Following two months of discussions about sexually explicit images and other controversial material, the Wikimedia Foundation has contracted an external consultant to survey opinions on the matter both inside and outside Wikimedia, and to provide recommendations on how Wikimedia projects should deal with potentially objectionable material. The study will include input from "a variety of stakeholders and experts", and will be of broad scope, including possible recommendations for "changes to editorial policies, technical solutions, [and] the development of new projects that are appropriate for children".
As announced on June 24, the Board has passed a resolution asking the Executive Director of the Foundation, Sue Gardner, "to undertake a project studying this issue, and to develop a set of recommendations for the Board". The resolution states that there are many competing interests on the projects, and that the Wikimedia Foundation holds that material on its projects should be educational and not removed simply because a group finds it objectionable. Nevertheless, "[the Board is] concerned about the possibility of people being exposed to objectionable material that they did not seek out." (This appears to be informed by what some participants in recent debates about such material call "the principle of least astonishment", a term used by Jimmy Wales in his recent intervention on the German Wikipedia when that project featured an explicit image on its main page – see Signpost coverage.)
Michael Snow, Chair of the Board, explained in a Q&A about the resolution that Sue Gardner has contracted Robert Harris, a former executive with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as the external consultant to carry out this project. Snow described him as:
"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."
Harris' report and recommendations are due at the fall meeting of the Board of Trustees. According to Snow, Harris plans to gather input from four major sources:
existing policies and discussion on the projects
interviews with key project participants such as Board members and community members
external statements of policy, papers and reports on this topic
interviews with key experts such as advisory Board members, anti-censorship advocates, and child-protection organizations.
The resolution asks that the study "make an effort to include non-Western perspectives", but the Q&A does not yet contain details about which countries would be involved. Following this process, the consultant:
"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."
The research and recommendations will not be limited to sexually explicit material. The resolution's language appears also to be relevant for recent image controversies such as those about caricatures of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, in which Jimmy Wales recently became involved, and anti-Israeli cartoons (see Signpost coverage). The scope of the resolution includes:
"material that is violent, sexually explicit, or otherwise disturbing; culturally offensive depictions; profane or vulgar language; depictions of potentially dangerous activities; and exposure of children to material that may be inappropriate for them"
The resolution was approved 8–0, with two abstentions, but according to Board member Sj, it "was the most controversial resolution passed in a few quarters." While there was unanimous support in the Board for the idea of outside research, Sj said that "there are varying views on what organizations are 'similar' to Wikimedia", and that different Wikimedia projects handle different material. "A few specifics of the language were controversial. Some found the focus on children too much emphasis on that particular audience, while others felt it was the primary motivation to prioritize the matter."
The move comes on the heels of a recent highly controversial debate on Commons over sexually explicit photographs, set off in April when Larry Sanger reported the Foundation to the FBI for allegedly distributing child pornography (see Signpost coverage), and escalated the following month with Jimmy Wales' actions to delete some sexually explicit material on Commons and accompanying media stories (most notably a series of articles on Fox News by journalist Jana Winter, who a few days ago followed up with another article alleging that "Pedophiles Find a Home on Wikipedia" – see this week's In the news and previous Signpost coverage).
During the subsequent heated community debate, the Board had already issued a "Statement on appropriate educational content" and several Board members made statements about the issue on the Foundation-l mailing list, with some statements drawing criticism from other community members. The community discussion was wide-ranging about the kinds of content that Commons (or any of the projects) should host; some discussion participants raised ideas about potential technical measures to prevent readers from seeing objectionable content they might not expect.