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Wikimedia Foundation muzzles Wikinews

Speech is free if you pretend it's free

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Wikinews - like its sister site, Wikipedia - bills itself as a place without bias. Ostensibly, it's a democratic news source that never answers to a higher power. But that's just a setup for the latest act in the world's greatest online farce.

In recent weeks, the Wikimedia Foundation - the not-for-profit that operates Wikinews and Wikipedia - spiked two separate Wikinews stories before they were published. Both concerned the Foundation itself. And one concerned the Foundation and child pornography.

"Wikimedia has been doing things that are out of the ordinary and, in my opinion, against everything it stands for - such as free information for all and the fact that they claim to not censor anything," says Jason Safoutin, who penned the two articles in question.

We'll get to the porn later. The first article detailed a defamation suit brought against the Foundation by a literary agent named Babara Bauer. It's a case you may know. Earlier this month, after the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) joined Wikimedia's defense team, the suit was widely covered by the press at large, including The Reg. Bauer insists that someone posted a list of the "20 Worst Literary Agents" to Wikipedia and dubbed her the "dumbest" agent on the list.

But you won't find a mention of her suit on Wikipedia itself - or on other Foundation projects.

The Wikimedia Foundation denies Bauer's story, but it also claims defamation immunity under Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act. Famously, Section 230 protects net sites from liability when their users start posting defamatory material - even if the site is alerted to the defamation.

"If I get a letter that says 'You have defamatory material on your web site' and I say 'I don't care. I'm leaving it up,' I'm still completely covered by 230," says Santa Clara University law professor and tech law blogger Eric Goldman.

But the Wikimedia Foundation has decided to be extra super careful. Late last month, Wikimedia general counsel Mike Godwin filed a declaration (PDF) with the court, pointing out that an article on Barbara Bauer "no longer appears on the Wikipedia site." Then he logged onto Wikipedia and told all those wikifiddlers to keep it that way.

This is the Foundation's prerogative. As the EFF's Matt Zimmerman points out, Section 230 is in place to give site owners editorial discretion. And though Godwin wouldn't speak to us, he may be concerned that the not-for-profit doesn't have the money it needs to fight too many defamation suits - however ridiculous they are.

But remember: This is Wikiland. The powers that be like to exercise their powers while pretending they're not. In telling Wikipedians to avoid re-posting a Barbara Bauer article, Godwin also tells them he's not telling them to avoid re-posting a Barbara article:

"We recently filed court papers in which we stated that the article is no longer available (as it wasn't when I filed my affidavit). It would be nice if the community didn't turn the Foundation, EFF, and me into liars," he says. "I've been trying to keep [Foundation] actions to a minimum...and it would be helpful to be able to say that any given action was taken by the community, not by the Foundation."

Then the farce kicked into high gear. After insisting he wasn't taking action while taking action, Godwin took action again. When a draft of the article about Barbara Bauer's suit turned up over at Wikinews - a separate operation from Wikipedia - he had it vaporized.

Once again, Godwin said he was merely protecting the Foundation's court case. But Jason Safoutin questions whether his story died because it wasn't "entirely in favor of Wikimedia." Safoutin's piece - recently made available by the truth seekers at Wikileaks - took issue with Godwin's I'm-not-telling-you-what-to-do-while-telling-you-what-to-do speech.

And now for the porn.

Unbowed, Safoutin went to work on a second article, tackling yet another Wikiscandal. According to WorldNetDaily, the FBI is investigating Wikipedia after someone uploaded a photo of a nude adolescent. Safoutin's piece focused on the FBI probe, but it also mentioned other reports that Wikimedia Number Two Eric Moeller has advocated the free exchange of child pornography and posted a child pornography image to his web site.

Godwin killed this story too. He may have been concerned about another lawsuit. But if Eric Moeller decided to sue his own employer - or the Foundation decided to sue itself - it would still be protected under Section 230.

"My concern is this: Wikimedia might be trying to, or is censoring material on their projects which give them a bad look/name," Safoutin says. We think he has a point.

Naturally, the porn piece has also found a home at Wikileaks.

Bootnote

Last week, Santa Clara University hosted a panel discussion entitled "The World that Wikipedia Made: The Ethics and Values of Public Knowledge." It was setup as a head-to-head between Mike Godwin and MIT's Carl Hewitt, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer science. But it didn't work out that way.

Speaking from first-hand experience, Hewitt described Wikipedia as an "authoritarian bureaucracy of magnificent proportions" that makes no room for serious academics. You can read his long list of Wikipedia criticisms here.

He even went so far as to call Wikipedia a cult. But Mike Godwin wasn't around to dispute these claims. "Mr. Godwin expressed some concerns about the potential media coverage of this event and, as a result, has decided not to participate," said David DeCosse, of Santa Clara's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

The first rule of Wikicult is: You do not talk about Wikicult.

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