Inside the Arbitration Committee Mailing List
As part of the continuing Signpost series on analyzing the work of the Arbitration Committee, The Signpost takes a closer look this week at the internal messaging system committee members use for discussions and other internal business. The mailing list, of which all arbitrators and Jimbo Wales are members, is the main way the committee coordinates its actions, assesses the appeals of banned editors, and sometimes discusses its motions.
While the mailing list is no secret, it has long been the source of misgivings concerning the committee's transparency. In an effort to open up the process, The Signpost spoke to several arbitrators about how things specifically work on the server, and the way it has affected committee business.
The main purpose of the private mailing list is for arbitrators to organize technical issues in a faster, more efficient manner. For example, the selection of decision drafters – the one or two arbitrators that will post a proposed decision in a case – is effected exclusively through the mailing list. "Selection is basically a volunteer round-robin. Arbitrators volunteer for specific cases as they have time and interest", said arbitrator Jclemens. Fellow arbitrator Elen of the Roads elaborated on the self-selection process: "People nominate themselves dependent on availability and how long it is since they [last drafted a decision]". Long-time mediator (and arbitrator) PhilKnight explained the sometimes hesitant nature of deciding to draft a case, explaining even if it was "considerably more time consuming" he didn't think drafting was "any more difficult than handling an arbitration enforcement request or mediation case".
Along with technical organizational issues, Jclemens noted the private nature of some ArbCom business. He listed issues of "real-life harassment and threats against Wikipedia editors" along with the occasional "allegation of WP:CHILD violations". PhilKnight told The Signpost that some business is private because it is specifically sent to the committee under that assumption: "I think a large proportion of the mailing list can't be brought on-wiki as discussion concerns emails sent to the committee, which are considered confidential".
One thing the mailing list is known for is the high volume of mail all arbitrators receive on a daily basis. About 40–50 messages a day is not an abnormal amount, nor is 100 in a day of rapid on-wiki incidents. Jclemens noted that a great deal of the mail relates to ban appeals, while others deal with the private issues the committee must deal with separately.
Mailing list discussions
||The community has done an excellent job of selecting principled and articulate candidates who have justice, fairness, and Wikipedia's long-term health in mind.
When a case is accepted by the committee, and a drafter has been chosen, the case undergoes a process of evidence review, workshop discussions, and sometimes even mailing list debates. Jclemens provided an example, saying "When there's substantial disagreement, you will see that in the proposed decisions themselves, such as in Betacommand 3, and the email discussion reflected deliberations of a divided committee. Others will have extensive off-wiki discussion because of the nature of the evidence, like the TimidGuy Ban Appeal." He also explained that the committee uses 'auxiliary mailing lists' "which are re-purposed as needed to handle matters in which specific arbitrators are recused."
In terms of the tone of the occasional mailing list debate, PhilKnight described it as "certainly more frank and open, [yet] generally speaking calm." Even when there have been heated disagreements, PhilKnight noted "that generally isn't a problem." Jclemens agreed with that perspective of mailing list discussions: "That is, we talk about the real issues, rather than personalities, for the most part, and there's no one egging on drama for drama's sake."
However, Jclemens mentioned a single, isolated incident where there was a threat to resign that was not acted on "and wasn't related to the committee's own internal workings anyways."
Whatever your opinion about transparency and the committee's mailing list is, it still remains a fact of their organization and procedure. Understanding how the committee operates reaches its highest point when we evaluate how they behave in a private setting. Each arbitrator is still a person, with beliefs, opinions, and emotions. Despite this, the mailing list has become a great, albeit sometimes inefficient, tool for internal discussions. Arbitrator Jclemens re-affirmed that in that environment, he felt that the committee still functions admirably: "ArbCom is a very high quality group of people, both in terms of their real-life skills, experience, logic, and dedication. The community has done an excellent job of selecting principled and articulate candidates who have justice, fairness, and Wikipedia's long-term health in mind."
The Signpost thanks all arbitrators who answered interview questions related to this article. If any reader has a suggestion for a future 'Arbitration analysis' article, let us know in the comments, or feel free to drop a note on the writer's talk page.