Truth, lies and politics on Wikipedia

Martin Rundkvist is an unusual combination he is an archeologist and a wikipedia watcher. His recent blog post discusses censorship on Wikipedia in an article Wikipedia Cracks Down On Cult Propagandists. The article b eginning with Wikipedias decision in May to bar all Church of Scientology users from editing CoS articles on wikipedia. But the interesting focus of his article is the struggle over the articles about Falun Gong (a.k.a. Chinese Scientology).

They used to be a battleground between Chinese Communist Party loyalists and Falun Gong devotees, both sides trying to cram as much propaganda into the articles as possible. Then the FGers managed to get the CCP guys banned from editing…it led to a prolonged situation where the articles were entirely taken over by cult propagandists… And now a similar clean-up effort has reached the Falun Gong pages. A swarm of experienced Wikipedians with no pro-FG or pro-CCP agenda has descended on them. Yesterday the nastiest of the FGers (a fellow Scandy, no less) was banned for six months from touching any of the FG articles. And the delicious irony is that this is the very same guy who got the CCP propagandists thrown out!

In the amazing arguments which pop up in academia about whether or not Wikipedia should be used by students or not. The facts of articles is often brought to the fore of the argument. But very rarely is there a initiated discussion about the truthfulness of wikipedia articles. Who is writing and editing them and why?

One of the most obvious censors are the voluntary editors within the system, here is a typical complain from The Register (2007)

Is Wikipedia running a censorship board? John Barberio thinks so. After more than two years as an active contributor to the free online encyclopedia, the 27-year-old Oxfordshire man recently left the project over the behavior of its “OTRS volunteers,” unpaid administrators who act on reader complaints about the site’s content…I dislike using the scary C word, but OTRS are acting as a censorship board,” he says. “And worse, they appear to be acting as an inept, heavy-handed amateurish censorship board.”

This is unfortunately nothing new but what is probably more concerning is the slick group of workers who change or adapt wikipedia to suit there own needs. The Independent in Wikipedia and the art of censorship (2007) have given several examples of such censorship including:

A computer registered to the Dow Chemical Company is recorded as deleting a passage on the Bhopal chemical disaster of 1984, which occurred at a plant operated by Union Carbide, now a wholly owned Dow subsidiary. The incident cost up to 20,000 lives.

A computer linked to the Israeli government twice tried to delete an entire article about the West Bank wall that was critical of the policy. An edit from the same address also modified the entry for Hizbollah describing all its operations as being “mostly military in nature”.

A computer with an Amnesty International IP address was used to delete references accusing the charity of holding an anti-American agenda.

And finally there is the whole problematic issue of Jimmy Wales’ role in the suppression of the David Rohde capture by the Taliban.

What it all amounts to is the freedom of information or the importance of correct information or the dangers of sensitive information – who gets to decide and what the implications of such decisions are. This is a topic which cannot be easily fobbed off and needs to be discussed in much greater detail.

Should photography lectures be censored?

Photography lecturer Simon Burgess teaches photography at East Surrey College. During the course in Higher National Diploma in Digital Photography he displayed photographs by the controversial photographer Del LaGrace Volcano. Apparently one or more of the second year students were less than impressed and have complained to the college. (British Journal of Photography)

Burgess has been called to a hearing to defend his actions and in the worst case he may be fired. The college told the British Journal of Photography: “Until the facts are raised in a hearing, we cannot comment about staff-related actions.”

It is good that the college wants to know the facts before discussing the problem with the media. BUT. The ability of students to complain about content is becoming strange. Should the lecturer teach what is important for students to learn or should the lecturer limit him/her self to teaching that which does not offend? This would, or should, our ability to teach to a very narrow set of subjects.

Del LaGrace Volcano may be controversial (see quote below) but this cannot in itself be a reason for complaint. It is a dangerous precedent when lecturers are asked to limit themselves to that which is acceptable – for the question is: acceptable to whom? The students are there to be educated, so in theory they should be less knowledgeable. Maybe they need their minds expanded?

As a gender variant visual artist I access ‘technologies of gender’ in order to amplify rather than erase the hermaphroditic traces of my body. I name myself. A gender abolitionist. A part time gender terrorist. An intentional mutation and intersex by design, (as opposed to diagnosis), in order to distinguish my journey from the thousands of intersex individuals who have had their ‘ambiguous’ bodies mutilated and disfigured in a misguided attempt at ‘normalization’. I believe in crossing the line as many times as it takes to build a bridge we can all walk across.

September 2005

Support for Burgess is growing, Dr Eugenie Shinkle, a senior lecturer in photographic theory and criticism at the University of Westminster’s school of media, arts and design writes (The Sauce):

Management are claiming it is pornography, salacious, grotesque, worthless and not relevant to, or appropriate for 2nd year level three photography students preparing for higher study. Apart from being censorious, backward, and homophobic, management’s stance displays a remarkable ignorance of contemporary debates and image-making strategies. This is a serious matter that has implications for all academics, teachers, and students.

I really hope that the college has the backbone to realize what it it there for and to support their lecturer.

Information control in a connected world

In 1973 in Stockholm a bank robbery went wrong and resulted in a six day hostage situation when the police showed up and the would be robbers withdrew into the vault with four hostages. The police managed to enter the bank and close the vault door. The police then opened a hole in the vault roof in order to communicate with those inside (short piece on Wikipedia). While in the vault the hostages began to fear the police and sympathize with their captors in a psychological process which has come to be known as the Stockholm Syndrome. But I digress.

An interesting factor was the way in which communications took place. The authorities (including the Prime Minister) and criminals communicated via telephone. The robbers inside the vault had no way of monitoring the outside world or communicating with it freely.

Now fast forward to Mumbai last week. According to Gizmondo the terrorists inside the hotel did not rely on traditional communications methods

Commandos were not only surprised to find the devices [BlackBerrys] in the terrorists’ rucksacks, but that they used the internet to look beyond local Indian media for information, watching the global reaction in real-time as well.

There is something shocking, and at the same time predictable, about the authorities naivete about the terrorists use of technology. Why wouldn’t a terrorist be monitoring the outside world for reactions?

In addition to this the way in which the outside world understood what was happening inside the hotel was not a traditional news source controlled and transferred by authorities. In a hallway conversation Martin Börjesson (a colleague) and I exchanged notes about our news uptake from the Mumbai attacks. Naturally we used traditional media – but neither of us believed that they really knew anything. More interestingly we followed news feeds such as twitter and a flock of blogs (or what is the right word?)

Following blogs is something both Martin and I do everyday so we were not surprised by this. What was interesting however was the experience that some online sources were clearly political disinformation attempting to place the blame for what was happening at the door of different states. (Bruce Schneier has some interesting takes on the outside conversations and analysis). Clearly following live feeds is also demands a questioning of sources.

Mumbai has shown that web technology is used: (1) by the terrorists (2) by the world (3) by the media. The result is an amazing mix of rehashing of information, the transmitting of live experiences (from within and from those witnessing) and formal channels. The question is can, and should, the authorities be able to control this information? The first answer is that controlling this information is only possible at a great cost and at a great loss in the ability of others to transmit innocent information. It is doubtful whether a media blackout is at all possible. Should it be possible – not sure. As the BlackBerry’s show the terrorists monitored the outside world and possibly profited from the information, but would the outcome have been much different if they did, or could, not?

Information control is not dead but it is being taken to a new level… to be continued…

Dawkins site censored

Technollama point to an article in the Guardian that Richard Dawkins, has had his website banned in Turkey because a Creationist has found it “defamatory and blasphemous”.

Apparently the whole thing blew up when Dawkins commented on a the book of a Muslim Creationist (that had been sent to him by the creationist) and called it preposterous and wrote on his website that he was at “a loss to reconcile the expensive and glossy production values of this book with the ‘breathtaking inanity’ of the content.”.

Some comments from the Creationists office say it all:

We are not against freedom of speech or expression but you cannot insult people.

We found the comments hurtful. It was not a scientific discussion. There was a line and the limit has been passed.

And I thought mindless creationists were a particularly american thing but apparently they, as with all stupidity, are international.

Censorship on Flickr

Since I put many of my photo’s on Flickr I was disturbed to read the following story. The more I thought about it the more I realised that it was obvious that Flickr would have the same types of rules as all the other social networking sites but it is still a reason for concern.

Photographer Maarten Dors (his Flickr Profile) received the following email from Flickr concerning a picture if a young boy smoking (Would like put it online here if I had permission… hint hint).


Hi Maarten Dors,

Images of children under the age of 18 who are smoking
tobacco is prohibited across all of Yahoo’s properties.
I’ve gone ahead and deleted the image “The Romanian Way”
from your photostream.
We appreciate your understanding.


According to Reason Magazine, Dors argued that the photo was not a glorification of smoking but a documentation of living condition in less prosperous countries. This somehow was motivation enough for Flickr to return the photo online. Then, apparently, another employee who was unfamiliar with the exception took it down again. Which was followed by someone else from Flickr returning the image again.

Even though I know better I sometimes get fooled into thinking that sites and services on the Internet are public “goods” services which we all can use and abuse on an equal and fair footing. Naturally this isn’t so. Flickr is, like all other online businesses, online for profit. They have no interest in protecting user rights – in fact if user rights conflict with profits they have a duty towards the shareholders to maximize profits and damn the users.

Naturally we as users have legally agreed to the rights of companies such as Flickr to behave in this way when we clicked on the “I Agree” button.

But, and this is a big but, the legal status of these agreements can be questioned.

I have commented the inequality, injustice and the ways in which we could argue against such agreements in my research but it can all be summed up in the with the idea that the agreements we sign cannot be binding if they are the product of a mix of encouraged misunderstanding and misdirection. By creating an environment of openness the companies should not be allowed to impose draconian user terms on their own customers.

However this is an argument from a human rights perspective and no matter how much we like them, most courts still prefer the security and predictability of contract law. So until the courts develop a sense of courage they tend to praise but not emulate the users of all technology are at risk through the licensing agreements they are forced to sign.

(via Politics, Theory & Photography)

Many Chinese approve of censorship

There is a general assumption that people subjected to censorship are unhappy. A Pew Internet survey finds that most Chinese approve of internet regulation especially by the government (via Slashdot). The report can be downloaded here. This raises an interesting question: is censorship bad even if those who are affected by it approve of it?

Most people who argue for individual freedom would argue that it does not matter that those effected by a loss of liberty are OK with it – the very fact that individuals have lost their liberty is enough of basis to claim that censorship is bad. On the other hand such a claim would invalidate the opinions and ideas of the group who agree to being censored.

This is a tough call. Personally I do think that censorship is bad but it this is from my point of view and I am not being subjected to it.  Certain acts are unconditionally bad no matter what certain groups may believe (for example female circumcision or child pornography) but lesser wrongs are more difficult to judge.


Filtering Swedish Parliament

The Swedish Parliament has installed a filter in order to stop access to child pornography (Swedish press release). The filter was not installed in order to stop activities which were occurring but rather to prevent their occurrence. Most probably the decision to install such a filter was done to prevent what could have become a public relations nightmare.

The filter will delete any child pornography images it detects and no logs are created. The decision to create no logs may be strange but with the Swedish freedom of information policy this is probably done again to prevent public relations messes from occurring? Oh correct my cynical soul (if I had such a thing) if I am wrong.

Therefore in order to prevent a problem that has not occurred the highest decision making body in Sweden has placed its free access to information into the hands of who? Most probably a private company. If I was a more paranoid person then I would say this was a bad decision. This means that Swedish members of parliament will be unable to find information freely and independently.

Naturally I am not supporting child pornography – don’t be obtuse. I am, however, against putting free access to information into the hands of a private body. This is self censorship. Done in order to avoid public relations disasters.

Of course the parliamentarians could complain but considering the political atmosphere surrounding this issue anyone complaining would probably be placing themselves in a questionable light. This has the makings of a classic paranoid witch-hunt.

Internet Censorship China

Reporters Without Borders and Chinese Human Rights Defenders (a Chinese Internet expert working in IT industry) has produced a study on the Chinese official system of online censorship, surveillance and propaganda. For obvious reasons the author of the report prefers to remain anonymous. The RSF press release promises:

This report shows how the CCP and the government have deployed colossal human and financial resources to obstruct online free expression. Chinese news websites and blogs have been brought under the editorial control of the propaganda apparatus at both the national and local levels.

… [The report] explains how this control system functions and identifies its leading actors such the Internet Propaganda Administrative Bureau…, the Bureau of Information and Public Opinion… and the Internet Bureau…

Internet censorship is a vital topic any work in this area is very welcome. Two PhD thesis’ of interest in this area are Stuart Hamilton’s To what extent can libraries ensure free, equal and unhampered access to Internet-accessible information resources from a global perspective? and Johan Lagerkvist The Internet in China: Unlocking and containing the public sphere.

Regulating Violence

Is the regulation of violence in video/computer games censorship? Or is it a question of protecting the innocent? Naturally paternalism in all forms includes a “pappa knows best” attitude however there are cases of censorship/control/paternalism which we can accept and other forms which we tend to react against.

The forms of Internet censorship (more here) displayed by states such as China and Saudi Arabia are usually criticized as forms of censorship unacceptable in democratic societies while they themselves argue the need to protect their cultures and citizens against the corrupting influences online. It is, it may seem, a question of perspectives.

Then what of the regulation of violent computer games? Are computer games supposed to be seen as forms of speech to be protected? Or are we on a dangerous slippery slope when we start excluding forms of speech? The New York Times has an article showing that the US courts tend to find laws against computer game unconstitutional.

Considering the US approach to Free Expression this is not surprising. The European approach – in particular the French, German and Scandinavian models could not be as clear cut in this question. This only means that the US is against censorship and feels the cost of this decision is worth it, while many other jurisdictions feel that the damage caused by this extreme acceptance of free expression may cause discomfort and hardship to individuals and groups beyond the eventual benefits of the speech.

The ever eloquent Judge Posner is quoted in the article:

“Violence has always been and remains a central interest of humankind and a recurrent, even obsessive theme of culture both high and low,” he wrote. “It engages the interest of children from an early age, as anyone familiar with the classic fairy tales collected by Grimm, Andersen, and Perrault are aware. To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it.”

The problem is that there is often great value (moral rather than economic) in quixotic pursuits and the practice of subjecting people to hardships in order to prepare them for eventual future hardships is really only useful in military training and never a satisfactory way of raising children.

Anonymous Online

Most people have heard of the Zen koan “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The purpose of the koan is not to have an answer but rather to be a point of departure for deeper reflection. Unfortunately for most of us with a western education we tend to attempt to answer the question with a yes or no – therefore defeating the purpose. My question of the day is a variation of the koan: If a protest is not heard – does it make a sound?

The ability to communicate in particular mass communicate is becoming easier. With all due respect to the numerous digital divides (age, knowledge, access, infrastructure etc) the ability to communicate via the internet is still growing. The question is whether this technology will serve the purpose of those attempting to conduct resistance or protest actions. The drawback with mass communication is that the communicator is all too easily identified and can be punished by those she is protesting or communicating against.

So there is a need to both be able to conduct mass communication via the internet and to remain anonymous. There is (thankfully) a growing number of relatively user friendly methods, in addition to tips and tricks, which the anonymous protester can use.

Many of these are to be found in the following guides: