The Signpost

Opinion essay

The global mission, the image filter and the "German question"

Contribute  —  
Share this
By Jan eissfeldt

Jan Eissfeldt is a German Wikimedian, holding down the position of administrator on the German Wikipedia and administrator and bureaucrat on the cross-community Outreach wiki. Here, he writes about the nature of the German Wikimedian community, and what lessons might be learned from its response to the recent proposals for an opt-in image filter.

The views expressed are those of the author only. Responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. The Signpost welcomes proposals for op-eds. If you have one in mind, please leave a message at the opinion desk.

Something is different on Meta these days. Substantial parts of the German community, usually focused on itself and the three German language Wikimedia chapters, are going up the walls. Why is that?

Well, to keep an extremely long story very simple: they really hate the image filter and therefore the German projects are the only corner in the Wikimedia universe (it seems to me) heavily resisting this feature following the recent global referendum (see previous Signpost coverage).

According to, approximately 35% of the core community of the German Wikipedia (357 users) voted to totally reject the idea of the proposed image filter as they interpreted it in a local poll that publicly passed with 86% support. Traditionally, the community sorts out differences in binding crucial votes and nearly half of the core community took part in this one. Additionally, I attended their annual community conference this month and can tell you: many of those who did not participate in the poll aren't happy either. As a result, the Terms of use update is mainly under fire there right now for this reason.

What is different

The Annual General Meeting of Wikimedia Deutschland, which helps co-ordinate the close-knit German Wikimedian community

So, what's different about these folks? For one, their way of building and running their projects. The German community mainly lives in a concentrated geographical area, smaller than Texas, and is extremely homogeneous even by Wikimedia standards. As a result, their community life is mainly conducted via real life meet ups, called Stammtische, and users are on record for knowing up to 350 other users personally – in a core community of approximately 1000 people. Fine, that makes them something The Guardian's Michael White would most likely call a tribe and the academic studies on this community largely agree. But since the image filter is a tool for readers, that doesn't really count, right?

Right, but take a look at their readers. Public debates about the Internet in Germany have centred around the idea of filters for years now. The so-called Grand Coalition introduced them back in 2009, in an attempt to combat child pornography, but the public reaction was disastrous and filters were accused of being tools for protecting the abuse they were supposed to attack. For the very first time a national government was forced to not enforce a law it had already enacted, and the constitutional court had to deal with the question; on a more localised level, major German sites don't use filters either. The law, called the Zugangserschwerungsgesetz, was finally abolished in 2011 in response to wide-ranging criticism.

It seems that filters aren't a popular concept in Germany generally and you can largely count Austria and the German-speaking part of Switzerland there as well. How does this translate into the view of Wikimedians? Well, the German Wikipedia reached an unusually high degree of penetration and reputation relative to the related language community. In 2007, Stern magazine claimed that the German Wikipedia was more reliable than the Brockhaus, the largest traditional German encyclopedia. Additionally, the German project already had its share of practice tests (Signpost coverage) and there was no major public outcry. If we are ready to take that as a given, they are doing all right and their content doesn't seem to be controversial to their particular audience. The obvious exception is their hostility towards popular culture, which is often cited as a reason to use the English Wikipedia rather than the German one. Coincidentally or not, so far the biggest flare-up of this disagreement between German readers and community was triggered by the deletion of an article (Signpost coverage) about an anti-filter organization protesting the bill in 2009. In essence, German Wikimedians mirror the population they are drawn from.

What follows out of difference

That said, what does that mean for us? Well, we as participating community agreed with the Wikimedia entities back in the strategy process 2009/2010 that spreading free knowledge in the foreseeable future will mean reaching out to the Global South and to do that means among other things – in my understanding – going into the messy business of balancing out arising value conflicts, which are non-binary by definition.

The image filter tool, like it or not, can potentially ease such debates by free choice-diversification of viewed images (which are different from text for all sorts of well-known anthropological-epistemic arguments I can't name here), while preserving our "NPOV/one article" approach. All-in-all a solution far more clever than what was tried on Commons back in 2010 and it takes into account what we know about people without a proper voice inside our debates – and the readers and contributors we all are looking for as well.

This looks quite settled to me, since I got the impression out of the referendum that low-level contributors are significantly more enthusiastic about the whole idea than the core community. These occasional contributors without a proper voice in our usual decision-making processes are the nearest we can get to readers and, by taking into account their views, the Board of Trustees was designed to push for unpopular proposals if necessary.

But the global conclusion misses the point regarding what I wrote above about the structurally different German case and dealing with them regarding any given topic – as the response to the terms of use update shows – will become even more difficult as long as their identity question dominates minds. There is no voiceless German-speaking global south – or east, in other cases – to be safeguarded.

What should be done

I could, of course, be wrong about this local audience as a whole and this local community in particular. But taking the outlined unique tribe and the global position both as a given: it seems reasonable to me to look at this special case, maybe within a few months after implementation to check whether or not I'm right regarding readers, for a proper local response to this local problem.

+ Add a comment

Discuss this story

These comments are automatically transcluded from this article's talk page. To follow comments, add the page to your watchlist. If your comment has not appeared here, you can try purging the cache.
Evidently, some portion of the de.wp readers take issue with the practice, and it is readers rather than editors who are the intended beneficiaries of the endeavour, no? There is also the point that resources/attention can't simply be redirected from popular culture to more "serious" topics; if you delete an editor's articles about Transformers, she is scarcely likely to turn around and pen an eloquent account of Schopenhauerian ontology... 02:43, 27 September 2011 (UTC)
To quote Terry Pratchett, "Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions." What exactly makes you think that telling people who're volunteering their own time and writing about things that interest them that these contributions are not welcome and that they should work (still for free, of course!) on other topics, writing about things they don't care about would lead to them actually doing that? Also, just who are you to distinguish "serious" and "frivolous" topics, anyway? (talk) 10:09, 27 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]

False hope

The image filter tool, like it or not, can potentially ease such debates by free choice-diversification of viewed images (which are different from text for all sorts of well-known anthropological-epistemic arguments I can't name here), while preserving our "NPOV/one article" approach. All-in-all a solution far more clever than what was tried on Commons back in 2010 and it takes into account what we know about people without a proper voice inside our debates – and the readers and contributors we all are looking for as well.

I think this is highly unlikely. The concept of anyone filtering his own Wikipedia use is unrealistic and won't appease those who protest content that is shown on Wikipedia today.

The most easy way to avoid being shocked in Wikipedia is to not look at shocking content. There are some deficits - like pictures of spiders in articles about arachnophobia, but this is rather the exception. If you provide filters for anyone who suffers from a phobia, the filter interface will become most confusing and not usuable at all. It's even worse with religious views. How long would a Chassidic jew need to filter everything he does not approve of?

For those people who protest content they don'Ät even see, like the admins from Aceh Wikipedia -- i don't think they would see a difference at all. If there is a picture of Mohammed on Wikipedia, they won't tolerate it.

-- (talk) 08:58, 27 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]

If this filter existed one can at least reply that "if these images are disturbing to you you are free to limit your viewability of them". There are a number of cases in which this would be useful Smallpox being an example. Doc James (talk · contribs · email) 10:57, 27 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
And which response do you expect after that? -- (talk) 13:32, 27 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]

German paradox: some of the most stringent youth protection laws in the world, combined with cultural openness to nudity

One notable fact is that Germany has some of the most stringent online youth protection and age verification laws of any country. Flickr for example made moderate and restricted content inaccessible to German yahoo users, fearing that open access might violate German law. Pornographic content on the internet is legal only if technical measures prohibit minors from getting access to the object (AVS = Age Verification System or Adult-Check-System). (This German law cannot be enforced with respect to Wikipedia content because the Wikimedia servers are located in the US!) So the strong reaction in the German community may in part be a backlash against the domestic legal situation.

On the other hand, paradoxically, nudity is much more mainstream in Germany than in the UK or US. Images that would appear on page 3 of a UK tabloid appear on page 1 of German tabloids; mainstream weekly magazines like Stern regularly feature nudity on the title page. Mainstream TV channels freely broadcast soft porn movies late at night. Sex shops in Germany have window displays, and so on. When the vulva image and article appeared on the German Wikipedia main page, I didn't expect a public outcry, and there wasn't one. --JN466 15:57, 27 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]

As someone who recently visited the country, it should be clarified that female nudity is mainstream in Germany. The country still has a double standard in this regard, at least from all the advertisements and media I saw in Berlin. Strangely though, it is perfectly acceptable to depict men in clown outfits there. Kaldari (talk) 18:55, 27 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
Personally, I imagine that backlash against Germany's attempts to legislate image filtering are partially to blame for the strong opposition to the idea. In the U.S. we've never had any serious moves towards legislating internet filtering, so we are probably less skeptical of the idea in general. Kaldari (talk) 19:01, 27 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
That's because here topless ain't nude and nude ain't porn. And about AVS: Once noticed there is one, you bypass it. First thing kids learn on the internet: when something is hidden, it has to be cool. -- (talk) 22:00, 27 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
AVS/ACS is not so easy to bypass; it is credit-card-based. Note that German mainstream magazines commonly feature full nudity on their title pages, for both men and women: [1], [2], [3], [4]. Mainstream publishing standards are different than in the UK or US. --JN466 22:56, 27 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
AVS: I'd say, for any porn site with AVS, there are hundreds without it, and kids will find them. Only way to "protect" children is to sit by them while they use the internet. And as soon they use it on their own: Well, good luck with any filtering or AVS. There is no lock which can withstand pubescent males. If they need to "borrow" mom's credit card to bypass it, they'll do.
Germen tabloids: Sure, that's what I wrote: nude ain't porn in Germany. So there's barely a reason to hide the pictures under the desk. -- (talk) 12:20, 28 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
This Flickr-Filters mostly exist, because Yahoo still doesn't understand the German law, which totally differences between nudity (picturing which is totally legal in _any_ situation) and sexuality (more precisely "picturing a sexual act"). Also there is a rather permanent public discussion about the conflict between "protecting the youth from inappropriate content" and "freedom of opinion" (with Wikipedia never having been a part of any "problem"). --TheK (talk) 01:42, 30 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
The restricted category does contain pornographic content, and viewing material in this category requires prior age verification through an age verification system according to German law. Yahoo/Flickr either have to introduce an AVS (which they haven't done), or have to block access in the absence of one. [5][[6]. I imagine most German pornographers simply prefer to locate their servers outside Germany, where they don't have to comply with German law, but Yahoo wants to do business in Germany, and go by the book. If I'm materially wrong on any of this, do tell me. I agree with you that nudity isn't a problem in Germany (and some other European countries), due to cultural differences – ranging from mixed saunas and times set aside for nude swimming in municipal swimming pools to the type of images appearing on the covers of mainstream publications – and I do agree that people in the UK or US lack a feel for this difference. Regards, --JN466 11:33, 30 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]

Some errors in the article


  • the proposal of the poll does neither "reject the idea of", nor does it "interpret" the proposed image filter. In fact the proposal rejects the introduction of personal image filter and filter categories in the German Wikipedia, not more and not less.
  • there is no such thing like a "core community" of the German Wikipedia as construed by the Signpost. If 357 users are "approximately 35%", then 1020 are 100%. So Signpost suggests that all of the 357 who voted for the proposal are among the 1017 "Very Active Editors" who according to are
>>Registered (and signed in) users who made 100 or more edits in a month<<
This is plainly wrong. The generall voting eligibility (Allgemeine de:Wikipedia:Stimmberechtigung) which is required for voting in this and other polls does not require a user to make 100 or more edits in a month. In fact it does require a user to be active for at least three month, and to have made 200 edits in the article namespace, thereof 50 edits in the article namesspace within the last year.

--Rosenkohl (talk) 12:04, 28 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]

Please do note the disclaimer at the top of the article, which states: "The views expressed are those of the author only." Therefore, it is erroneous to use phrases such as, "as construed by the Signpost" and "So Signpost suggests", as this piece is the opinion of the writer and not that of The Signpost. --SMasters (talk) 22:44, 28 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
Wouldn't that mean, that only a very small percentage of the "core editors" of the german WP was interested enough to vote in that easily accessible Poll? Adornix (talk) 16:31, 28 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
As for every poll. 430 votes overall is already a very high value. --TheK (talk) 01:48, 30 September 2011 (UTC)[reply]
"no one has a survey where the editors mainly live" is not correct. The Foundation has conducted a study of this, based on geolocating IP addresses. The results are as follows for de.wp: for page views, Germany 80.7%, Austria 8.1%, Switzerland 6.1%, other ~5%; for edits, Germany 82.2%, Austria 6.9%, Switzerland 4.7%, other ~7%.
Thus the claim that editors live within a small geocentric area is on the whole correct, I should say. By comparison, ~45% of edits and views for the English Wikipedia come from the United States, itself far larger than the aforementioned conglomeration of countries comprising the German-contributor area (over 15 times in fact, even if you discount Alaska). - Jarry1250 [Weasel? Discuss.] 11:56, 1 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  • The author uses it as an explanation for "the German projects are the only corner in the Wikimedia universe heavily resisting this feature following the recent global referendum". The Dutch-speaking geographic area is about one seventh of Germany. I'm sure there are other languages geographically comparable to German. So how is the German community different? And do the other language communities agree with the proposal, are they too small to have an impact, do they feel they should not go against the wishes of their bigger brother, or are only the few Anglophiles among them interested in these issues? DS Belgium (talk) 03:33, 3 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]
How the German community is different is represented in, and left up to, the opinion piece mentioned in the article. ResMar 12:38, 2 November 2011 (UTC)[reply]

The Commons sexual content proposal

I'm still perplexed that after all this time, so many editors perceive the failed commons:Commons:Sexual content proposal as an attempt at censorship, when I always saw it as a reaction to Jimbo's infamous deletion spree and an attempt to clearly indicate that the status quo was exactly the right thing to do. It didn't advocate deletion of images except where they violated existing policies or laws like child pornography or photos taken in private locations without permission. In fact, some of the best objections to the proposal were that it was entirely redundant. The proposal was also orthogonal to image filtering - it didn't advocate for or against it (my own view on image filtering was always, let a third party do it if they want to, but there's no need to go out of our way to help them). Dcoetzee 20:48, 3 October 2011 (UTC)[reply]

It's related news, and is mentioned in passing, I think that's acceptable. ResMar 12:40, 2 November 2011 (UTC)[reply]


The Signpost · written by many · served by Sinepost V0.9 · 🄯 CC-BY-SA 4.0