Jimmy Wales has spent a lot of time defending his brainchild Wikipedia, the world’s leading Website where citizen Web users can anonymously contribute entries on anything from the history of the hot dog to celebrity biographies.
Wikipedia founder Wales’ crusade continued this week in the wake of a June 28 The New York Times report that he, Wikipedia’s administrators and The Times worked regularly to flush information about kidnapped Times journalist David Rohde from the site. Some Internet experts describe the joint effort, carried out to save Rhode’s life, as censorship, a charge Wales flatly denies.
David Ardia, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the director of the Citizen Media Law Project, wondered whether or not Wikipedia has taken similar measures in other instances.
“If the assumption going into this was that Wikipedia doesn’t censor what topics it covers, then that turns out not to have been true, it raises the question: are there other pieces of information that have been kept off of Wikipedia for this or other similar reasons?” Ardia told eWEEK.
Wales told eWEEK there “are no other cases of me having knowledge of a media blackout, no,” adding that there are many cases of unsourced and unreliable information being kept out of Wikipedia. Sometimes that information turns out to have been true all along, which Wales attributed to the nature of the spread of knowledge over time.
Ardia also said the actions of Wales and his admins diminish the credibility that people place on Wikipedia as a thorough and unbiased source for news and information. Wales disagreed and denied the actions of he and his Wikipedia admins constitute censorship:
“This was a strict application of our rules about quality. When we say we insist on reliable sources, and when we say we care about the humanitarian impact of our work, we mean it. I find it strange in this day and age that people still cannot keep clear the concepts of “censorship” – which involves the use of force – and “editorial judgment” – which involves reasonable judgments about what to print. The misuse of these terms leads people to fail to understand the facts of important situations.“
The events that set this Wikipedia issue in motion started shortly after Nov. 10, 2008, when Rohde was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Times officials feared publicity on Wikipedia and other sites would make Rhode too important for the Taliban to let go, increasing the threat level to his life, according to the Times report.
Wikipedia user-editors posted information about the captured journalist on Rhode’s Wikipedia page at least a dozen times, the Times said. But Wales, Wikipedia’s admins and the Times’ staffers watched the site like hawks and removed information about Rohde’s plight from the site, even freezing the page to prevent more editing.
Fearing Rohde’s life was at stake, Times reporter Michael Moss Nov. 12 changed the Wikipedia entry on Rohde to emphasize his work that could be seen as sympathetic to Muslims. One day later, an editor without a user name edited the Rohde entry to include the kidnapping; Moss deleted the addition only to see it added again with a protest note and citation of an Afghan news report.
Wales Says Wikipedia Processes Were Followed 100%
Around this time, the Times called Wales for his help in quashing news about Rohde. News about the kidnapping was posted and deleted several times Nov. 13 before a Wikipedia admin blocked changes for three days, and then again Nov. 16 for two weeks. The addition-subtraction battle continued into February, with user editors leaving irate messages on Wikipedia over the deletion of their work.
Rohde finally escaped June 20 and Wales unfroze the page, ending a month-long struggle to suppress information with the balance of a human life hanging over Wikipedia. Wales said his decision to keep word of Rohde’s situation off of Wikipedia was aided by the fact that major news site’s were mum or in the dark on Rohde.
Ardia acknowledge that Wikipedia is open only to a point, relying on intermediaries that have the power to decide what to publish and what not to publish and have a well-documented process for hearing disputes. Ardia added:
“Often times, they don’t exercise that power and then we go along thinking these are open sites with perfect free speech rights. But that isn’t the case. In this situation, it’s unclear to me but it appears the normal Wikipedia process for arbiting editing disputes did not kick in. Instead it was a decision by Jimmy and others at the top of the organization to prevent this information from being included in the entry.”
Wales responded that Wikipedia’s editorial processes were followed 100 percent and this was handled in a fairly routine way. “No Wikipedia rules were bent or broken in any way,” he added.
Ardia said that newspapers have a history of asking rival or partner newspapers to suppress information about endangered reporters, acts that the public rarely hear about.
These were typically managed via a phone call from one editor to another. However, he said, in the digital age of open, crowd-sourced sites, it is hard to find a central management contact to vet such requests. This proved different for Wikipedia, where Wales’ high-profile made him an easy contact for the Times to reach out to for help regarding Rohde.
Would Wikipedia’s actions radically change the way people view Wikipedia? Ardia said he doubted it.
Geoff Bock, who follows collaboration technologies for the Gilbane Group, said the way the situation was handled spoke to the site’s maturity, adding that if Wikipedia is going to be taken seriously as a mainline source of information, the members of the community have to realize that they are acting with some sense of maturity.
“There are certain boundaries and what happened here with The New York Times and Rhode was a very sensitive and delicate situation and it needed to be handled appropriately,” Bock said. “It shows that Wikipedia is willing to take themselves seriously and they understand the environment in which they’re operating. Now you have a lot more respect for the information they provide.”
For his part, Wales said the way he and his staff handled the Rohde issue “is only surprising to people who have assumed that Wikipedia is some kind of free-for-all. It is not, it never has been.”