Questions and Answers on Board Resolution for Study of Controversial Content

Questions and Answers regarding the Board of Trustees Resolution Commissioning Recommendations from the Executive Director regarding controversial content. Originally posted on the Wikimedia Foundation Announcements mailing list WikimediaAnnounce-l.

What is the purpose of the resolution?

The Board is asking its Executive Director to conduct a study, with the goal of figuring out what to do about potentially-objectionable material in the projects. We know there is, and will always be, some material in the projects that some readers will find offensive: that's inevitable, given the size and scope of our readership, and our commitment to providing access to all of the world's knowledge. We don't want to cause unnecessary offence to people, and we particularly don't want to offend people if it means they won't therefore use our projects, or that they will aim to keep other people from using them. We want our projects to be available to as many people as possible, and we would like, as much as possible, to minimize the number of people who are prevented from accessing the projects by third-parties. Having said that, we see the projects' role as making available all knowledge, not making available solely such knowledge as is universally deemed acceptable. It's a challenge, and we need to strike an appropriate balance. Therefore, we're asking our ED to do some investigation and thinking, and make some recommendations to us at our meeting this fall.

How was the resolution developed and agreed upon?

The board and the community have been talking about this topic for the past two months -- and indeed, the Commons and Wikipedia communities have been discussing it for many years. Once the board reached general agreement that a study was a good idea, we asked our ED to draft a resolution to that effect. After she did that, we spent several weeks talking with each other, refining the language of the draft, and voting to adopt the resolution.

Does the board have consensus on what to do about potentially-objectionable materials in the projects?

No. So far, board members have exchanged several hundred e-mails on this topic, and we will continue to discuss it in the coming months. Currently, board members have expressed quite different views, and there is no consensus on how to resolve the issue. We think that's completely fine though: it's complicated, and it's worth a lot of thought and discussion. That's why we've commissioned a study: to see what we can learn from other similar discussions that have taken place within other organizations.

What are the individual board members' views on this issue? How divided is the board?

We don't really want to characterize individual board members' views. Having said that, individual board members have expressed their opinions publicly in the past, and they will probably continue to do so. The board is comfortable with disagreement on this issue, and it's comfortable with people expressing their opinions. For example, Michael Snow has been having a conversation with contributors on Commons, and both Jimmy and SJ have been expressing their views there too. That's fine, and the board encourages it.

How is this study related to the purge of some sexual imagery that happened on Commons a month ago?

The Commons purge happened because Jimmy felt there was material on Commons which didn't belong there -- that was potentially objectionable, and had no educational value. The board released a statement on May 7, encouraging 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 was no such value. Jimmy himself then deleted a bunch of imagery he thought was problematic. In so doing, he made a lot of admins on Commons really angry -- essentially because they felt Jimmy was acting unilaterally, without sufficient discussion. So yes, this study is an attempt to better handle the general issue of potentially-objectionable material on the projects, including Commons, by giving it some sustained attention.

In its statement May 7, the board said that it was not intending to create new policy, but rather to reaffirm and support policy that already exists. Has that changed?

We don't know yet what recommendations will come out of the study. It's quite possible they will include recommendations to change policy on the projects. In giving direction to the consultant, we have asked that everything be considered: nothing has been ruled out.

In the aftermath of the Commons purge, a lot of editors felt that the Wikimedia Foundation, the board, and/or Jimmy had overstepped their authority. What do you say to those editors who believe that editorial policy is their purview, not the responsibility of the board or the staff?

We agree with editors who say that, and we believe that Wikimedia's current methods of developing and enforcing policy, for the most part, work really beautifully. The Wikimedia projects are a shining example of the power of mass collaboration, and nobody wants to fundamentally change anything about how the projects work.

Is this the first time the Board has ever asked the ED or WMF to address an issue like this?

This is the first time the Board has asked the ED to investigate the issue of potentially-objectionable material on the projects, yes.

Will the Board make a decision about next steps on this issue following the ED's presentation of findings?

The Board will review the recommendations and findings, and will continue to discuss the matter and reach out to the community of volunteers to discuss the issue. We won't speculate on what decisions will be made, or when, until findings have been reviewed and discussed.

Who will the ED be seeking out to undertake this research?

She has hired a consultant: Robert Harris, a former executive with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Robert is an experienced Canadian journalist and writer who, over the course of his career, has held responsibility for developing and ensuring compliance with editorial standards and practices at the CBC. We think he's right for this work because he's smart and thoughtful, has decades of experience handling sensitive editorial issues, and is experienced at balancing the interests of multiple stakeholders inside a mission-driven organization designed to serve the general public. Sue worked with Robert for 17 years at the CBC, and is confident he can help us with this issue.

What will the process look like?

This won't be like the strategy project, which took an entire year and a team of full-time people. This process will be smaller and simpler. Robert intends to gather input from four major sources: i) by reading existing policy and discussion pages on the wikis, ii) by interviewing key project participants such as board members and community members, iii) by gathering together external statements of policy, papers and reports on this topic, and iv) by interviewing key experts such as advisory board members, anti-censorship advocates, child-protection organizations, and so forth. He will probably not do much original research (such as surveys or focus groups): instead, he will tend to rely on existing research done by others. Once Robert has gathered all the input, he will do some analysis and thinking, and then make recommendations to the board. It is intended to be a fairly quick and simple process of information-gathering and thinking.

What will the end result look like?

Robert will explore and summarize our particular context: our mission, our production processes, and current relevant policies. He will tell us how other organizations and entities, such as libraries and big user-generated content sites, have handled this challenge. He will lay out possible courses of action, and the pros and cons of each in our context. And finally, he will make recommendations to the board.

What might those recommendations include?

Nothing is off the table. Robert has not been asked to explicitly exclude anything from the scope of recommendations. He could recommend anything from doing nothing to creative ideas that haven't been considered before.

What will happen after the board receives the recommendations?

The board will discuss the recommendations at its fall meeting. Then it will talk with the community. Nothing will happen without lots of discussion.

Why not hire a community member to do this work?

Any community member who'd be interested in this work has probably already formed an opinion on the topic, which means it might be hard for them to maintain neutrality, and/or other people might perceive them as non-neutral. Robert brings a fresh eye, which is probably useful. Also, he will bring to us his experience of designing policy elsewhere.

What other projects or properties face similar situations as those of Wikimedia's? Who or what can provide context for this kind of research or decision making? Who else knows how to address this issue?

We are interested in practices of other large projects containing community-created material, such as Flickr, YouTube, Google, eBay, and the Internet Archive. We are also interested in educational institutions and archives, whose work is similar to ours. So we will be talking with groups such as libraries, museums, and universities. Many smart people have grappled with these issues, and we are looking forward to hearing how they have handled them. We also know that our context is unique, and the outcome will need to be suited to us: our mission, goals, values and editorial practices.

Are you doing this because you're worried about the media, or donors?

No. The board is doing this because we've agreed that getting more information about other approaches to the issue is the right thing to do. We want to be thoughtful and responsible, and we think it's worth putting some focused effort against this issue. We may be wrong about that (and it's true that some board members feel more strongly about it than others). We want to do what is best in terms of advancing the mission and meeting the needs of all the world's readers and contributors.

Has the Board or Foundation actively done anything on the projects to remove explicit content? Has any illegal material been found or deleted?

Although the Foundation would remove any illegal content if it were necessary, it has not needed to do so--the task of removing this kind of material generally falls to our volunteers first, who watch the latest changes and additions to our projects. However, project policies often include editorial considerations in addition to legal considerations; just because an image is within the bounds of the law does not necessarily mean it falls within the project scope, and individual members have removed content they believed was outside of project policies.

The Wikimedia community has engaged in thoughtful policy development around these issues for many years. Why is there a need for a top-down process now?

It's true that the community has had many good policy discussions about these issues, dating to the earliest days of Wikipedia. Ultimately, we think those discussions may have been constrained in ways that aren't ideal. First, discussions about policy tend to be project-centric, rather than addressing the interests of the Wikimedia movement as a whole. That means they typically aren't very informed by a bigger-picture view (for example, the experiences of other projects, other communities, other websites, other educational initiatives), in part because there typically aren't resources dedicated to getting that information. And, some types of policy change (for example, those with technology implications) may be abandoned early, because community members know technical support is hard to come by. We're hoping that this process will help us to have a broader conversation about the topic than might otherwise be possible.

Who wrote this Q and A, and who is its intended audience?

The first draft of this Q and A was written by Jay and Sue for the board, based on the text of the resolution, and Sue's understanding of the consensus that had been achieved by the board over the past several months. Individual board members requested various revisions, and new versions of the draft were recirculated over several days. The main audience is the Wikimedia community, and the goal is to articulate the board's position as completely as possible.