projects and should be treated respectfully. Several volunteers left after your actions, and this clearly indicates that there is a problem in communication between you and the community."

"We therefore ask you to respect the processes and policies established by our community. All major actions should be discussed before they are carried out, especially those related to blocks and content deletion."

Wales offered this apology May 9 and further noted on the Wikimedia Foundation Mailing List May 9 that he has removed virtually all permissions to do things from the "Founder" flag.

While this flag allows those who hold it to read most logs and read deleted or suppressed content, the flag no longer confers the ability to delete content, hide content, perform checkusers, or change group membership for users.

It also no longer confers the ability to edit protected pages, "but that may change on request," Wikipedia noted.

"I do not want to be a tyrant or dictator," Wales added. "I do not want us to fight about that kind of thing, as it's really a distraction from our work."

Wales also downplayed the move on Twitter, calling it: "A purely technical matter. I am not stepping down or pulling back from anything."

The root of the issue stems from an April Fox News report accusing the site of distributing child pornography. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, who left Wikipedia in 2002, told the FBI Wikimedia Commons housed child pornography images.

Wales responded by yanking said content and authorizing other editors to follow suit, which upset other editors who felt he had not vetted his actions through the proper channels. Now, he no longer has carte blanche to remove content.

This isn't the first time Wales has fiddled with buttons to delete words. Wales and other Wikipedia editors flushed information about kidnapped Times journalist David Rohde from the site last year. This led to accusations of censorship, which Wales refuted.

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