Updated Is Wikipedia running a censorship board? John Barberio thinks so. After more than two years as an active contributor to the free online encyclopedia, the 27-year-old Oxfordshire man recently left the project over the behavior of its "OTRS volunteers," unpaid administrators who act on reader complaints about the site's content.
"I dislike using the scary C word, but OTRS are acting as a censorship board," he says. "And worse, they appear to be acting as an inept, heavy-handed amateurish censorship board." Others who have had brushes with Wikipedia's "Open-source Ticket Request System" are saying much the same thing.
To illustrate his point, Barberio points to Wikipedia's article on the lava lamp, which OTRS volunteers recently suppressed for almost two weeks - without explanation. From June 18 to July 2, anyone looking for information about the world's most famous novelty item was met with a blank page.
"No information on what exactly was wrong with the article was divulged," Barberio explains. "I've read over it trying to figure out what the offending part may have been, but can't work it out. It's still unclear what the issue was - or what steps could be taken to correct it. It certainly seems all too easy to get an article 'protectively blanked.'"
Wikipedia's OTRS is used to field email complaints about site content. Incoming messages are monitored by a group of volunteers, who assess the value of each complaint and act accordingly. As they weigh a complaint, they may "blank out" the article in question, so that no one can read it. Then, if they decide a complaint has merit, they'll edit the article.
On the surface, OTRS volunteers can't do anything you or I couldn't do. "They have no special power within Wikipedia," site founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales told The Register. But there's no denying these volunteers have a certain political pull above and beyond the Average Joe. Saying that OTRS volunteers have no special power, Barberio retorts, is "kind of like saying The CEO and the Janitor have the same privileges because they both have the same set of keys to the building."
"OTRS volunteers don't have additional extra privileges in the sense that the Wikipedia software doesn't let them do special things," he explains. "But they do have access to secret information, and they can demand that their actions not be reverted by other administrators 'until discussion is settled.'" If you go against their demands, your own privileges could be removed.
When we asked Wales if OTRS volunteers would ever blank out out an entire page while a complaint is under review, he said it was "pretty routine."
"When we have a complaint, we try to immediately remove the information that's the subject of the complaint - pending resolution of the complaint," he explained. "That's standard process across hundreds of articles every day."
This sort of thing is hardly unreasonable. There needs to be a means of policing content on the site. But Barberio is adamant that the process needs to be more transparent. If someone suppresses an article about lava lamps for two weeks, they should give sufficient reason. "It's not acceptable to blank a page out and never give a reason why."
Barberio acknowledges there will be cases where OTRS volunteers would be justified in keeping a complaint secret. If a person claims they're being libeled by a Wikipedia article, for instance, it stands to reason their identity shouldn't be divulged. But this was far from the case with the lava lamp article. Wales insisted that the reason for suppressing the article was posted to its "talk" page, but there doesn't seem to be a link between those discussions and the OTRS action.
As Wales says, OTRS volunteers are chosen because they're "respected members of the Wikipedia community." But Barberio believes that the community has become far too insular. "It's getting very combative over there," he says. "There are groups of admins who generally do not get along with anyone they consider an outsider." Are you having problems with Wikipedia community? Do let us know.®