Industry News

Wikipedia Purge Explained – Exclusive

Op/Ed by Tabercil

I’m one of the admins at the English language Wikipedia and also at Wikimedia Commons, and at Cindi’s request I’ve tried to explain what’s occurring on there in terms of the “Pornography Purge”. Note that this is just my own observations and opinions, and should not be taken as any kind of official statement from the Wikimedia Foundation!

Wikipedia actually consists of several related projects, and the relevant portion is what’s called Wikimedia Commons (or more familiarly as Commons) which is a central repository of free-use images. We have had a low-level background debate for the last few weeks about the presence of sexually explicit material on Commons. Some people felt that we should not have these images present – that request never got that far as the community felt that the principle behind Commons is that we are not censored and that having the explicit images did have legitimate uses within the context of an encyclopedia.

From what I gather, word of this debate apparently reached Fox News, who began an investigation into this (as detailed here). Part of that investigation was that they contacted a number of the contributors to the Wikimedia Foundation (or WMF) and asked them if they were aware of Wikimedia hosting sexually explicit content. Among those contacted were among them Google, Yahoo!, Open Society Institute, Ford Foundation, Best Buy and USA Networks. As a side comment I seriously doubt Fox provided the proper context to them when they did say it, and they deliberately acted to provide a distorted image to people. In their news report, they say present were “pictures of men, women and young girls involved in a range of sex acts with each other and, in some cases, with animals.” This is a severely distorted view – to my knowledge there were no photographs present of under-aged people engaged in sex acts present before the purge, nor were there any photographs animals engaged in sex acts with people present before the purge. I strongly suspect Fox counted into their list of images some of the illustrations hosted by Commons dating back to ancient Greece right up to the Victorian age such as artist’s depictions of the myth of Leto and the swan.

I suspect one or more of the contributors contacted Jimbo Wales (one of the co-founders of Wikipedia, and very much the public face of the organization) asking for full information about the Fox allegations. He then acted to try and contain the issue, first by stating a policy on the topic of sexual content. This policy essentially stated that photographs of a sexual nature would not be allowed on Commons. He then acted to bring Commons into compliance with that policy by deleting images which had been categorized as having sexual content, and encouraging others to help him out in that. In the zeal to clean it up a number of images were deleted which were in use on various articles as well as notable artworks. As well, the deletion was done on a speedy basis, with no chance for the larger community to react. It should be noted that the amount of material that was deleted was a rather small part (one estimate had it at about 400 images were deleted) of the archive of material that Commons hosted (placed by the WMF as being over 6.5 million files).

That purging caused an immediate uproar. The last time I checked a dozen administrators have resigned their posts citing censorship. No, I’m not one of them though I am one of the outraged. The deletions have stopped for now, partly because a lot of the questionable material has already been deleted and partly due to the outrage from the community. There is an active debate occurring about what Commons should and should not be doing.

What will happen in the future? I’m not psychic so I don’t know for sure, but I can make some educated guesses.The WMF has since issued a statement saying in part “We do immediately remove material that is illegal under U.S. law, but we do not remove material purely on the grounds that it may offend… The Wikimedia projects are intended to be educational in nature, and there is no place in the projects for material that has no educational or informational value… We encourage Wikimedia editors to scrutinize potentially offensive materials with the goal of assessing their educational or informational value, and to remove them from the projects if there is no such value.” Given that, I suspect there will not be a ban on hosting explicit material but rather a tightening of what will be allowed on Commons.

You Might Also Like