EDIT 11/11: I asked the arbitration committee why the bit of policy that says ""if individuals have identified themselves without redacting or having it oversighted, such information can be used for discussions of conflict of interest (COI) in appropriate forums" does not apply in this case.
The response was that "I don't think that what the Guardian described as an "angry blog post" is what the community had in mind as an 'appropriate forum'."
It's official: the arbitration committee does not consider my blog an appropriate place to discuss conflicts of interest.
Original post below:
I'd do a Saturday Waffling about the Day of the Doctor trailer, but I've seen it and there's not all that much to say. Still, feel free to discuss it in comments. Meanwhile, I've got a dead horse to beat.
Back on Wednesday, in an interstitial post, I mentioned that I'd been permabanned from Wikipedia and made some appropriately dark mutterings about this. But since the issue has continued to be contentious on Wikipedia I wanted to make a more detailed response, if only because the arbitration committee persists in making the suggestion that I haven't "answered their questions." (This, in practice, is much like the political tactic of declaring that one's opponent has to answer questions, in that the questions are never stated and the answers are never acknowledged.) Indeed, the committee is currently misrepresenting what I've said and done in a variety of ways, and so it seems worthwhile to turn the spotlight on this body again and look at what passes for decision making on Wikipedia.
Let's start with the basic facts. In my post entitled "Wikipedia Goes All-In on Transphobia," which is, at the time of writing, my fourth most-read post on the blog and is thus linked on the sidebar, I revealed that an editor who was accusing people of conflicts of interest over the discussion on what the appropriate name for the article about Chelsea Manning should be on the basis that they knew trans people, and who engaged in disturbing and stalkerish behavior towards several editors was, in fact, an employee of the US Military. I did so by revealing their name and workplace.
Since Wikipedia is currently removing all links to that post (which was used as the main source for a Guardian article
on the subject, incidentally, and which Brad Patrick, the former legal representative for Wikipedia, praised and shared), I won't mention the editor by name here, just because, well, I want the people still arguing about this on Wikipedia to have the ability to link to what I'm saying here in order to dispel some of what can charitably be called the misrepresentations of what I've done. Regardless, yeah, I doxed a dude.
Shortly after the post went up I received the following e-mail from a member of the arbitration committee.
Please contact the Arbitration Committee to explain why you have posted personal, non-public information about another contributor on your personal blog. This blog post has direct ramifications on the project, and may put you in gross violation of the project's norms and policies.
For the Arbitration Committee,
I responded, explaining my reasoning on the blog itself, which was simple enough - I believed it to be in the public interest. I also disputed the claim that the information was non-public. (Indeed, virtually all of the information can be found in edits the user himself has made to Wikipedia. The only leap of logic necessary is to assume that an employee of the US military who lives in a foreign city with a US military base works at that base.)
I made this explanation on the blog itself. My reasoning here was straightforward. The arbitration committee - and note that Anthony's e-mail explicitly speaks for the committee itself - sent me a threateningly toned e-mail in response to an article I had written criticizing their behavior. This seemed to me worth making public. The most powerful entity within the English language Wikipedia's organizational structure was threatening people and trying to intimidate them into censoring public criticism of them. That's news and worth exposing and criticizing.
And let's be clear, it was their behavior I was criticizing. The user in question is a banal twerp of minimal broader interest. As I've said, the fact that members of the US military are attempting to negatively influence Wikipedia's coverage of Chelsea Manning is pretty firmly dog-bites-man. Nor was the story really that this user was railing against other people's supposed conflicts of interest while hiding their own. No, the story was that the arbitration committee endorsed this view. They explicitly found a user to have a conflict of interest on the basis that he was personally in favor of trans equality. One arbitrator, Risker, made it explicit that in her view being a trans activist constituted excessive involvement for the purposes of making any administrative action on trans issues. The story was that the arbitration committee declared this while simultaneously ignoring a seemingly equivalent conflict of interest held by a user who was being a blatant hypocrite.
Did the arbitration committee know about the conflict of interest? Of course they did. Practically everybody did, because the user only acquired any concern about their identity when they started accusing people of a conflict of interest, presumably because they were aware of how shady it looked.
A few days later I received a second e-mail from Risker, another arbitrator. That e-mail read:
Hello Phil -
I know you're really unhappy with the way things ended up on the Manning naming dispute arbitration case. You're fully entitled to your opinion, and even though I disagree with some of the things you've said, I support your right to express yourself.
But I remember back in the day when you very distressed that some other people pulled up a bunch of personal information about you and published it on an external site, making assumptions about you and your motivations, and I felt sympathy for your position. I would have hoped you'd remember the anguish that caused you and wouldn't want to visit similar pain on other people, even people with whom you disagree. You were pretty clear that you expected Wikipedia to take every step within its power to limit the effects on you (and others in a similar position), and now another editor is in that position, and we have to take this seriously once again and contemplate what actions should be taken about a user with a privileged position on our project.
I hope that you might see your way clear to removing the personal information about [outed user] from your blog. This would be in keeping with the positions you've taken on previous occasions on and off Wikipedia, and is independent of whether or not you ever choose to return to the project.
This requires some explication, simply because Risker was (as I pointed out to her) completely misrepresenting the instance she talks about. I don't remember exactly when I changed from using a handle on Wikipedia to using my real name, but it was back in 2005 or so. Ages ago, in any case. I've been perfectly open on Wikipedia about who I am and basic facts about my life. Repeatedly and consciously, because I felt that, as a then-active academic, it was important to bridge my proper scholarship with Wikipedia work.
The incident in question was not, in other words, a doxing of any sort. It was someone calling the police where I lived to suggest that I was a serial killer by giving them a link to a fictional story I'd posted on a long-defunct blog. There's a lovely account of the whole thing from when it happened on BoingBoing
. The entire incident stemmed from a thread on a message board called Wikipedia Review in which a number of editors, both active and banned, egged each other on with discussion of how they thought they could intimidate me out of either leaving Wikipedia or my PhD program, which culminated in one of them filing a blatantly fraudulent police report that resulted in me dealing with a week of police intimidation. I pointed out to Risker that there were no similarities whatsoever between what happened to me and what I did. (My e-mail is reproduced in the comments below.) Risker never replied to my pointing out the lack of factual basis for Risker's complaint.
These were the only two forms of communication I had from the arbitration committee prior to being informed that I'd been banned. Since then I've gotten one more e-mail, which I'll only reprint one portion of here:
Sandifer has brought this entirely upon himself. He didn't cooperate when we asked him about it; made no attempt to engage in dialogue; and instead of responding with diffs which might have helped his case simply posted more stuff on his blog. Additionally, we later asked him to consider redacting; he ignored the request.
Almost every part of this is untrue. The committee as a whole did not ask me to consider redacting - one member did, making no apparent effort to speak on behalf of the committee and doing so in an e-mail so full of factual misrepresentations it was difficult to take seriously. I did, in fact, cooperate when asked about it. I declined in one case to engage in this dialogue as they apparently would have preferred - via private e-mail - but I did so out of a desire to see this handled transparently. In both cases, they never replied to me, not the other way around. And while I did post more stuff on my blog, I did so including several of the "diffs" (Wikipedia jargon for links to specific edits on Wikipedia) requested.
This is, unfortunately, typical of the committee's stance since banning me. Today another arbitrator, NewYorkBrad, posted on Wikipedia
to attempt to sum up the committee's position. (That link is what is meant by a "diff," by the way.) Here's what Brad wrote. (I've numbered what were bullet points in his original for ease of referencing later.)
In a long, threaded discussion like this, key points get swallowed up as they are followed by other posts and the conversation moves in another direction. So, I think it is worth a brief summary of what the actions I voted for the other day were and were not about. I haven't run this post by the rest of the Committee, so I speak here for myself alone, yet I dare to suggest that most if not all of my colleagues who supported the motions would agree with the following:
- The motions that criticized, desysopped, and banned Phil Sandifer were not based on the fact that he criticized the Arbitration Committee on his blog. Lots of people criticize the Arbitration Committee every day, both on and off Wikipedia.
- These actions were not based on Phil's views on any aspect of the Chelsea/Bradley Manning naming dispute or any related dispute.
- These actions were not based on Phil's disagreement with much of the outcome of the Manning case. Lots of people disagreed with aspects of the outcome of the case. I disagreed with parts of the outcome, and in fact, I think pretty much single arbitrator voted against at least one part of the final decision.
- These actions were not based on the fact that Phil criticized a particular Wikipedia editor ("C") on his blog, with respect to that editor's statements during the Manning case.
- These actions were not based on Phil's posting that C is affiliated with the United States military. While I think that Phil's argument that C has a conflict of interest vis-à-vis Manning based on his military affiliation is a weak argument, I would not have supported any sanction based on this alone.
- These actions were not based solely on Phil's having posted C's full name. While I do not think this was a useful action or served any useful purpose, given that the name has been publicized elsewhere, if that were all that had been posted this would have been a much closer call for me.
- These actions were based in large part on Phil's having posted C's full name and the identify of his employer and the specific location (city, region, country) where he is located. Even assuming that Phil believed in good faith that he needed to identify C as connected with the US military to make his point, neither he nor anyone else has explained why specifying his full name and his specific geographic location was appropriate.
- Two arbitrators communicated with Phil, after he made his blog post and before the sanctions were voted, expressing concerns regarding Phil's violation of the "outing" policy. These arbitrators did not complain that Phil had made a blog post that criticized both the arbitrators as well as C (who is not an arbitrator and historically has not been the ArbCom's best friend, either). They did point out that posting "personal, non-public information about another contributor" is against Wikipedia policy.
- At no time, even to this day, has Phil suggested that he would be willing to take down any piece of the identifying information he posted about C, even the pieces (such as geographic location) that do not pertain to his underlying message (about Wikipedia's treatment of trans issues or about alleged conflict of interest) in any way.
Statements 1-4 are difficult to judge. The actions were, after all, taken on a private e-mail list that I have no access to. Perhaps it's true. We'll come back to it, in any case.
It is statements #5 and #6 that are interesting, however. Nothing in either Anthony nor Risker's e-mail to me, after all, suggested that there was any sort of nuanced line to be drawn. Anthony talked about "personal, non-public information" broadly. Risker asked me to remove the entire section about the user. Only now, after the ban, has there been any suggestion that I could have made minor edits to the piece. Similarly, the complaint in #9 that I have never suggested that I'd be willing to take down some smaller portion of the claim is strange for the simple reason that absolutely nobody has ever asked me this.
This leaves #7 and #8, both of which require more sizable responses. #7 is, of course, another claim full of subtle lines that were never drawn prior to my banning. The question is how much information I needed to make my point. Which, in turn, requires that we discuss what my point actually was.
At the end of the day, my point in all of the Wikipedia/Chelsea Manning articles I've written is about accountability. It's about the fact that being the sixth largest website in the world has moral consequences and responsibilities that Wikipedia is categorically allergic to. And it's about the fact that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that Wikipedia avoids sunlight like the plague.
This is, of course, at times a benefit. The fact that anybody can edit Wikipedia just by hitting "edit this page" matters and is part of why it's good. The fact that accounts are easy to get is broadly a good thing. The dance between privacy and transparency is terribly complex.
But in the end, what I was doing with that article was activist journalism, z-list as I may be. I wasn't just trying to make a factual point; I was trying to make a difference. And I thought, and still think that transparency and accountability were important tools in making that difference. Sunlight is what forces change. The goal was not to hurt or punish the user, nor to intimidate them.
But it's important to realize that hypocrisy is a political tactic, and a powerful one. And my goal was to disarm both the user in question and the arbitration committee, and to try to foster an environment where they wouldn't be used in the future. That required more than just making the factual point that the user had a conflict of interest; it required creating a situation where the user became accountable for their actions as well as their words.
What it manifestly wasn't about, however, was engaging in any sort of content dispute on Wikipedia. As I've said, I'm barely active there anymore. There's an odd, if amusing mistake made by several people in this discussion whereby they assume that my goals are primarily about accomplishing anything on Wikipedia. They're not even remotely. I'm off here trying to make it as a professional writer. I cover this because it's a topic I care about, and, yes, because the three previous posts I've made about Chelsea Manning were all terribly popular and as a professional writer I recognize that writing about something that gets you 14,000 pageviews (as the "Wikipedia Goes All-In on Transphobia" post did) is a good idea. It has very little to do with my minimal presence on Wikipedia. Again, I didn't link the blog post there. I didn't even link my earlier one about the pagemove debate (though I did briefly post its contents and remove it for an arcane technical reason involving obscure rules nobody cares about).
To give an idea of comparison, the discussion that resulted in the page being moved back to Chelsea Manning had 176 participants. I've not counted, but if the arbitration case had thirty it would be a lot. So my piece had an audience roughly eighty times that of the parochial world of decision-making on Wikipedia. This has never been about influencing Wikipedia policy; this has been about shedding light on the tiny and insular world of people who make Wikipedia policy. If I'd wanted to try to use the user's identity to directly influence the sausage making I'd have, you know, posted on Wikipedia.
Which brings us to NewYorkBrad's eighth point - the one about Wikipedia policy. This requires that we actually look at Wikipedia's policy on outing. The text of the policy is as follows:
Posting another editor's personal information is harassment, unless that person had voluntarily posted his or her own information, or links to such information, on Wikipedia. Personal information includes legal name, date of birth, identification numbers, home or workplace address, job title and work organisation, telephone number, email address, or other contact information, whether any such information is accurate or not. Posting such information about another editor is an unjustifiable and uninvited invasion of privacy and may place that editor at risk of harm outside of their activities on Wikipedia. This applies to the personal information of both editors and non-editors. Any edit that "outs" someone must be reverted promptly, followed by a request for oversight to delete that edit from Wikipedia permanently. If an editor has previously posted their own personal information but later redacted it, it should not be repeated on Wikipedia; although references to still-existing, self-disclosed information is not considered outing. If the previously posted information has been removed by oversight, then repeating it on Wikipedia is considered outing.
The fact that a person either has posted personal information or edits under their own name, making them easily identifiable through online searches, is not an excuse for "opposition research". Dredging up their off line opinions to be used to repeatedly challenge their edits can be a form of harassment, just as doing so regarding their past edits on other Wikipedia articles may be. However, if individuals have identified themselves without redacting or having it oversighted, such information can be used for discussions of conflict of interest (COI) in appropriate forums. If redacted or oversighted personally identifying material is important to the COI discussion, then it should be emailed privately to an administrator or arbitrator – but not repeated on Wikipedia: it will be sufficient to say that the editor in question has a COI and the information has been emailed to the appropriate administrative authority.
If you see an editor post personal information about another person, do not confirm or deny the accuracy of the information. Doing so would give the person posting the information and anyone else who saw the page feedback on the accuracy of the material. Do not treat incorrect attempts at outing any differently from correct attempts for the same reason. When reporting an attempted outing take care not to comment on the accuracy of the information. Outing should usually be described as "an attempted outing" or similar, to make it clear that the information may or may not be true, and it should be made clear to the users blocked for outing that the block log and notice does not confirm the information.
Unless unintentional and non-malicious (for example, where Wikipedians know each other off-site and may inadvertently post personal information, such as using the other person's real name in discussions), attempted outing is grounds for an immediate block.
Threats to out an editor will be treated as a personal attack and dealt with accordingly.
First of all, then, let's note that everything I said in the original post can be sourced to edits made by the user on Wikipedia, save, as mentioned, for the deduction that someone who is a military employee living in a foreign city with a military base works at said base. On a basic level of fact, then, what I did does not violate the policy. Furthermore, what I did falls under the clear exemption in the second paragraph - I used information to discuss a conflict of interest. None of the information has been redacted. There is, simply put, no violation of the policy here.
And yet despite this the arbitration committee has reached for their most severe sanction - an indefinite ban with a year timer on appealing the ban. They even went so far as to lock my userpage from being edited. This is unusual - typically blocked users are permitted access to their userpage so that they have some means of asking about the block or clarifying things. Instead I am left with no means whatsoever to even respond on-wiki, while the arbitration committee continues to blatantly misrepresent their correspondence with me. In effect, they have taken extra steps to ensure that they can lie about me without me being able to respond at all in a forum that anyone they're lying to can see (since, of course, they remove all links to the blog because they're links to me outing the user).
More stunningly, they have done so for something that was not done on Wikipedia and that I never linked to on Wikipedia. This is significant not out of some opposition to the committee meting out Wikipedia-related sanctions for what happens on external sites, but because the committee has historically declined to do so. Certainly the committee (which was a completely different body of people at the time) never lifted a finger to block anyone who participated in the discussion that led to my actually being harassed in real life.
So, to be clear, the arbitration committee has handed out its maximum penalty because I did something that does not violate the rules, and in doing so they've suddenly invented an entire new standard of behavior that had not previously been applied.
Increasing the irony levels here is the fact that none of this should be objectionable to the user, who has been ideologically committed to transparency and outing people involved in Wikipedia's site governance. Here's that user just eight months ago:
I can't imagine how corrupt and incorrigible Wikipedia's administration would be if not for Wikipedia Review and Wikipediocracy. These two forums have exposed so many issues that Wikipedia's and the Wikimedia Foundation's administrations have tried to sweep under the rug, including mailing list cabals, BLP abuses, COI abuses, and unethical shenanigans in at least one of the foundation's chapter organizations. ... Editors who speak up on-wiki about abuses have often been threatened with sanctions, blocks, or bans or been ganged-up on by cabals of activist editors. I have personally experienced it, so I know how it feels. Having an independent forum allows people a place to expose and highlight issues that need to be addressed where they can't be bullied or intimidated. I believe the threat of exposure has influenced Wikipedia's administration, the foundation, and chapter organizations to be more transparent and straightforward in their operations and procedures.
Wikipedia Review, let's recall, is the site where the thread that caused me to get harassed by the police because some idiot got egged on to the point where they filed a fraudulent report happened. Wikipediocracy is a spin-off site of it where the user remains active. But despite the rather seedy nature of these sites, what the user says here is, broadly speaking, sensible. It is important to have journalism about a site as big as Wikipedia. Looking into abuses of power matters. And while I disagree with the folks at those sites about the severity of several supposed abuses and their characterization of them, the broad principles here are laudable.
Which makes the user's sudden about face when these principles are applied to them hypocritical, though, admittedly, not in a way that is out of character for the user in general.
What is more striking, though, is that the quote above was made in the context of the user being banned for outing another user (one who had previously blocked them over an earlier dispute) on Wikipedia itself. In the context of this dispute the editor took a very different view of outing, saying:
Each individual Internet user is responsible for their own privacy. If someone is at least making an effort to be private, then Wikipedia should try to help them maintain their privacy. In this case, however, the editor in question was not making much effort at all, if any, to protect his privacy. In that case, it makes WP's administration look very foolish to act like a serious violation of privacy had occurred.
The ban was reversed after talking to the user, but the disparity in treatment is stunning. Tellingly, one of the arbitrators only opposed the vote to unblock the user because he felt that the restrictions that were a condition of the unblock were too harsh. This same arbitrator is the one who wrote most of the parts of the decision in the Chelsea Manning case about punishing editors for complaining about transphobia, and voted straightforwardly for my ban. (Unsurprising, as he'd previously proposed banning me from talking about trans topics at all on Wikipedia.)
Which brings us back to NewYorkBrad's first four points. Given that the decision was taken on a private mailing list it is, of course, impossible to know the reasoning for the decision. We can know the public justification for it, but since that public justification is full of misrepresentations and comes from a body that I've already called out for hypocrisy, this frankly ought count for little.
Instead, let's look at the facts. The arbitration committee attempted to intimidate me out of reporting critically on them. They've handed out the most draconian punishment in their arsenal according to a novel new reading of a policy, and have publicly lied about my conversations with them leading up to this ban, suggesting that I refused requests on their part that never existed. They have sided with a blatantly hypocritical user who has previously spoken favourably of the importance of transparency and accountability, and who has in the past done the exact same thing I'm banned for. And they have salted the earth on Wikipedia, forbidding all linking to the "Wikipedia Goes All-In on Transphobia" article - an article that, as noted, was widely linked to by serious-minded blogs and newssites and that formed the basis of an article in the Guardian.
Given all of this, an obvious question forms: If this isn't about punishing me for criticizing the arbitration committee and censoring that criticism on Wikipedia itself, what is it about?
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