Office actions

Interventions by Foundation have bumpy road

A couple of incidents last week highlighted the difficulty of balancing outside complaints regarding articles with the views of Wikipedia editors. Partly at issue was the implementation of a relatively new policy that provides for the Wikimedia Foundation, which normally does not exercise editorial control at the level of individual articles, to intervene in such cases when deemed necessary.

These interventions, covering such things as protecting a page pending further investigation, or deleting possible copyright infringements, are designated as Office Actions. They may also involve reducing the content of articles drastically to stubs, a practice Jimbo Wales has said may occasionally be necessary to deal with complaints, especially involving biographies of living people. Wales created the policy earlier this month as something Danny Wool, his executive assistant, could cite when taking action on an urgent complaint.

Two recent cases underlined the tension between "caving in" to outsiders and "abdicating responsibility" for the content of the website. One of these, another occasion in which congressional attention has been directed at Wikipedia, was the biography of U.S. Senator Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada). The second was Brian Peppers, about a disabled man whose photograph was promoted as a meme on the YTMND website.

In both cases, a personally interested party directed a communication to the Wikimedia Foundation complaining about the content of the page and/or its existence. Reid's article was protected by Wool on Thursday, 16 February, and remained that way for six days while the situation was sorted out. The delay, caused in part by the weekend and the fact that Monday was a government holiday in the U.S., prompted several people to express their displeasure on the talk page. The second case was not actually handled as an Office Action but done by Wales on his own initiative. Last Tuesday, he deleted the much-disputed Peppers article with instructions that it should not be recreated for a year, saying, "if anyone still cares by then, we can discuss it".

This eventually led to an extended discussion on the wikien-l mailing list about these actions. The debate over Peppers also extended to other issues, such as whether previous deletions or recreations of the article were valid, whether he was actually notable enough as an internet phenomenon to warrant coverage in Wikipedia, and whether this should override his interest in privacy even though he never sought any publicity. Meanwhile, the Reid situation posed the dilemma of what the subjects of articles can do, given that criticism may ensue whether they edit themselves or direct their concerns to the Foundation instead.

The practice of using Office Actions has been designated as official Wikipedia policy. Wales emphasized this last week with the addition of a note that reverting an action taken under the policy "may be grounds for blocking", although he avoided recommending that blocks actually be used in such cases.

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