News and notes
Alleged "outing" of editor's personal information leads to Wikipedia ban
As part of the second major "outing" controversy to hit the English Wikipedia in less than a year, the Chelsea/Bradley Manning naming dispute was dragged into the spotlight yet again when the English Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee ruled by motion to remove the administrator tools from long-time Wikipedia contributor Phil Sandifer and to ban him from the site. The committee stated that a personal blog post by Sandifer, which extensively profiled the real-life name, location, and employers of a user involved with the Chelsea Manning renaming case, went too far—violating a formerly little-used policy corner of the English Wikipedia, "outing", which governs the release of editors' personal information.
Sandifer's ban was surprising in that it was based solely on content published outside Wikipedia; he did not link to his writing or publish any personal information on the English Wikipedia, Wikimedia sites, or associated content areas, such as mailing lists and IRCs. It was instead published solely on his personal blog, focusing on the editor Cla68.
The committee's decision to take action was split into three clauses. The first, which passed 9–2, declared that Sandifer broke policy, while the second removed his administrator tools and had slightly less support at 8–3. The third clause indefinitely banned Sandifer. It passed with the least amount of support: seven in favor, three opposed (Kirill Lokshin, David Fuchs, Carcharoth) and one abstention (Risker).
The Signpost has examined statements by arbitrators on both sides of the issue and contacted specific members for comments, in addition to collecting reactions from Wikipedians on the talk page of the Committee's noticeboard.
What has been revealed?
In his 22 October blog post, "Wikipedia Goes All-In on Transphobia", Sandifer revealed personal information about Cla68's location and occupation to make a point about what he considered a conflict of interest in the Chelsea Manning naming case. The post contrasted the associations—and potential conflicts of interests—of editors such as David Gerard, who was recently topic-banned by the Committee, to that of Cla68, who received no sanctions. (Editor's note: in keeping with the Signpost's practice in covering outing policy, we give no direct hyperlink to Sandifer's blog post.)
One paragraph in Sandifer's lengthy piece brought up Cla68's involvement in the naming dispute and potential conflict with his occupation, noting that Cla68's background was "a fact he has studiously attempted to hide" from the Internet community. When Sandifer's post was brought to the attention of the Committee, it probably raised red flags, on the basis that revealing this information could be considered "outing" Cla68 against his wishes. For his part, Cla68 told the Signpost:
||With the Manning article, several Wikipedia "old-hands" were trying to use their insider status to try to influence the outcome of a topic debate in which they had an openly activist agenda. After I presented evidence of this in the ArbCom case, one of the participants then appeared to try to retaliate by posting some very personal, but unnecessary information about me in a public forum. To me, it showed that he was not going to stop escalating his battle over that particular topic area in Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not supposed to be used as an activist battleground. When someone openly shows that they're not going to stop doing it, especially when they're an admin, then they need to have their access revoked.
Whether it actually constituted an outing by the definition of Wikipedia policy has been a point of debate. In the past, Cla68 has given his full name to a number of media organizations, such as an interview with the Register (UK), and on-wiki in a 2009 "Not the Wikipedia Weekly" episode. As for location, Cla68 has declared his basic prefecture-level geographic location on his user page since 2006. He has also given the name of the city where he once lived on more than one occasion, including in several early revisions on his userpage. However, Cla has never, on Wikipedia, named his current location.
A second claim, that he has never revealed his employer, falls into a far grayer area. Cla68 did detail his work history on at least one open forum that is easily found with an Internet search engine, and on Wikipedia he has edited on multiple occasions—perhaps inadvertently—from an IP address traceable to his employer. However, the exact details of his occupation (detailed in Sandifer's blog post) did not seem to be previously widely known, and confirming them requires either an inference or some level of off-wiki research.
Sandifer told the Signpost that his alleged outing was discerned from a careful reading of Wikipedia edits and by making inferences from them—which in a careful reading could fall under the "although references to still-existing, self-disclosed information is not considered outing" clause of the English Wikipedia's harassment policy. Still, given the context of the surrounding text, it could be taken in the opposite direction. The policy also provides guidance, though unclear in places: "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."
Oddly, Cla68 was himself accused of revealing the personal information of another editor earlier this year. As in this case, the information was published on an outside site—Wikipediocracy, a well-known forum that is openly critical of the English Wikipedia, where he is a "global moderator." Wikipediocracy has been a host to many personal attacks and outing efforts. For his part, Cla68 told the Signpost that Wikipediocracy moderators "quickly remove overly personal details like phone numbers, home addresses, etc. and usually move the rest to non-public forums. I myself never take part in trying to find personal details on other people. I stay out of it."
For the March story, when the Signpost asked Cla68 how his actions did not constitute outing, he stated:
||...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.
When prompted with this incident and the above quote, Sandifer commented to us that "I’m more than a little worried that the real objection is the fact that I’ve been so publicly criticizing people, and that my reporting got picked up by the Guardian. Clearly this isn’t really about outing for Cla68. And the shockingly severe sanction makes me worry that it’s not really about the outing for the committee either. I dearly hope I’m wrong, of course, and that this is simply a misunderstanding."
In discussions after the case, some of the arbitrators detailed their stance in an extensive, spirited debate with community members.
Newyorkbrad, who voted for all three clauses, commented that "it is unacceptable for an administrator, or for any editor sufficiently experienced to be aware of our policies and project norms, to escalate an on-wiki disagreement by publicizing the real-life identity, employer, and geographical location of a fellow editor, as Phil Sandifer ("Phil") did in this instance." Risker, who voted to reprimand and remove Sandifer's adminship, but abstained from a full ban, elaborated on her role:
||I wrote to Phil personally to ask him to consider removing the non-public personal information involved from the blog (and only that information—even if I disagree with him on several points, I believe his blog is otherwise fair comment), but he responded very clearly that he had no intention of removing the information. I don't believe administrators should be posting that kind of information about other Wikipedians, no matter how strongly they disagree with them. Thus I supported the desysop.
In opposition, arbitrator Kirill Lokshin noted the problem of banning a Wikipedian for aggregating existing information together as a case of outing. To the Committee's mailing list, repeated in communications to the Signpost, he was blunt: "It's untenable for us to pretend that someone's identity is private when they're openly making statements to the press under their real name." Fellow arbitrator David Fuchs, who voted against banning Sandifer, was more nuanced, saying that while Sandifer's blog post was "unnecessary, unhelpful, [and] poorly reasoned", "off-wiki conduct alone is generally not enough to provoke on-wiki sanctions."
David Gerard and Morwen, previous parties involved in the transgender individuals dispute, both vigorously disagreed with the Committee's decision. Gerard disputed the nature of the outing: "It wouldn't pass muster as material to out a user on-site, but it certainly passes muster as an exercise in applied journalism, which is what the post was. So the arbcom has now banned someone from Wikipedia for journalism about Wikipedia."
Samuel Klein, a member of the Wikimedia Foundation's board of trustees, was disappointed: "This does look like a successful breach experiment. Extraordinary and heartbreaking that it extended to a ban."
In the extended discussion about the decision, long-time Wikipedia editor Jehochman echoed the views of a number of commenters about the nature of "outing" someone with known information.
||ArbCom's action creates the appearance that Phil was sanctioned for challenging ArbCom's authority. Risker wrote to him; he refused to comply with her chilling request; and he got banned. AGK has asserted that private info was revealed, when no such thing happened. Cla68 looks like he was head hunting Phil, and snookered ArbCom into doing his bidding. ... Once the subject voluntarily places information in the public view, he can no longer claim outing. He might be able to claim harassment or stalking, but I'm not seeing either of those yet.
Beeblebrox, who was involved with the blocking of Cla68 in March and whom the Committee has granted oversight powers, expressed dismay: "I don't often comment on ArbCom decisions, but this one is so puzzlingly inconsistent and weird I feel compelled to comment ... This is the most schizophrenic thing this schizophrenic incarnation of ArbCom has done yet. Some of you have been consistent as individuals but as a group you have been wildly inconsistent. I can't say it has been a pleasure working for this particular committee and I sincerely hope there are is a substantial turnover in the next election."
Under the committee's interpretation of the outing policy, all external links to Sandifer's blog post on the English Wikipedia have been systematically removed and the revisions oversighted.
- Editor's notes: The authors have had several minor interactions with participants on both sides over the years. The ed17 has collaborated on several English Wikipedia featured articles with Cla68.
- Wikipedia Weekly's podcast #104, which Fuzheado hosts in concert with other Wikipedia editors, had hyperlinks to Phil Sandifer's blog post when discussing the block of David Gerard. The episode was released 22 October 2013. Though the podcast and its participants did not mention the case of Cla68 or his personal details, the wiki page has since been "oversighted" and a link was removed by arbitrator AGK on 7 November.
- While the original Committee motion did not mention the username in question, it was revealed as Cla68 on the talk page of the Arbitration Committee's noticeboard.
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