Last Friday, the Wikimedia movement awoke to news that one of their number—Rémi Mathis, a French volunteer editor—had been summoned to the offices of the interior intelligence service DCRI and threatened with criminal charges and fines if he did not delete an article on the French Wikipedia about a radio station used by the French military.
The 30-year-old Mathis graduated from the prestigious École Nationale des Chartes for archivists and librarians in 2007. He is now a historian, library curator, and free-culture advocate, specialising in archival science—the diagnosis and restoration of decayed or damaged artifacts. Since 2010 he has been editor-in-chief of the scholarly journal Nouvelles de l'estampe ("News about prints"), which is supported by his employer, the National Library of France in Paris.
The "atypical" Mathis has been described as a "conveyor of knowledge", occupying a space "between two ages", represented by archival prints and modern technologies such as Twitter. Until the past few days, he was a volunteer administrator on the French Wikipedia, which he has edited since February 2006; he is the chair of Wikimédia France.
— Christopher Henner, vice-president of Wikimédia France
[It is the chapter's] duty to denounce such acts of censorship against a French citizen and Wikipedia editor. Has editing Wikipedia officially become risky behaviour in France?
— Statement by Wikimédia France
The story began on 4 March, when the Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur, abbreviated DCRI and translated as "Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence", contacted the Wikimedia Foundation and demanded that they take down the article under articles 413-11 of the French penal code ("jeopardizing the national defense"). The Foundation declined, saying that it could not see what the DCRI thought was classified, and requested additional information to identify the security issue; however, the agency did not respond. An anonymous source has since said the problematic text revolved around the base's role in the advent of a major nuclear war.
After a surprisingly long interval of four weeks for a matter purported to concern national security, DCRI then chose a different tack, summoning Rémi Mathis to its offices on 4 April and ordering him to delete the page. The DCRI agents told Mathis that the law applies to the article and to him personally—despite the absence of any link between him and the article or its subject, or his knowledge of either. If he had refused, the agents told him, he would be thrown into jail and prosecuted (under French law, which lacks habeas corpus, citizens may be held for up to 48 hours without cause).
Christopher Henner, the vice-president of the Wikimédia France chapter, told the Guardian that "The DCRI regularly asks us to go and explain to their operatives how Wikipedia works, so this volunteer thought he'd been summoned to explain or show them something. Had the DCRI presented us with documents or a legal order showing us this was a threat to national security we would have taken down the page at once. Instead they summoned one of our volunteers and ordered him to take it down, saying he would be held in custody if he didn't. Yes, he felt threatened and he was shocked."
A spokesman for the French government disputed the characterization of the agents' actions as threatening: "in a state of law, the threat of taking legal action against a passage that poses a problem for national security cannot be considered a threat."
Deletion, discussion, and surrender of admin status
Facing this stark choice, Mathis complied with their demands. Mathis told other administrators of his out-of-process deletion and explained that any French citizen who restored it could be sanctioned, as he believed that it was covered under 413-11. This could carry significant penalties, including five years in prison and a fine of €75,000 euros. (The related 413-10 is even harsher, specifying seven years in jail and a €100,000 euro fine.) The article was restored on 5 April by a Swiss Wikipedian, who is outside French jurisdiction.
Mathis's action drew many comments from French Wikipedians. It was noted that a picture of the station is still on Commons, which the agency appeared to have missed. Someone else suggested that it be hidden from public view, but oversighting is "uncommon" and does not apply in this case. Another contributor asked why the Foundation did not intervene; but Arkanosis replied: "It would not be the first time that the foundation has relied on volunteers to make a decision that it does not want to take itself." Arkanosispointed out that Wikimédia France has no authority over article content, but the Foundation offers legal counsel to any editor under threats or pressure because of their Wikimedia involvement (Editor's note: Arkanosis' comment is not accurate; the Foundation cannot give legal advice, but it can refer contributors to the Legal Fees Assistance Program or their policy on the defense of contributors, through which it may be possible to "[secure] local independent counsel to defend individual users, or [provide] public support.")
Administrator Hégésippe Cormierasked other administrators to support Mathis, while others suggested that a defense fund should be created to cover any legal costs. To reduce the external pressure on Mathis, Dr Brainsasked him to give up his administrator status for his personal safety—a suggestion that was poorly received by some administrators. Dr Brains replied that Mathis's two Wikimedia-related roles—his administrator status and chairmanship of Wikimédia France—were a danger to both him and Wikipedia. However, the Signpost notes that despite Mathis's high visibility, under similar circumstances any French citizen volunteer contributor could be pressured into deleting allegedly offensive content where the DCRI or a similar agency knows their name and address.
The debate quickly snowballed into a much larger question: should the French Wikipedia allow someone to be an administrator if they are a member of a chapter, as their names, addresses and phone numbers are public, making them easy targets for the French intelligence agencies? This exchange coalesced around Ash Crow (WMFR employee), Benjism89 (WMFR board), Remi Mathis (WMFR board) and Serein (WMFR employee), then widened its scope: since some countries have anti-democratic legal and security practices, should their citizens be automatically disqualified from stewardship?
On 6 April 2013, five contributors of the French Wikipedia—all citizens of France and including the four named WMFR employees and board members—requested the withdrawal of their administrator rights, which was implemented.
Wikimédia France and the Wikimedia Foundation promptly issued statements, with the chapter's—alongside a post on wikimedia-l—the first to break the news. The chapter stated, in part:
Wikimédia France cannot understand how bullying and coercive methods can be used against a person dedicated to promote the freedom and knowledge. As Wikimédia France supports free knowledge, it is its duty to denounce such acts of censorship against a French citizen and Wikipedia editor. Has editing Wikipedia officially become risky behaviour in France? Is the DCRI unable to enforce military secrecy through legal, less brutal methods? / ... Intimidation is not the right way to enforce military secrecy in France, and the Internet is not a place that has to be regulated in such a brutal manner. We believe the DCRI has other ways to enforce the law. We hope that an independent investigation will clear up the recent events. France is a legal state, where national security should not be ensured through such measures.
The Foundation responded via its legal counsel, Michelle Paulson. She detailed the Foundation’s interactions with the DCRI on the matter before issuing a strong condemnation of their tactics:
When governments have security concerns about Wikipedia articles, they should direct those concerns to the Foundation, and only to the Foundation. We believe it is unnecessary, irresponsible, and often counter-productive for any governmental agency to contact users or volunteers of any Wikimedia website directly ... While we have never received a request of this nature from the DCRI before, it is unfortunately not unheard of for governmental entities to contact, or even harass, local users. The Foundation strongly opposes any governmental attempts to intimidate the volunteers ... . We are saddened and disappointed to discover that the DCRI believes the tactics they employed in the name of security in this matter could be acceptable under any moral or legal authority. The Foundation was, and remains, willing to work with the DCRI to resolve this matter if possible, but we cannot condone any harassment of individuals who have done nothing wrong. / ... in cases where there is no apparent threat but rather a vague unsubstantiated claim of threats to national security, we require more information before we will consider removing any content—to do otherwise would allow censorship to trump free expression, which would be a direct assault on the values of the Wikimedia community. ... In this case, we have been unable to readily determine that the information is classified on its face and—especially in light of the video ... / The community remains free, of course, to retain or remove the article as it sees fit under community policies and processes. We value and respect community decisions in this regard. However, we want to remind users who are subject to the jurisdiction of France that there are risks involved in posting content that government authorities don’t want posted, and we advise such users to consult an attorney before acting in a situation that seems potentially risky. At this point, we do not see a demonstrated reason to remove the article on legal grounds.
Rémi Mathis declined the Signpost's invitation to comment on the matter.
In a comedic irony for the French intelligence service, articles have suddenly popped up in 26 other Wikipedias, while Twitter has been abuzz with the matter (Editor's note: this includes the Signpost's Twitter account). The article's views skyrocketed in the day after the event, up by more than 45,000%.
It appears that the French Wikipedia article on the Pierre-sur-Haute military base will be around for quite some time; however, internet freedom and intimidation by nation states of people who contribute to the net is still a burning question. Only last week, the Russian government published the list of Wikipedia pages they intend to blacklist. The action comes as part of a new law passed last year that spawned protests and the Russian Wikipedia blackout last July. The law allows "extrajudicial blacklisting of web content deemed to be promoting suicide, pedophilia or drug use", according to the state-owned news agency, RIA Novosti.
Wikimedia chapter staff changes: The national Wikimedia chapter in Israel has announced the appointment of an executive director, Dorit Shafir Dyamant. At the same time, Wikimedia Switzerland has three new hires, including a Chief Information Officer/Event Manager, German-speaking Community manager, and a Italian-speaking Community/GLAM manager. Details of their duties is available in the announcements.
Requests for adminship: There have been no legitimate requests for adminship since 31 March, but a new Admin Nominators WikiProject has been formed to "[support] editors who are interested in acting as nominators for potential administrators".