The history of the Arbitration Committee
This week, the Wikipedia Signpost examines the history of the Arbitration Committee.
Ever since Wikipedia started in January of 2001, disputes have been inevitable. As the encyclopedia — and the number of active users — expanded exponentially, the number of disputes and disagreements rose as well. It was up to Jimbo Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, to settle the disputes and to dole out punishments. In fact, only Jimbo had the authority to block users for anything other than simple vandalism. However, this posed a major problem as the disputes became more lengthy and complex; Jimbo no longer had the time to judge all the disputes. Some disputes would take months to settle, proving the inefficiency of having just Jimbo resolving disputes. Thus, the need for a "judicial branch" of Wikipedia arose.
Dispute resolution process created
In January of 2004, a dispute resolution process was proposed, and was ratified by the community in the next month. The dispute resolution process included several steps, such as requests for comments, mediation, and then finally, the Arbitration Committee. The ArbCom, as the Committee is often known, was the last step in the dispute resolution process, and had the responsibility of hearing disputes and cases, and then deciding on the proper punishments and decisions. The power vested in the Arbitration Committee was supreme; only Jimbo could override the ArbCom's decisions.
"The Arbitration Committee [...] can impose a solution that I'll consider to be binding," Jimbo said. "With of course the exception that I reserve the right of executive clemency and indeed even to dissolve the whole thing if it turns out to be a disaster. But I regard that as unlikely, and I plan to do it about as often as the Queen of England dissolves Parliament against their wishes, that is, basically never, but it is one last safety valve for our values."
However, the Arbitration Committee proved successful, and Jimbo did not disband the ArbCom in the coming months. In fact, Jimbo appointed the first twelve arbitrators — Fred Bauder, Maveric149, Jdforrester, The Cunctator, The Epopt, Delirium, Nohat, Camembert, MyRedDice, Gutza, UninvitedCompany, and Eloquence. All of the twelve, with the exception of Eloquence, accepted the offer from Jimbo. UninvitedCompany later resigned, and an election was held in July of 2004, with Raul654 and Jwrosenzweig winning the two open seats out of 10 candidates.
However, according to Jimbo, the arbitrators were not to serve for life; on the contrary, each one would serve for three years. The twelve seats would be staggered so that four arbitrators would be up for re-election every year. Thus, the annual elections for the ArbCom were begun.
ArbCom takes office
During this time period, the ArbCom began hearing cases. Originally, the committee would only hear cases approved by Jimbo; this added to the relative inefficiency of the committee. In fact, one of the earliest cases heard by the Arbitration Committee, that of Plautus satire, a disruptive user, took six weeks to be approved, even after intense pressure on the ArbCom. Because the ArbCom was new, and because there were no precedents or guidelines to follow, the earliest cases had lengthy delays in approving and hearing cases. Despite this, most of the earliest cases were clear-cut disputes often involving a sophisticated vandal or POV-pusher.
As time progressed, however, the arbitration committee became an integral part of the dispute resolution process, and by December 2004, had become essential to Wikipedia. In the December 2004 elections, in fact, 34 people ran for the seven open seats. The ArbCom had been plagued by resignations, with five arbitrators either resigning or choosing not to run for re-election. Thus, seven seats were open for election. The results of the election, which used approval voting were extremely close, with only one vote separating a successful candidacy and an unsuccessful one.
In July 2005, three more arbitrators resigned. While the December 2004 resignations did not greatly influence the ArbCom operations because of the upcoming December 2004 elections, the resignations in July of 2005 slowed down the hearings, as there were fewer arbitrators available to decide cases. Combined with several inactive or away arbitrators, the ArbCom was down to six arbitrators, a number inadequate to hear proceedings. Thus, Jimbo appointed three temporary arbitrators: Jdforrester, who had been unsuccessful in his re-election bid in 2004, Fennec, and Jayjg, and the ArbCom continued normal operations after the temporary appointments.
A record eight seats will open in the upcoming January 2006 ArbCom elections — the four terms up for re-election, plus the three temporary appointments, as well as a position vacated by Nohat, who has indicated he will resign.
With two-thirds of the committee's seats up for grabs, the second annual ArbCom elections are a crucial moment for the ArbCom, and will surely shape Wikipedia in the upcoming years.
Next week — About the Arbitration Committee