News and notes
FBI requests takedown of seal, Public Policy advisors and ambassadors, Cary Bass leaving, new Research Committee
Hands up. Put our seal on the floor. Now!
The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has written to the Wikimedia Foundation requesting that their seal be removed from Wikipedia, threatening that "failure to comply may result in further legal action. We appreciate your timely attention to this matter ... Whoever possesses any insignia ... or any colourable imitation thereof ... shall be fined ... or imprisoned ... or both", the BBC reported on Tuesday. The New York Times reports "those at Wikipedia" as saying the problem with these demands is that the law cited in the FBI's letter (Section 701 of 18. U.S.C.) "is largely about keeping people from flashing fake badges or profiting from the use of the seal, and not about posting images on noncommercial Web sites. Many sites, including the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, display the seal." (In the following days, the image seems to have been removed from the page on Britannica.com.) The letter stated that the FBI finds the issue "particularly problematic, because it facilitates both deliberate and unwitting violations of restrictions by Wikipedia users."
"Other organizations might simply back down", says the newspaper, "but Wikipedia sent back a politely feisty response, stating that the bureau’s lawyers are misquoting the law." The response, by the Foundation's general counsel, Michael Godwin, read: “while we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it,... we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version [you provided].... "the enactment of [these laws] was intended to protect the public against the use of a recognisable assertion of authority with intent to deceive. [The seal] is in no way evidence of any 'intent to deceive', nor is it an 'assertion of authority', recognizable or otherwise.... we are prepared to argue our view in court." Godwin signed off his letter "with all appropriate respect."
An FBI spokesperson told the newspaper that by law, its seal cannot be used without "the permission of the [FBI] director”. The BBC questioned why the FBI "singled out Wikipedia, when the FBI seal is published on numerous other websites." Asked by The New York Times to comment, Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the FBI "has better things to do than this."
Earlier this year, Wikimedia and the FBI had already appeared in headlines together, in news reports about Larry Sanger's announcement that he had reported the WMF to the FBI for "knowingly distributing child pornography" (see Signpost coverage). Although Foundation staff stated several weeks later that they had not received any notice from the FBI that the images in question would violate federal laws, and there have been no media reports about actions of the FBI in this matter, Larry Sanger appeared to interpret the letter about the seal as the FBI's indirect reaction to his complaint: "The FBI finally got back to Wikimedia, but not about its child porn holdings", "this action from the FBI is a not-too-subtle hint [to the WMF] to get its house in order", "hubris, meet your nemesis. The FBI" . Sanger and other Wikipedia critics later noted a passage at Wikipedia:Logos#U.S. government agencies that read: "U.S. law prohibits the reproduction of designated logos of U.S. government agencies without permission. Use restrictions of such logos must be followed and permission obtained before use, if required. However, this does not affect the copyright status ..."
Soon after the story broke on Tuesday, a DYK nomination of the article Seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was submitted, which would presumably entail displaying the image on the Main page. So far, it does not seem to have gained consensus, first for failing the DYK criterion of having "been created, or expanded fivefold or more, within the last 5 days", but also because several users found it would be unwise in the current situation (Jimbo Wales opined that "It is clearly politically provocative, and it's just not appropriate for Wikipedia to behave that way").
Public policy initiative announces advisory board, starts training campus ambassadors
Some staff and advisory board members of the Public Policy Initiative
The Wikimedia Foundation's Public Policy Initiative posted two announcements on the Foundation blog last week, introducing the members of its advisory board and describing its first "Wikipedia Campus Ambassador training". (The initiative, announced in May and funded by the Stanton Foundation, is a project to improve Wikipedia's coverage of public policy topics in the United States of America by collaborating with educational institutions. See also the initiative's WikiProject United States Public Policy and earlier Signpost coverage: Introducing the Public Policy Initiative.)
The advisory board consists of "eight experts from the academic, nonprofit, and wiki communities": Barry Bozeman, professor of Public Policy at the University of Georgia, Michael Carroll, professor of Law at the Washington College of Law and founding board member of Creative Commons, Robert Cummings, assistant professor of English at the University of Mississippi and author of "Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia" (see also Signpost reviews and Wikivoices episode), Charles Cushman, associate dean of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, Mary Graham, co-director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard University, Wayne Mackintosh, founding director of the International Centre for Open Education based at Otago Polytechnic/New Zealand (and also member of the WMF's advisory board), Barry Rubin, professor at Indiana University, and Rob Schneider from the nonprofit Consumers Union.
"Campus Ambassadors" is the initiative's term for volunteers that work with professors and go into participating institutions to train and support the students in person that are supposed to edit Wikipedia as part of their coursework. In the other blog post last week ("Welcome Wikipedia Ambassadors"), Frank Schulenburg, the WMF's Head of Public Outreach, described the idea behind the Campus Ambassadors, and said that a three day training session for them would take place this week at George Washington University, with "20 Wikipedians, students, teaching assistants, librarians and professors" participating. There are also "Online Ambassadors", "experienced Wikipedians [who] will support newcomers through their first 100 edits", on the wiki, by email, on IRC and via other media, a position for which applications are still invited.
Volunteer Coordinator Cary Bass to leave Foundation staff
Cary Bass (User:Bastique), the Volunteer Coordinator of the Wikimedia Foundation, has announced he will leave the staff at the end of December. He will "continue to be involved with the Wikimedia movement as a volunteer, both as a contributor and in the organization of the annual Wikimania conference", and has decided to enroll in graduate theological studies. Bass was hired in March 2007 (see Signpost coverage: Community manager hired). The Foundation has recently formed a new Community Department following the hiring of Chief Community Officer (CCO) Zack Exley (see Signpost coverage: Foundation hires two new chief officers, New Community Department to hire community members). Bass says the Foundation "is not planning to hire another volunteer coordinator to look after the specific range of work I've been doing", and that users who are unsure which staff member will take over a specific responsibility should contact him over the next months.
Foundation to set up new "Wikimedia Research Committee"
The Wikimedia Foundation is calling for volunteers for a new "Wikimedia Research Committee", to "support the management of relationships between Wikimedia communities and the broader communities of researchers who study Wikimedia projects". Among the tasks outlined in the announcement by Deputy Director Erik Möller are the formulation of a policy governing the access of non-public data by researchers, reviewing research projects in cases of a conflict of interest, and "helping to formulate small tactical experiments related to Wikimedia's strategic goals". Historically, the WMF used to designate a "Chief Research Coordinator" (until 2007 "Chief Research Officer"), a volunteer with some similar responsibilities, guiding the "Wikimedia Research Network", which appears to have been inactive for years. Recently, the Foundation added a new user rights group named "Researcher" to the English Wikipedia and suggested the community should develop processes for granting this permission (see Signpost coverage). In March, a page on the English Wikiversity about researching Wikipedia by "Ethical Breaching experiments", which contained some suggestions to vandalize it on purpose, generated controversy (see Signpost coverage.)
In other news, four WMF employees that comprise "most of the current staff at the Wikimedia Foundation currently engaging in research" introduced themselves on the Wiki-Research-l mailing list on Monday: User:Nimish_Gautam, Howie Fung, Amy Roth and Parul Vora.
- Wikimedia UK, the Wikimedia chapter representing the United Kingdom, has announced a "microgrants" scheme, providing funds ranging from £5 to £100 to support applicants' Wikimedia activities (more details).
- Although this year's deadline for the Foundation's chapter grant process has officially passed already, grant submissions will now be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. The process was recently expanded to include consideration "in a limited way" of grants submitted by "volunteers and like-minded organizations" that follow the grant requirements, as well as just chapters. Barry Newstead, the Foundation's new Chief Global Development Officer (CGDO), has taken over the grants process and intends to experiment with grants to non-chapter entities in the future.
- Discussion about the use of Google's machine translation tools to increase content on smaller Wikipedias (see Signpost coverage: 19 July, 26 July) continued last week on the Foundation-l mailing list. Google employee Michael Galvez (who had also given a talk about the topic at Wikimania) described how some issues had been addressed, such as avoiding formatting and spelling errors and collaborating more closely with the local Wikipedia communities when selecting the articles to be translated.
- User:SieBot, a bot that resolves and adds interwiki links, has surpassed 10 million edits across all Wikimedia wikis, as noted by its owner, nl:User:Siebrand. This corresponds to about 0.9% of all edits, which currently number around 1.076 billion. In Wikimedia's Bot activity statistics (for Wikipedias), SieBot is currently the bot with the most overall edits, followed by TXiKiBoT and Thijs!bot, both of which are also adding or fixing interwiki links.
- Wikimedia Sverige has published a very short chapter report for the month of July, mainly noting that five of the chapter's board members and eight other members attended Wikimania.
- The Wikimedia Foundation's Executive Director, Sue Gardner, published two posts on her private blog recently. In How to Help Wikipedia, and How to Hurt It, she started out from reading "sociologist Gary Marx‘s documentation of tactics covertly used by external parties to hurt or help social/political movement", eliciting several comments including one from a poster identifying himself as Larry Sanger. In What Wikimedia can learn from the Quakers, she noted that both the Quakers and Wikimedians use consensus decision-making. She said that "some Quaker practices, I think, are relevant to Wikimedia, and we are either already using versions of them, or should consider it." In particular, she mentioned that the "Clerk" role "is very similar to our leadership roles such as board or committee chair", said that "Quaker methods of reconciling dissent might be particularly useful for us" in the context of the Board of Trustees' decisionmaking, and that their "delineation of roles-and-responsibilities among board, staff and community members [could] be a good model for us."