End of Scientology arbitration brings blocks, media coverage
The Arbitration Committee this week closed the Scientology case. The closure of the case formed two milestones: with the closure falling close to six months after the case opened on 11 December 2008, the arbitration is the lengthiest on the English Wikipedia; and, as part of the final decision, the Committee blocked all IP addresses controlled by the Church of Scientology (the first time the Committee, or indeed Wikipedia, has blocked an entire organisation from editing).
These proceedings were the fourth Scientology-related case in four years (the other cases are AI in 2005, Terryeo in 2006, and COFS in 2007). In finding of fact (2), the Committee, by way of providing background to the dispute, held that,
More recently, the dispute has become lower-key but is ongoing and corrosive, involving persistent point-of-view pushing and extensive feuding over sources on multiple articles. The corrosive atmosphere has resulted in normally neutral editors adopting polarized positions in countless minor sub-feuds … The topic has become a magnet for single purpose accounts, and sockpuppetry is rife… .
The remedies passed by the Committee in the case's final decision included:
- Topic-banning 14 editors from the Scientology subject area (in a separate remedy, more extensive commentary was issued on the scope of these topic bans).
- "Restricting" 6 editors (including one administrator). The restrictions varied, but predominantly were limitations of the editor to a single account. As alluded to above, it was found that sock puppetry is "rife" in the Scientology subject area; and so all editors subject to remedies in the final decision have been restricted to editing Scientology-related articles from one account only.
- Instructed all editors of Scientology-related articles to: (A) edit only from their main account (except where they have been granted permission by the Committee to operate a legitimate secondary account); (B) to edit "only through a conventional ISP and not through any form of proxy configuration;" (C) to edit "in accordance with all Wikipedia policies and to refrain from any form of advocacy concerning any external controversy, dispute, allegation, or proceeding;" and (D) to disclose on the relevant talk page any pertinent circumstances that might be perceived as constituting a conflict of interest with respect to that page.
Church of Scientology IP addresses blocked
In addition to the above remedies, the Committee resolved that all IP addresses
owned or operated by the Church of Scientology and its associates, broadly interpreted, are to be blocked as if they were open proxies.
A provision was made for individual editors to request IP block exemption should they wish to contribute from the blocked IP addresses.
Anti-Scientology activists also blocked
In reporting the decision, the mainstream media has focussed primarily on the Committee's decision to, in order to neutralise the Scientology dispute, ban the Church of Scientology and its activists (for example: theguardian.co.uk, theregister.co.uk, wired.com, and telegraph.co.uk). However, remedies were by no means passed only against pro-Scientology activists; in passing the final decision, the Committee also held that,
This longstanding dispute is a struggle between two rival factions: admirers of Scientology and critics of Scientology. … Each side wishes the articles within this topic to reflect their point of view and have resorted to battlefield editing tactics, with edits being abruptly reverted without any attempt to incorporate what is good, to maintain their preferred status quo.
To that end, the Committee also sanctioned a number of anti-Scientology activists whose editing was proving problematic. The blocking of the IP addresses of the Church of Scientology is indeed more a measure to remove from the topic area editors who were contributing from Church of Scientology equipment in a disruptive manner.
The spread of the Scientology decision story through mainstream news outlets marks a new level of press interest in the internal community decisions of Wikipedia. While Cade Metz of The Register frequently covers Wikipedia news, and stories about vandalism are a media mainstay, arbitration decisions are generally ignored beyond the Wikipedia community. However, coverage in The Huffington Post sparked a series of articles in major newspapers and news networks.
Most early coverage repeated variations of the headline from the The Huffington Post, that Scientology had been banned, but overall the coverage shows that the press is becoming more familiar with how Wikipedia works.
The Wall Street Journal explored the implications of the decision with respect to public perception of the project in the light of what could be viewed as the ban of an organisation (and so its viewpoint):
Over the weekend, the online dialogue about Wikipedia’s decision reached a fever pitch, with some news outlets calling the decision a “ban” of Scientology and chiding the encyclopedia. An op-ed by Foreign Policy’s Evgeny Morozov, for example, takes the view that Wikipedia’s move has undermined the trust of users, who depend on the tool as open. Wikipedia’s job “is to make sense of completing claims,” he wrote. “Banning Scientologists from even making those claims to me indicates that the Wikipedia editors are of a firm opinion that no good ideas could ever come from the Scientology headquarters.”
The blocking of specific accounts and Scientology IP addresses, rather than banning the Church of Scientology itself, is in keeping with the way severe behavior problems and edit wars on Wikipedia are typically handled. However, as several Wikipedians observed on their off-site blogs, the Scientology decision is in some respects unusual.
(talk · contribs
) was largely critical of a number of decisions of the Committee, observing
Remedies in Wikipedia are supposed to be preventative rather than punitive. When it comes to arbitration this is no longer true. … various other editors were less fortunate; they are now under formal sanction regarding actions they had ceased long before the case began. In several instances, diffs cited in the decision were cherry picked, inconclusive, or very old
(Because of the length of the case, which opened almost six months ago and dealt with evidence reaching back further still, a number of remedies apply to editors who have not been active on Scientology articles since 2007.)
Danny (talk · contribs) remarks that the decision, "raises a lot of longterm issues that may or may not have been considered", and touches on six of them: (1) If the [Church of Scientology (CoS)] sued, does Wikimedia have the resources to handle it? (2) "Who would the CoS sue?" The decision was passed by the ArbCom, and not by the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF). (3) How would the WMF react if the CoS decided to sue the Arb Com members who made the decision? (4) What public relations implications will the Scientology case have? (5) Could the CoS attempt to influence the WMF by internal infiltration? (6) Does the Scientology case set a precedent for being able to ban an organisation (where, until now, bans were handed out only to individuals)?
JayWalsh (talk · contribs), the Wikimedia Foundation's head of communications, guested on KUOW-FM (a Seattle metropolitan area, United States, radio station) to discuss the Scientology arbitration case. (kuow.org: listen in .mp3, program listing.)
Nihiltres (talk · contribs) examines the misleading aspects of press coverage and commentary. Several pieces criticizing the supposed "ban" of Scientology, Nihiltres observes, are based on misunderstandings of the decision itself and of the methods available to control disruptive and biased editors.
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