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Wikipedia bans Church of Scientology

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Exclusive In an unprecedented effort to crack down on self-serving edits, the Wikipedia supreme court has banned contributions from all IP addresses owned or operated by the Church of Scientology and its associates.

Closing out the longest-running court case in Wikiland history, the site’s Arbitration Committee voted 10 to 0 (with one abstention) in favor of the move, which takes effect immediately.

The eighth most popular site on the web, Wikipedia bills itself as "the free encyclopedia anyone can edit." Administrators frequently ban individual Wikifiddlers for their individual Wikisins. And the site's UK press officer/resident goth once silenced an entire Utah mountain in a bizarre attempt to protect a sockpuppeting ex-BusinessWeek reporter. But according to multiple administrators speaking with The Reg, the muzzling of Scientology IPs marks the first time Wikipedia has officially barred edits from such a high-profile organization for allegedly pushing its own agenda on the site.

The Church of Scientology has not responded to our request for comment.

Officially, Wikipedia frowns on those who edit "in order to promote their own interests." The site sees itself as an encyclopedia with a "neutral point of view" - whatever that is. "Use of the encyclopedia to advance personal agendas – such as advocacy or propaganda and philosophical, ideological or religious dispute – or to publish or promote original research is prohibited," say the Wikipowersthatbe.

Admins may ban a Wikifiddler who betrays an extreme conflict of interest, and since fiddlers often hide their identity behind open proxies, such IPs may be banned as a preventative measure. After today's ruling from the Arbitration Committee - known in Orwellian fashion as the ArbCom - Scientology IPs are "to be blocked as if they were open proxies" (though individual editors can request an exemption).

According to evidence turned up by admins in this long-running Wikiland court case, multiple editors have been "openly editing [Scientology-related articles] from Church of Scientology equipment and apparently coordinating their activities." Leaning on the famed WikiScanner, countless news stories have discussed the editing of Scientology articles from Scientology IPs, and some site admins are concerned this is "damaging Wikipedia's reputation for neutrality."

One admin tells The Reg that policing edits from Scientology machines has been particularly difficult because myriad editors sit behind a small number of IPs and, for some reason, the address of each editor is constantly changing. This prevents admins from determining whether a single editor is using multiple Wikipedia accounts to game the system. In Wikiland, such sockpuppeting is not allowed.

The Wikicourt considered banning edits from Scientology IPs only on Scientology-related articles. But this would require admins to "checkuser" editors - i.e. determine their IP - every time an edit is made. And even then they may not know who's who.

"Our alternatives are to block them entirely, or checkuser every 'pro-Scientology' editor on this topic. I find the latter unacceptable," wrote one ArbComer. "It is quite broad, but it seems that they're funneling a lot of editing traffic through a few IPs, which make socks impossible to track."

And it may be a moot point. Most the editors in question edit nothing but Scientology-related articles. In Wikiparlance, they're "single purpose accounts."

Some have argued that those editing from Scientology IPs may be doing so without instruction from the Church hierarchy. But a former member of Scientology's Office of Special Affairs - a department officially responsible "for directing and coordinating all legal matters affecting the Church" - says the Office has organized massive efforts to remove Scientology-related materials and criticism from the web.

"The guys I worked with posted every day all day," Tory Christman tells The Reg. "It was like a machine. I worked with someone who used five separate computers, five separate anonymous identities...to refute any facts from the internet about the Church of Scientology."

Christman left the Church in 2000, before Wikipedia was created.

This is the fourth Scientology-related Wikicourtcase in as many years, and in addition to an outright ban on Scientology IPs, the court has barred a host of anti-Scientology editors from editing topics related to the Church.

Many Wikifiddlers have vehemently criticized this sweeping crackdown. Historically, the site's cult-like inner circle has aspired to some sort of Web 2.0 utopia in which everyone has an unfettered voice. An organization editing Wikipedia articles where it has a conflict of interest is hardly unusual, and in the past such behavior typically went unpunished.

But clearly, Wikipedia is changing. In recent months, the site's ruling body seems far more interested in quashing at least the most obvious examples of propaganda pushing.

Scientology's banishment from Wikipedia comes just days after the opening of a (real world) trial that could see the dissolution of the organization's French chapter. ®

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