Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2007-02-05/Arbitration and IRC

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The Wikipedia Signpost

Group of arbitrators makes public statement about IRC

By Michael Snow, 5 February 2007

Several months of rancor over the IRC channels used for Wikipedia-related discussion, in particular #wikipedia-en-admins, resulted in a rejected request for arbitration last week. It also brought about an unusual public statement from part of the Arbitration Committee, amid various efforts to deal with the perceived problems of IRC.

The request for arbitration, submitted by Irpen, called for this "admin-only" channel to be shut down, following an earlier pronouncement by the Arbitration Committee that due to cases of "gross incivility" on IRC, they would take IRC behavior into account in arbitration cases "if it results in disruption on Wikipedia." The #wikipedia-en-admins channel was originally set up at the request of Jimbo Wales, to provide him with a forum where he could quickly reach a sizable number of trusted editors, who could deal with pressing problems in articles that he wished to keep confidential. Among the complaints that have been raised about it, aside from incivility itself, are charges that the channel has been used to coordinate retribution against other editors (notably in a block of Giano), and the presence of several users who are not in fact administrators. Channel participants, meanwhile, have objected to the breaches of confidentiality involved, since channel policy prohibits the publication of logs, which the critics in turn complain prevents them from presenting evidence of its problems.

After some initial uncertainty about accepting the case, it was rejected after a majority of the Committee concluded it fell outside their purview. The extent of the Arbitration Committee's jurisdiction and the acceptability of evidence from outside Wikipedia itself has been a tricky subject in previous situations. Instead, several arbitrators presented their personal views regarding IRC in separate statements. UninvitedCompany wrote the longest statement, while Paul August and Kirill Lokshin indicated that they largely agreed with its contents. Among the points addressed was a criticism of fellow arbitrator Jdforrester, one of the operators (or chanops) who controls access to the channel, for "making an implicit personal attack" on Giano's allies. (Jdforrester did not participate in the public deliberation of the case and would presumably have been recused had it been accepted.)

Those acquainted with Jdforrester know him as having a very sardonic wit, and the comments in question appeared to be rather over-the-top and not intended to be taken seriously. UninvitedCompany explained that he declined to credit this, as in his view it was particularly inappropriate for someone in a position of power to joke at the expense of the powerless. Some of the channel's critics gave little sign that they found any humour in the comments.

Further elaborating on his statement, UninvitedCompany said that he made his views public partly because he felt that a balanced middle ground wasn't being represented. The debate has at times appeared to put IRC critics in a position of damning all external discussion of Wikipedia, or denigrating the contributions of people who don't primarily write articles. Meanwhile, IRC participants become defensive and sometimes dismiss real concerns about activity there, giving them all a bad image on account of misbehavior by a few. UninvitedCompany described the middle ground as a position that IRC "is fundamentally a useful resource" but some steps should be taken to improve it. He encouraged more people to participate in the channel and help discourage inappropriate behavior.

Background of dispute

Although IRC is the current focus of much attention, the dispute is also deep-rooted and has its origins elsewhere, and the emphasis on IRC as the problem is a relatively recent development. Some of the origins trace to discussions that took place primarily on the administrators' noticeboard a year ago. The incident involved a series of blocks and desysoppings of a number of established editors, itself the culmination of earlier disputes over userboxes.

Giano was one of several users blocked then, and the incident remains a sore spot. The issue flared up again when Carnildo, who had performed the initial blocks in question, had his administrator status restored in a controversial decision by the bureaucrats when support for the action seemed to fall below the usual threshold for approval. Ongoing dissatisfaction with that again boiled over on the administrators' noticeboard, leading also to a request for arbitration.

Increasingly hostile discussion surrounding this case resulted in a three-hour block of Giano (now using the account User:Giano II after apparently scrambling his original account password in frustration earlier) for "nasty personal attacks" in October. On this occasion, as with several subsequent blocks in December, Giano was unblocked by another administrator within an hour or two. Meanwhile, information began circulating that some of these blocks were being discussed in the IRC channel prior to implementation.

The arbitration case resulted in, among other things, a reminder to Jdforrester to maintain appropriate decorum and a conclusion that Tony Sidaway and Kelly Martin had given up admin status and other abilities "under controversial circumstances". While this was primarily on account of activity on Wikipedia, their participation on IRC became a key part of continuing debates, especially as the latter two were still participating in the "admin-only" channel.

In view of the controversy, Tony Sidaway had his access level to the #wikipedia-en-admins channel reduced, at his own request, so that he would no longer have chanop privileges. He had never actually used those privileges in any case, and he does continue to participate in the channel. The description of the channel has been clarified to indicate that it is unofficial, used "mainly" by admins but also by others, and that access is at the discretion of the chanops.

Also this week: — Board changes

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