Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Wikipedia's Al Qaeda

It's quite fascinating to watch how "cyberstalkers" has become Wikipedia's equivalent of George Bush's "terrorists". That there are terrorists out there, seeking to wreak havoc with American interests and Americans themselves, is without question. However (and here my liberal political streak is going to show), the Bush administration has used the excuse of "combating terrorism" to chuck so many of our supposedly cherished liberties out the window, predicated on the constantly renewed fear that if we don't do this, the terrorists will attack. In some sense, the administration has elected to, in part, destroy the Constitution in order to save the country founded upon it. The response has been (by my liberal standards, at least) both inappropriate and disproportionate: many of the measures have been poorly-calculated to deal with the problem and have restrained more legitimate activity than is required.

Wikipedia, too, has its "terrorists": so-called "cyberstalkers". These really do exist: there are a handful of very unpleasant people out there who have stalked and harassed Wikipedia editors. Some have done so to get revenge; others have been out of sheer malice; and yet others are likely grounded in mental illness. I know of at least one case where a very old USENET feud got extended into Wikipedia. And other cases seem to me to be cases where someone's obsession with their pet cause simply allows them to justify in their mind the use of "all possible measures" to defeat an opponent. There aren't all that many cases of this happening. Many of the cases are actually serial offenses by the same person. The problem is that the response to these events has, likewise, been both inappropriate and disproportionate.

Initiallly, Wikipedia did at least a semblance of the right thing: the individuals in question were as formally disinvited from Wikipedia as Wikipedia's informal culture of governance allows, and the Foundation turned over to the appropriate authorities such information as it had for those authorities to use in the appropriate criminal investigations. However, Wikipedia didn't go far enough. It failed to warn its members of the inherent risks of editing an online encyclopedia (especially one that contains articles about living people), nor did it establish and enforce policies that would limit risk or curtail known existing risks. The Foundation also failed to take the appropriate actions that would have allowed the direct filing of criminal charges against the stalkers. Hadthe Foundation formally notified a stalker that he or she was denied permission to access Wikipedia, the Foundation could then press charges for computer trespass against the stalker when he or she subsequently accessed the site. Such charges would give the authorities leverage to put the perp away; proving that case is far easier than proving the much harder stalking or harassment case -- especially when the victim refuses to personally identify himself or herself to authorities.

Instead of actually dealing with the stalking problem by taking steps to reduce exposure (by strictly enforcing Wikipedia's existing policy regarding biographies of living people and its existing policy of forcefully ejecting those use Wikipedia as a battleground for outside disputes), Wikipedia instead established its own investigative office, where they basically sanctioned the stalking of people they identified as stalkers. In seeking to destroy this perceived enemy, Wikipedia became one as with it. In so doing, they destroyed the collaborative environment and the assumption of trust that Wikipedia was founded upon. Just as George Bush has done with the Constitution, Wikipedia's leadership chose to sacrifice the core principles of the encyclopedia project in order to save the community that was founded to create it.

And just as George Bush cries that "we cannot be soft on terrorists" anytime someone talks about rolling back one of the restrictions on civil liberties imposed in the name of fighting terrorists, the counterstalking crowd whimpers about blaming the victim and generally invokes "rape victim" imagery whenever someone objects to their investigative strategies. As someone who has been a victim both of rape and of "wikistalking", I assure you that there is rather little in common, and I'm quite offended at the ready willingness that some of the counterstalking crowd has to make that parallel.

The real solution? Several steps are needed. First, get rid of people who are using Wikipedia as a battleground for their personal wars. Wikipedia is overrun by editors who will stop at nothing to win their point of view battles. We've seen this most strongly in people editing to push jingoistic points of view, mainly with regard to Eastern European nationalism, but I've also seen it with regard to animal rights issues, nuclear energy, global warming, creationism, Zionism, and really all sorts of other highly controversial topics.

Second, strictly enforce the "biography of living people" policy. It is my impression that the majority of cyberstalking incidents have been the result of the subject of an article being extremely upset about the article. Put plainly, there are enough people out there who will react poorly to being written about that once in a while bad things will happen. There are enough other good reasons to tightly control articles about living persons anyway that this is just a pleasant side benefit of a responsible editorial policy.

Third, clearly warn editors that their actions are not without consequence. Editors who edit articles about controversial topics, and especially about controversial people, need to be warned in no uncertain terms that their activities may draw attention to them, attention that they do not want. While it would be nice if the Foundation could "protect" editors in such cases, in reality it cannot, and pleas for the Foundation, or the community, to do so are misplaced.

Fourth, make it clear to editors who wish to remain anonymous that it is their responsibility—and theirs alone—to protect their anonymity. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to remain fully anonymous on the Internet in general. This is doubly true with respect to a project like Wikipedia, where reputation is so important. It is possible to establish and maintain an anonymous reputation, but doing so is very difficult because the sort of activities that help to build one's reputation are exactly the same activities that tend to reveal information about oneself that might lead to being deanonymized. Furthermore, anonymity is like virginity: once lost, you cannot get it back; the only option after a disclosure is to disappear and start over. The community is justified in making rules for its own members that prohibit efforts to reveal another member's identity, but they cannot expect those outside the community to observe those rules, and they certainly cannot hope to stuff the genie back in the bottle once it escapes. Losing your anonymity is distressing, but it's not nearly so bad as being raped (trust me, I know). Editors who seek leadership roles should be especially warned that their anonymity is likely to come under attack; Wikipedia is a very prominent website, one which draws both media and legal attention, and it is simply human nature to attempt to identify prominent anonymous people.

Fifth, absolutely stop all vigilante stalking actions. Editors who edit nondisruptively must be allowed to do so unhindered. Editors who edit disruptively should be dealt with fairly and appropriately. The key must be the behavior, not the perceived identity of the editor—and not whether the editor "appears to be too experience" but rather whether the editor is actually causing real problems. One of the unfortunate consequences of counterstalking is that it has made it very difficult for an editor who is actually being stalked to abandon their identity and start a new one, because the counterstalking people are likely to latch onto the disappeared editor's new identity as a "possible stalker" and investigate it, which merely repeats whatever injury led the editor to disappear in the first place. (This is exactly what happened with !!.) If an editor does, in fact, engage in behavior which qualifies as harassment or as stalking by a reasonably objective standard, ban the editor and turn their information over to law enforcement. Until that threshhold is reached, leave them alone and let them edit. (Even if they edit badly. Lots of Wikipedia's editors edit badly.) Oh, and for the record, mere disagreement over a policy, no matter how spirited, is not stalking. Neither is being rude. Neither is calling someone names, even vile names (although that might be harassment). It's not stalking until you get to the level of publishing information that one would normally expect to be private.

The main key in all this is to stop treating stalkers the same way George Bush treats terrorists. Wikipedia won't work if it turns into a police state. Or a cult, which is the other thing I think Wikipedia is very much in danger of turning into—but that'll have to be a followup article, I think.