Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales has launched a sweeping crusade against "pornographic images" hosted on the Wikimedia Commons, sparking the deletion of hundreds of images that "appeal solely to prurient interests."
Deleted files include photographs as well as graphics of genitalia and sexual acts, and they span contemporary as well as historical images.
The Wikimedia board of trustees has supported the move - after the fact - but countless Wikifiddlers are questioning whether Wales has the power to make this sort of de facto policy change, with some calling for the removal of his founder privileges on Wikipedia and its sister sites. Wikifiddlers, you see, believe not only in the free exchange of information - vowing to put the sum of all human knowledge online - but in some sort of uber online democracy where no one man can decide what is prurient and what isn't.
Wales has been known to refer to himself as Wikipedia's "Spiritual Leader," and he took this attitude to new levels in his call for mass smut deletion. But on Sunday, after complaints over the move, he relinquished his founder privileges. This would seem to mean that in the future, he will be required to discuss policy changes before making them. But he's standing by his porn policy change.
"In the interest of encouraging this discussion to be about real philosophical/content issues, rather than be about me and how quickly I acted, I've just now removed virtually all permissions to actually do things from the 'Founder' flag," he said in a post to the Wikimedia Foundation mailing list.
"I do not want to be a tyrant or dictator. I do not want us to fight about that kind of thing, as it's really a distraction from our work."
His decision to remove pornographic content is an apparent response to fellow Wikipedia founder Larry Sanger, who recently reported the Wikimedia Foundation to the FBI for hosting what he called "child pornography". Sanger left the Wikipedia project in 2002 over "disagreements about editorial and management policy," and Wales prefers to think of himself as Wikipedia's sole founder.
"Wikimedia Commons admins who wish to remove from the project all images that are of little or no educational value but which appeal solely to prurient interests have my full support. This includes immediate deletion of all pornographic images," Wales wrote late last week in a post to the Commons, a free online media repository run by Wikipedia's parent operation, the not-for-profit Wikimedia Foundation.
"We should keep educational images about sexuality - mere nudity is not pornography - but as with all our projects, editorial quality judgments must be made and will be made - appropriately and in good taste. I am stating here my public support for admins who are prepared to enforce quality standards and get rid of a large quantity of what can only be characterized as trolling images of people's personal pornography collections."
Wales even threatened to change site policy so that admins who question his actions will lose their site credentials, and though countless Wikipedia regulars disputed his right to make such threats - let alone call for the removal of what he deems inappropriate content - a group of administrators promptly started deleting images.
As images were being deleted, Wales said that the Wikimedia Foundation board of trustees would issue a statement supporting his actions. Although Wales indicated that he had changed site policy, the eventual statement from the board was more equivocal. "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," it read.
"In saying this, we don't intend to create new policy, but rather to reaffirm and support policy that already exists. 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."
After this was posted, however, the board made another post verifying that it supports Wales in his actions. "Jimmy is acting in his traditional role as a thought leader in Wikimedia's volunteer community," the post reads. "The Wikimedia Foundation supports the continuing efforts of Jimmy and other Wikimedia volunteers, to ensure that information in the Wikimedia projects is of high quality and good educational value."
The post does indicate that Wales made the decision on his own, but the board prefers to say that admins are "reviewing" images rather than "removing" them. Hundreds of images were indeed removed from view - Wales himself uses the words "remove" and "deletion" - but admins have the power to restore them - and some have been restored.
Site policy already bars images that violate US law, including photographs depicting bestiality and child pornography, but with his decree, Wales goes beyond the law. His decision comes a month after fellow Wikipedia founder Larry Sanger reported the Wikimedia Foundation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) over "child pornography".
The images cited by Sanger did not depict actual people - most were reproductions of centuries old etchings - but he argued they were illegal under a US law that forbids "obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children". This obscenity law specifically says: "It is not a required element of any offense under this section that the minor depicted actually exist."
Sanger was berated by many for objecting so strongly to images that did not depict actual children. But Wikimedia eventually received pressure from the right-wing Fox News over these and other explicit images hosted on the Commons. Fox News was in the process of contacting big names companies who have contributed to the Wikimedia Foundation and asking whether they were "aware of the extent of graphic and sexually explicit content" on its sites.
Federal law (18 USC 2258A) says that if an electronic service provider is made aware of child pornography on its servers, it must report it to the CyberTipline operated by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). This includes apparent violations of 18 USC1466A, the obscenity law cited by Sanger. "Just based on the statute, Congress wants you to pick up the phone if you're made aware of simulated child pornography," says tech law blogger and Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman.
Wales has not targeted the specific images cited by Sanger - he has gone after a much broader set of images - but Sanger welcomes the move. Previously, he had said that the Wikimedia Foundation has the right to host porn if they want to, but he had called on the Foundation to label adult content so that it can be filtered more effectively by schools. "I'm pleasantly surprised by Jimmy's actions," he tells The Reg. "And I applaud him for it." ®
Updated: This story has been updated to report that Jimmy Wales relinquished his Wikipedia "Founder privileges".