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Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2019-06-30/Discussion report

A constitutional crisis hits English Wikipedia: Could this be a new relationship between the Foundation and ArbCom, and between the Foundation and enwiki?



On June 10, the WMF Trust & Safety Team (T&S) banned Fram, a long-time editor and administrator on English Wikipedia, without prior consultation with the community, citing unspecified behavioral issues. T&S refused to give details, citing policy. An extensive discussion followed across multiple venues, concerning the relationship between WMF – its Trust & Safety Team in particular – and the volunteer community and its own self-administration. The co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimbo Wales said of the situation:

This is not about individual people, this is a question about our constitutional order. This is not about this specific situation, but a much more important and broader question about project governance.
— Jimbo Wales[1]

Former Arbitration Committee member Risker said:

It's completely unclear what their concern is here, what they want us to change, what they see as problematic.

As of the time of writing, one of the several discussions is over 1 MB in size and growing, with over 450 distinct editors.

Background

Prelude to WMF's recent actions

WMF has a unique role in English Wikipedia under the terms of WP:OFFICE, which stated that the Foundation may "override local policy" for the purposes of "complying with valid and enforceable court orders to remove content that might otherwise comply with policy or in protecting the safety of the Wikimedia communities or the public".[2] The policy was updated by WMF staff in mid-2017 with a list of actionable complaints to include privacy violations, child protection, copyright infringement or systematic harassment.

WMF Trust & Safety has been notifying Wikipedians about revamped policies around harassment since at least as early as 2017. See Wikipedia:Community health initiative on English Wikipedia for example or 2019 Community Health conversation on Meta. Community reaction to the ban of Fram suggests that many of these discussions and notifications were not well known or understood by the community. Many editors in the discussions noted by The Signpost expected office actions to be limited to extremely severe cases with specific legal consequences in the United States. In the words of Newyorkbrad:

It's been pointed out that [WMF attempts at communicating the dialog is open for creation of new civility-related policies and standards] have flown under the radar of many editors.
— Newyorkbrad[3]

Sydney Poore, a Strategist for WMF's Community Health Initiative, described how WMF is moving towards a Universal Code of Conduct for all Wikimedia projects. Poore, who edits as SPoore (WMF) and FloNight, had spoken about this initiative in a June 11 video created by University of Washington. This video – sarcastically called the way Wikipedia communities had to find out about [a new Code of Conduct] by seeing it on Youtube[5] – may have been seen by some as symptomatic of the disconnect between the Foundation and the community.

In April 2019, WMF announced a new user reporting system on meta-Wiki to the following groups:

  • AfroCROWD User Group
  • Art+Feminism User Group
  • Black Lunch Table
  • Gender Diversity Visibility Community User Group
  • Muj(lh)eres latinoamericanas en Wikimedia
  • WikiDonne User Group
  • Wikimedia LGBT+
  • Wikimedians of North American Indigenous Languages User Group
  • Wikitongues
  • WikiWomen's User Group

Beginnings of the current crisis

On June 10 17:56 UTC, Pharaoh of the Wizards posted a note at the Bureaucrats' Noticeboard, which read in its entirety:

Please note admin User:Fram has been banned for 1 year as per Office action policy by user User:WMFOffice.

This came as a surprise to everyone as far as we can tell. As far as the The Signpost is aware, there were no ongoing discussions or Arbitration Committee proceedings regarding Fram in the usual English Wikipedia venues for editor/administrator behavior issues.

The initial statement from Trust & Safety on June 10 stated:

[W]e investigate the need for an office action either upon receipt of complaints from the community, or as required by law. In this case we acted on complaints from the community ... The removal of administrator access is intended as enforcement of the temporary partial Foundation ban placed on Fram. It is the community’s decision what to do with Fram’s administrator access upon the expiration of the Office Action ban.

At this point, Fram became barred from any sort of reply on English Wikipedia, but did make statements at his Wikimedia Commons page. In these comments Fram stated the total prior warnings from T&S came in April 2018 and March 2019 concerning two edits Fram made to an article in development by another member of the English Wikipedia community. T&S followed up with one more comment on June 11, summarized in the statement:

[W]e do not release details about Trust & Safety investigations due to privacy concerns.
— WMFOffice shared account[6]

There were two more communiques from T&S in the main discussion forum, discussed below.

The Bureaucrats' Noticeboard discussion was moved to Wikipedia:Community response to the Wikimedia Foundation's ban of Fram to avoid clogging response to other administrative matters. It was listed at WP:CENT on June 11.

Wheel wars

Administrator Floquenbeam unblocked Fram at 11 June 19:39 UTC, and was in turn de-sysopped by WMF, who also re-blocked Fram. Bishonen unblocked Fram. Then Floquenbeam was re-sysopped by WJBscribe, a bureaucrat. Notwithstanding Fram's unblocked status, according to T&S's third response (which acknowledged that "a number of community members believe ... [banning] was improper"), they are still banned by WMF for one year and under WMF directive not to edit the English Wikipedia lest the ban become indefinite.

[W]hat the community needs now is diplomacy, not a bunch of cowboy sysops
— Ritchie333[7]

Another incident occurred over Fram's admin status. He or she was de-sysopped in the 10 June office action, then re-sysopped 25 June 2019 by bureaucrat WJBscribe, then de-sysopped again by Maxim. A bureaucrat recall motion against WJBscribe was initiated on 26 June, after which WJBscribe resigned and retired from Wikipedia.

Community expectations

Former Arbitration Committee member Risker summarized why the situation was so problematic for the community:

Until this week, everyone on English Wikipedia understood that an OFFICE action against a user was taken when there was no appropriate local process to address the issue, or the issue needed to be addressed globally. ... [T]he ban on Fram is localized, it is of comparatively short duration, it is unappealable, and it is for reasons that are deliberately not being shared with the community. This is pretty much the opposite of what everyone on this project (and in fact, just about everyone in the global community) understood OFFICE actions were all about. This change in use of the OFFICE power has been completely undiscussed with the Wikimedia community ... It's completely unclear what [WMF's] concern is here, what they want us to change, what they see as problematic. 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.
— Risker[8]

Blue Rasberry, who has been editing since 2004, had a similar reaction:

I want to see due process and rule of law in opposition to opaque authoritarianism. ... At this point my fear is that the people at the WMF who are operating the levers of power are ignorant of what they are doing and [are] outsiders to [enwp] community values.
— Blue Rasberry

Arbcom involvement and requested case

Prior to the block, WMF conducted a conference call in which one member of the Arbitration Committee participated, Opabinia regalis. She has stated that "an action to do with Fram was under consideration". Other arbitrators have said they were not aware of it.

An Arbcom case was requested by WJBscribe on June 13 concerning WJBscribe's actions, but has expanded to request consideration of the entire relationship between Arbcom and WMF. Arbitration committee member Worm That Turned proposed a request for comment, sponsored by Arbcom in their page space and managed by clerks, to decide how harassment and private complaints should be handled in the future.

WMF Board

Doc James, a Wikimedia Foundation board member, stated on his talkpage that the board did not have further information for the community at 06:05, 15 June 2019 (UTC), at 14:11, 16 June 2019, 15:19, 20 June 2019, 22:29 22 June 2019, and again 16:19, 26 June 2019. This statement was essentially reiterated by Jimbo Wales at his talkpage 10:58, 21 June 2019:

We on the board are in active conversations. ... I am stating my own views directly and clearly [to the board], but it would be inappropriate to share them here and now...
— Jimbo Wales

The board's chairperson, María Sefidari (Raystorm), stated that she "had nothing to do with this decision to ban an enwiki admin", expressing dismay that the on-wiki discussion had put a third party under the microscope with this:

This community, when confronted with the ban of an admin on the grounds of problematic behavior, instead of examining said behavior immediately turned to find another individual to blame ... [T]his pattern of trying to prove, in order to absolve a banned admin, that there must be either something in [a third party's] past, or that [the third party] must have done something wrong or used undue influence for her own personal gain, is sadly familiar to most women in the internet, and has strong textbook reminiscences of for instance gamergate. This is not safe. It's not healthy for this community either.
— María Sefidari[9] wikilink added by editor; see also WP:GamerGate

The invocation of Gamergate was received harshly by some editors. During development of this article, the author's note was met with this reply: [I]s The Signpost REALLY going to drag Gamergate into this??? REALLY? Talk about throwing fat onto the fire.[10] The Signpost is not taking a position here on the Gamergate comparison, merely noting it for the record.

Universal Code of Conduct

WMF's vision of a Universal Code of Conduct may not be achievable according to one side of a hot debate. Administrator Megalibrarygirl, cites her US Army experience and says it is. On the other hand, bonadea stated there is no universal concept of civility. not even in English [speaking communities]. Nishidani criticized the medicalization of speech codes,[11] perhaps reading it in the title of the Community Health Initiative, or the board chair's reference to the health of the community.

Rapprochement?

Out of this crisis has emerged not just strikes and angry commentary on actions of the WMF office perceived as abrupt and unannounced, but a round of soul-searching on the community's ability to self-monitor. An example is Levivich's comment:

It's a false dichotomy that we either have to totally ignore problematic editors, or we have to hound them.
— Levivich[12]

At the same time, members of the community have sought a rapprochement with WMF. Newyorkbrad proposed a series of de-escalatory actions in a "suggested resolution". The resolution ends with a request that

The [WMF] Office opens, or reopens, or expands a dialog with the community about what it is trying to accomplish and how to get there
— Newyorkbrad

As of writing deadline, nearly a hundred editors have endorsed Newyorkbrad's statement. However, it remains to be seen whether the response from WMF, acknowledging Brad's outreach but reiterating the ban is non-appealable,[13] has already closed the door on the discussion.

Conclusion

Summarizing a novel's worth of words in a column for a monthly newsletter inevitably brings selection bias. The voices selected above were intended to give the reader a flavor of the debate, not to substitute for deeper reading and involvement.

Intra-community and community–WMF discussion is still under way and likely will be for some time. Even when this report was "wrapped" a new debate erupted, resulting in the resignation of a bureaucrat. We hope this is not a new fracture line in the administrator corps. Nineteen have resigned so far, and they are needed more than ever.

We will close this report with a summary of the way forward from a member of the Arbitration Committee:

The community and the WMF will need to address the issue of enduring long-term harassment and incivility. These are not a Wikipedia only problem and it is widely being addressed both online and offline, particularly in legislation and in the workplace. Whether we like it or not, Wikipedia has become an institution and must also adapt to the changing times. If this whole situation has shown us anything, unilateral action is not the way to go. Instead, we must engage in dialogue and consultation on both sides going forward. If we truly believe we are capable of handling these issues locally, then we as a community must be ready and willing to make uncomfortable and even controversial blocks of established (and possibly even well liked) editors who consistently cross the lines of civility through a local governed process.
— Mkdw[14]

Readers are encouraged to review one of the indexes below and decide whether and where to lend their own voices.

Summaries and other notes

References

  1. ^ Jimbo Wales, June 14, 2019
  2. ^ Linked to revision of WP:OFFICE extant at beginning of June; it has since been changed
  3. ^ Newyorkbrad, June 17, 2019
  4. ^ "Video: The Wikipedia gender gap". UW News. University of Washington. Retrieved June 12, 2019.
  5. ^ Boing! said Zebedee, 10:09, 15 June 2019
  6. ^ WMFOffice shared account, June 11, 2019
  7. ^ Ritchie333 07:31, 26 June 2019
  8. ^ Risker, 13 June 2019
  9. ^ María Sefidari (Raystorm), 09:33, 12 June 2019
  10. ^ Special:Diff/903138243
  11. ^ Nishidani 20:12, 16 June 2019
  12. ^ Levivich, 16:09 17 June 2019
  13. ^ Jan Eissfeldt (JEissfeldt (WMF), Lead Manager of Trust & Safety) 14:55, 21 June 2019
  14. ^ Mkdw at Wikipedia:Arbitration/Requests/Case, 26 June