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WMF Legal and ArbCom weigh in on tension between disclosure requirements and user privacy

The Arbitration Committee has long played an essential role in interpreting and enforcing "a ridiculously complex system of interweaving and contradictory policies, guidelines, and usual processes", as longtime Wikipedian Risker stated in a 2013 recap of her tenure as an arbitrator. In particular, tension between user privacy and enforcement of rules centered on user identity has arisen frequently, especially since the 2014 amendment of Wikimedia's terms of use to require disclosure by paid editors. That requirement often clashes with individual Wikipedia contributors' preference to keep details about their identities private.

On January 18, in responses to community requests, the Wikimedia Foundation's legal department published an essay outlining its interpretation and advice on that tension. The statement asserted that the WMF's role is merely advisory; it also clarified that the privacy policy addresses cases where the WMF itself collects information on the sites' users, and does not apply to cases where information has been publicly shared. But it also asserted a clear distinction between the English Wikipedia harassment policy and the disclosure requirements: "if someone is editing for a company and fails to disclose it, an admin properly posting that person’s company where it is relevant to an investigation is part of their job to help bring the account into compliance with those requirements." The statement further outlined factors that community members might use to inform difficult decisions, and three types of assistance the WMF legal department can offer.

On January 26, ArbCom published its own statement, responding to that of WMF's legal department. ArbCom's statement noted areas in which its 11 signatories disagreed with the legal team; for instance, ArbCom asserted that "being doxxed and treated in ways the community has defined as harassment is not a reasonable consequence of noncompliance with a website's terms of use."

The initial Arbcom response was signed by eleven members of the committee. The committee took issue with the WMF statement on doxxing which said: "if someone is editing for a company and fails to disclose it, an admin properly posting that person’s company where it is relevant to an investigation is helping bring the account into compliance with those requirements." Arbcom objected to what it characterized as "an almost unbounded exemption to the outing policy to allow people to post public information on any individual they believe is engaging in undisclosed paid editing." Arbcom called for clarification of the definition of paid editing, noting the possibility of disproportionate consequences for relatively insignificant instances where an editor accepts payment. Finally, ArbCom raised a concern about the "perceived force of authority" of the statement, irrespective of it being tagged as merely an advisory essay.

Several individual arbitrators expanded on the statement commented in their individual capacities, on the same page linked above.

James Heilman, a longtime Wikipedian and former WMF trustee, posted a list of several venues where relevant discussion has, or is currently, taken place. GP & PF

For an in-depth look at the impacts undisclosed paid editing can have, see the article by Smallbones in this edition of the Signpost.
Correction: Of the four arbitrators posting their own statements, three were not signatories to the collective statement. Updated per talk page comment on Feb. 7. PF

In brief

  • Arbitration motion regarding Race and intelligence: In April 2016, Mathsci was site un-banned from Wikipedia with the restriction that he "refrain from making any edit about, and from editing any page relating to the race and intelligence topic area, broadly construed". On 21 January, it was announced that the restriction was rescinded. His interaction bans remain in place.
  • Yunshui regained their CheckUser and Oversight permissions following a request from the Committee. They had voluntarily retired in November 2015.


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