Friday, June 15, 2007

The ethics of editing via anonymizing proxies: whose privacy matters more?

So today's big controversy is apparently the request for adminship of an editor by the name of CharlotteWebb. The controversy starts here, with this rather startling (and intimidating) question from Jayjg. Jay, by asking this question, revealed that Charlotte has been, apparently, known (to him, at least) to edit Wikipedia using TOR, an activity which Jay apparently believes is so heinous that it justifies violating the privacy policy. This has spawned a lot of rather heated discussion in the usual places, with Jay's little gang closing ranks to defend him, and a lot of other people (including many of those who would love to see Jay taken down) firing torpedos at him from all directions.

I personally think that Jay's disclosure was well over the line -- there was no credible allegation that Charlotte had engaged in any sort of misconduct other than violating a kneejerk policy against using anonymous proxies (and specifically TOR) that was recently established in the wake of an compromised administrator account that involved the use of TOR. The simple fact is that lots of perfectly reasonable editors edit Wikipedia via TOR and other anonymizing proxies every day, and we largely ignore them because they are not vandalizing Wikipedia.

What I don't understand is why Jay went after Charlotte. Charlotte appears by all lights to be a run of the mill admin candidate. She has apparently some minor problems with civility, but I can't find any evidence of any history between them or between her and any of the rest of the people who are known to me to be in Jay's little gang. I don't see what Jay gets out of torpedoing her candidacy other than the cold and sordid satisfaction of ruining someone else's day -- and while I have lots of issues with Jay's behavior in general, I've not known him to be maliciously nasty for the sheer sake of it. So I'm confused about Jay's motives here.

But more disturbing to me is Jay's hypocrisy about privacy. Jay is, as anyone who reads Wikipedia Review knows, assidiously careful about his privacy. What few personal claims he's made about himself don't add up, and it's likely that he's lying in order to misdirect inquiries into his identity. He's also very careful about protecting the privacy of his friends, such as when he oversighted every edit made by SlimVirgin's other account (User:Slimv) on the grounds that those edits might possibly allow someone to determine her identity. But his respect for privacy doesn't extend beyond the circle of his friends; he has no compunction against revealing information that comes to him under a bond of privacy (that is, checkuser data) when doing so serves his own interests.

And finally there is the stunning failure on his part to assume good faith. Jay ought to be able to discern that his question would be a bombshell, and that it would have been far more sensible for him to have asked Charlotte his question privately before making a giant scene about it. It's almost as if Jay wanted to maximize drama. It's certainly the course I would have taken if I wanted to create maximal drama and thought that my friends were strong enough to protect me from getting fried for stepping over the lines of the privacy policy.

Now, admittedly, revealing that an editor is using TOR is not the same as revealing where an editor lives or what their real name is. But it's still a breach of the privacy policy. There's nothing, even now, to show that Charlotte was disrupting the project or otherwise doing anything harmful to Wikipedia. And yet Jay released information that he only had by virtue of his use of the Checkuser tool, which means he is very limited in his right to release it. But what really bothers me is that Jay's little drama game (or whatever this was) is very likely to prevent someone who is pretty obviously a good editor from becoming an administrator, and may well end up in her leaving the project. Way to go, Jay. Just what were you thinking?