Wikipedia bans seven Chinese users amid concerns of 'infiltration, physical harm'

Removes sysop privileges for another dozen, warns more about doxing, frets about preserving freedom to edit in the face of hostile regimes


The Wikimedia Foundation has revealed efforts to gather personal information on some Chinese Wikipedia editors by entities opposed to their activities on the platform and likely to threaten the targets' privacy or well-being.

The foundation's response has been to ban seven users in mainland China, cancel sysop privileges for another dozen, and warn plenty more Wikipedia editors to modify their behaviour.

The bans and warnings were revealed in a Monday letter from Maggie Dennis, the foundation's vice president of community resilience and sustainability. This move followed the detection of what Dennis described in a statement as "information about infiltration of Wikimedia systems, including positions with access to personally identifiable information and elected bodies of influence."

The foundation contracted a security firm, which assessed that the ongoing situation "placed multiple users at risk." Dennis's letter describes the exposure of personal information of Chinese editors, and states "we know that some users have been physically harmed as a result."

The Wikimedia Foundation therefore decided some of the perpetrators had to be sanctioned.

"We have banned seven users and desysopped a further 12 as a result of long and deep investigations into activities around some members of the unrecognized group Wikimedians of Mainland China," Dennis wrote. "We have also reached out to a number of other editors with explanations around canvassing guidelines and doxing policies and requests to modify their behaviors."

The letter and statement don't explain the source of the conflict, but do mention "recent world events" as one catalyst.

Wikimedia Taiwan's comment on the situation offers hints about those events.

"On behalf of Wikimedia Taiwan, we would like to say that this is long overdue. For more than half a decade, good faith volunteers from Hong Kong, the Chinese mainland, and Taiwan have raised concerns about dangerous members of that organization," the comment states. "We need to rebuild an inclusive wiki that welcomes everyone from all places who wants to contribute to Chinese language Wikipedia in good faith."

That last sentence is a reference to the fact that Wikipedia is banned in China, but a Mandarin-language version at zh.wikipedia.org is among the ten-most-visited versions of the online encyclopedia and is mostly created and edited by members of the Chinese diaspora.

Today's news that China has issued new guidance for online behaviour that makes it plain only the ruling party line is acceptable also suggests the source of the conflict: it's known that contributors to Wikipedia and Chinese authorities have had differences of opinion about how to present the nation's history on Wikipedia.

The Middle Kingdom is known to run influence operations beyond its borders. It is not a far-fetched scenario for disputes about interpretations to have escalated to doxing or physical harm, within and outside China. Or that conflict over Hong Kong's changed political circumstances have made for some heated edits on Wikipedia.

Dennis's letter suggests the foundation is aware of the wider challenges it faces.

"Community 'capture' is a real and present threat," her letter states. "The Foundation recently set up a disinformation team, which is still finding its footing and assessing the problem, but which began by contracting an external researcher to review that project and the challenges and help us understand potential causes and solutions for such situations."

"We have also recently staffed a human rights team to deal with urgent threats to the human rights of communities across the group as a result of such organized efforts to control information," she added.

"The situation we are dealing with today has shown me how much we need as a movement to grapple with the hard questions of how we remain open to editing by anyone, anywhere, while ensuring that individuals who take us up on that offer are not harmed by those who want to silence them." ®

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