Editor's note: readers are invited to expand and improve this article, which we could not adequately cover in full in time for publication this week.
Controversy erupted across the Wikimedia community this week after Jimmy Wales spearheaded a purge of sexual content on Wikimedia Commons.
Recent allegations by Larry Sanger that Wikimedia projects have been hosting child pornography (see archived story) seem to have prompted a new wave of media attention to Wikimedia's sex-related imagery. To head off anticipated negative press,
Wales began pushing for rapid cleanup on 6 May. He stated that:
Wikimedia Commons admins who wish to remove from the project all images that are of little or no educational value but which appeal solely to prurient interests have my full support. This includes immediate deletion of all pornographic images.
The previously rejected guideline Commons:Sexual content became the locus for attempts to create a clearer guideline for dealing with sexual and pornographic media. The scope of Commons is limited to media with educational value, and it has long been accepted that low-quality and non-educational sexual content should be deleted; however, the line between what should be deleted and what should be kept has been a matter of common practice and individual judgment, rather than a specific guideline.
In attempting to create such a guideline, it quickly became clear that the Commons community was divided over how permissive the project should be in hosting explicit images. Wales argued that any image should be deleted if it would trigger the record-keeping requirements of the U.S. Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act, which mandates producers to keep proof of age for models and actors in sexually explicit material. However, Wales then extended it to include artworks and diagrams, which the original act does not cover, and which proved highly controversial.
Wales himself deleted 71 files on 7 May, including a number of Wikimedian-made illustrations used in articles about sex acts, as well as some historical art images that featured sexual acts. Discussing the controversial deletions afterward, Wales said:
I deleted some things that I assumed would be undeleted after a discussion. I wanted us to take an approach that involved first deleting a lot of borderline things, and then bringing them back after careful case by case discussions.
He further claimed that
I had thought that a good process would be to engage in a very strong series of deletions, including of some historical images, and then to have a careful discussion about rebuilding. That proved to be very unpopular and so I regret it. It also may have had the effect of confusing people about my own position on what to keep and what to get rid of.
During the deletions themselves, Wales indicated that he did not want any discussions to happen until everything he considered pornographic had been purged from Commons. On May 7, while the controversy was reaching its peak, and his deletions were ongoing, he wrote:
We can have a long discussion and work out a new set of parameters after the cleanup project is completed. It is not acceptable to host pornography in the meantime.
and specified June 1st as a date to begin discussions on whether Commons should "ever host pornography and under what circumstances". He further wheelwarred with several administrators to keep the artworks in dispute deleted, which included works by Franz von Bayros and Félicien Rops
Several Commons administrators followed Wales' directive, deleting hundreds of explicit images and videos. Other users, however, objected to the deletion of artistic works, and what they saw as overly aggressive deletions which were not done through the normal discussion-based Commons deletion process. A "Petition to Jimbo" asking him "to respect the processes and policies established by our community" was started late on 7 May and gathered momentum on 8 May, attracting 268 signers and 27 counter-signers by 10 May.
The deletions also activated the CommonsDelinker bot, which removes image code from articles across Wikimedia projects after they are deleted on Commons. In anticipation of the undeletion of some of the images, the bot was temporarily blocked on several projects to minimize disruption.
Reactions from Wikimedia Foundation
Following Wales' deletions, the Wikimedia Foundation issued a statement through the Foundation-l mailing list. The statement, sent by Michael Snow (chair of the Board of Trustees), emphasized that the projects are educational in nature and that illegal material is removed immediately but that material is not removed simply because it might offend. The statement concluded:
We don't intend to create new policy, but rather to reaffirm and support policy that already exists. We encourage Wikimedia editors to scrutinize potentially offensive materials with the goal of assessing their educational or informational value, and to remove them from the projects if there is no such value.
The statement did not explicitly mention sexual content or Wales' actions. The Board's intent with the statement was immediately questioned, and several people called for individual Board member comments on the issue. Several Board members did respond, spawning a new line of discussion over the proper role of the Wikimedia Foundation and its trustees in setting the scope of content on Wikimedia projects.
On 9 May, Sue Gardnerwrote that she is trying to follow the conversation and suggested that the Board is having real conversations about how to deal with the issue.
Wales' "Founder" privileges reduced
Wales' deletions and the ensuing pushback brought new attention to a proposal to remove the Founder flag; the 'founder' userright gave Wales the ability to perform restricted actions like deletion and checkuser across all projects, and to modify user rights. The proposal was started in March 2010, after Wales intervened on English Wikiversity and made comments that some users interpreted as a threat to close Wikiversity (see archived story); however, by early May the proposal had found only 23 users in support and 36 in opposition. In the days following the Commons controversy, the number of supporters grew to more than 300 as fewer than 100 defended Wales' privileges.
On 9 May, at his request, Wales' 'founder' privileges were reduced considerably. Once Wales' request for changes went into effect, the list of remaining rights includes the oversight ability, which removes content such that even administrators cannot view or restore it, and the ability to view deleted and oversighted content across projects.
Although Wales several times suggested the crisis had been averted by his actions, on 10 May, Fox News published Despite Content Purge, Pornographic Images Remain on Wikimedia, an attack article which used the purge to imply that things were substantially worse before Wales' actions than they were, and claimed thousands of images had been deleted, when, in fact, the number was nearer 400, of which many had been undeleted by then.
Discussion of the deletions and the sexual content policy continues on Foundation-l, Commons, and other projects, with discussions focusing both on Wales' actions as a Board of Trustees member and the deleted content itself.
As of 10 May, nearly half of the files Wales deleted have been restored, and many sexual content speedy deletions performed by Commons administrators are also being re-evaluated.
It seems that the media purge has done only little to address Larry Sanger's initial concerns over images of child sexual abuse. The Commons pedophilia category, which consists largely of historical line drawings related to the subject, retains most or all of the images it contained before Sanger's complaint, although most of the explicit cartoon images from the lolicon category were deleted.
In a Foundation-l post on 8 May, Wales explained his rationale for initiating the purge:
We were about to be smeared in all media as hosting hardcore pornography and doing nothing about it. Now, the correct storyline is that we are cleaning up. I'm proud to have made sure that storyline broke the way it did, and I'm sorry I had to step on some toes to make it happen.