Wikipedia, porn, and the FBI

Tagged: FBI, Porn, Wikipedia, Technology
Source: Ars Technica - Read the full article
Posted: 4 years 15 weeks ago

Everybody is wondering who is in charge at Wikipedia ever since Fox News reported that founder Jimmy Wales has relinquished some control over the site's material. The story claimed that, following Wales' alleged attempt to delete a slew of pornographic images from the site, he has been denied the right "to delete files, remove administrators, assign projects or edit any content."

That's something Wales supposedly started doing following a Wikipedia cofounder's letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation claiming that Wikimedia Commons "may be knowingly distributing child pornography."

"I don't know if there is any more," Larry Sanger added after forwarding the FBI various images he saw as examples, "but I wouldn't be surprised if there is—the content on the various Wikimedia projects, including Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons and various others, are truly vast."

All this brought a fast response from the Wikimedia Foundation's official blog. "The Wikimedia Foundation obeys the law," it declared in late April. "In the weeks since Sanger's published allegations, the Wikimedia Foundation has not been contacted by the FBI or any other law-enforcement agency with regard to allegedly illegal content on any Wikimedia projects. Our community of volunteer editors takes action to remove illegal material when such material is brought to its attention."

But Wales also put out a statement earlier this month announcing 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." And a timeline story posted on Wikipedia acknowledges Wales' deletions and confirms that some of his 'founder' privileges were removed.

Whatever is really going on, this isn't the first time that Wikipedia has gotten into trouble over sexual imagery. Two years ago, ISPs across the United Kingdom blocked the site following a decency group's complaint about the site's publication of an old Scorpions album cover, Virgin Killer, which featured the image of an almost completely naked girl who looks to be under eighteen. Eventually the group rescinded the objection, since, after all, the cover can be found on about a zillion places on the 'Net.

Beyond that history, we were curious about how Wikipedia actually handles pornography and sexual images in general. What is on its sites, anyway, and how does Wikipedia decide what stays?
A lot of changes

So we sent out queries to both Sanger and Wales, and got a response from Sanger pretty quickly.

"I left Wikipedia in 2002," he explained. "A lot has changed since then. Back then, there were no pictures of nudity that I recall, and certainly nothing X-rated."

Those of you who are looking for a hot time on cyberspace, however, will probably be disappointed in Wikipedia's main image site, Wikimedia Commons. Although there is a wide variety of sexual images to be found, there's a distinctly lab coat, nine-out-of-ten-doctors feeling to it all.

For example, we searched for "sexual intercourse," and found lots of pictures, including an ancient Egyptian carving of a copulating couple, a medical textbook style photo, various old Kama Sutra drawings, Aubrey Beardsley style graphics, a fertility cycle chart, a used condom, and two dragonflies doing the wild thing. There are also a couple of Robert Mapplethorpe type graphics, presumably for the National Endowment for the Humanities crowd.

Then we decided to input a somewhat more prurient search term, "sexy girl," and we got, well, a bunch of generic sexy girls. Most of these were clothed, including an image of a crew-cutted lady in a tuxedo holding a gun. Next we typed "big penis," and got some of those, too. But mostly we saw high-powered-microscope photos of the genitalia of the Callosobruchus analis, subinnotatus, and maculatus beetles.

Determined to get to the bottom of this situation, we pushed the envelope further, with "hot sex," and saw most of the same images as before, plus a nice photo of the Hot House at the Royal Botanical Gardens of Sydney, Australia.
No more stinkin' photos

Perhaps the most intriguing find was a traffic sign style image of two stick figures engaged in the act, a red DON'T circle surrounding the graphic. The summary of the picture read as follows:

"Symbol which might potentially have a number of meanings in various contexts, but which in the current context mainly means 'We don't need any more gratuitous photographs of sexual activities, especially intercourse, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons'!"

So clearly Wikimedia and Wikipedia editors and administrators have their limits when it comes to this sort of fare. You get a sense of how that works from the Existing Policy of Wikipedia's pornography policy page. "Wikipedia is not censored," the service insists. But "despite this," the sections adds, "several images have been proposed for deletion on the grounds of being 'unencyclopedic,' because those proposing deletion feel either that they add nothing to the article in question or that they damage Wikipedia's reputation as a credible encyclopedia."

These included photos or illustrations that Wales deleted, among them an "autofellatio" image that he deemed "completely unacceptable," and a shot of a sexual act that he felt would force Wikipedia to retain legal age documents as required by the Child Obscenity and Protection Enforcement Act.
Not another penis?

Sanger told us that Wikipedia "has no special process for dealing with pornographic, sexually explicit, or obscene material. For example it is not approved, or tagged, or any such thing."

But we did notice images that the service's editors are currently considering for deletion. These include debates over a drawing of a man and woman in the act, presumably to illustrate a sexual position. One editor complains that the image is "redundant to higher-quality illustrations and/or photographs..." Another pushes back: "So having choices is bad?" Most of the rest concur that the low quality of the graphic makes it of little value.

Finally the actual artist gives in. "Yes, please just delete my contribution," he writes. "It was just a dumb drawing, posted just for something to do. I was not aware at the time that it would have to pass muster from the Wiki-Nazis."

There are also discussions about penis pics. "Yet another penis image," an editor protests. "Commons has too many of them already... and we have a no penis template here."

"But so what?" another editor responds. "Keep—We have a rule against grabbing your webcam and dropping your pants, not against artistic depictions that include a penis."

So now we know there's at least a rule against pants-dropping webcam artists. The general idea seems to be that if the photograph or image illustrates a sexual genre, and isn't just posted to promote some pay site, it can stick around. Thus a topless woman in a schoolgirl outfit seems likely to survive. "Image educational value exists," insists one editor. "It illustrates the subject of school uniform fetish."

Probably the toughest debate we ran into was one in which the age of the aroused subjects was unclear. "Child porn accusations are extremely rude and unfounded," one editor declares. But another sees things differently: "There are other ways of teaching what this image tries to teach. People would feel less offended with a schematic drawing, even other photographs... I suggest it to be deleted or changed for other image."
Work in progress

Clearly, the situation at Wikipedia is in transition, as is the role of Jimmy Wales, judging by Wikipedia's barely comprehensible page dedicated to debating his future within the organization. Apparently a compromise proposal in which Wales would renounce his use of the "block" tool was discussed.

"Ban these 'free speech' fascists instead," countered a Wales supporter. "They're the real ones who are responsible for ruining this site. Most of them are probably unemployed, obese, middle-aged virgins who have completely worthless lives. These scumbags only feel whole when they're pretending to be some kind of 'revolutionary free speech organization' by whining on Wikipedia that they aren't allowed host their homemade scat porn on Commons."

We're wondering how anxious the FBI is to get into this. We asked Sanger if he'd heard from the government yet.

"No," he told us. "Two of my congressmen forwarded my letter to the congressional FBI liaison, and the Fox News reporter said that her contact there repeatedly asked for more time to comment (but refused to comment at the time)."