The Signpost


Wikipedia policy suppresses sharing of information

This article written by the Signpost editorial board.

Recent prominent events and decisions on English Wikipedia have focused on what information, published elsewhere on the web, can be appropriately republished or linked on Wikipedia itself. Such questions about information and ethics are essential to any serious effort to organize and publish information. Here at the Signpost, we aim to present debates like this to our readership, and offer analysis to help our readers track the progress of various discussions, and participate more effectively.

Typically, the proper role of the Signpost is not to take a position, but to offer a platform for exploration and reflection. In July 2016, for instance, we ran an op-ed piece from Wikipedian Doc James, who argued in favor of permitting the republication of information that is already public; and in the spirit of a healthy and diverse discourse, we would gladly run essays arguing otherwise, provided they are rooted in an exploration of what will help Wikipedia thrive.

On this topic, however, our relationship to Wikipedia is more complex. Wikipedia is not merely the subject matter of the Signpost; it is also the platform on which the publication rests. For us to play a useful role in sharing information and stimulating discourse about Wikipedia, we must be able to link to relevant source material; our writers and editors must be able to speak without fear of retaliation or censure. As with all publications, our ability to inform our readership relies on freedom of the press. We must regard any policy or enforcement that might have a chilling effect on our contributors’ words as a potential threat to our core purpose.

Wikipedia's policies on no personal attacks and harassment contain language that if strictly interpreted would severely impede our ability to bring you the news; and recent discussions suggest that strict interpretation is to be expected. As of this writing, Wikipedia’s harassment policy states (emphasis added):

Posting another editor's personal information is harassment, unless that person had voluntarily posted his or her own information, or links to such information, on Wikipedia. Personal information includes legal name, date of birth, identification numbers, home or workplace address, job title and work organisation, telephone number, email address, other contact information, or photograph, whether any such information is accurate or not. Posting such information about another editor is an unjustifiable and uninvited invasion of privacy and may place that editor at risk of harm outside their activities on Wikipedia. This applies to the personal information of both editors and non-editors.

Like any news outlet, the Signpost routinely publishes quotations from, and links to, a wide variety of materials on the web, including personal web pages, blog posts, press releases, affiliate sites, and wikis other than English Wikipedia. In many cases—and for no nefarious purpose—those public pages contain information that the definition above would categorize as “personal”, though Wikipedia policy may be the only framework that categorizes it that way. Thus, if the Signpost is to carefully adhere to a strict interpretation of current Wikipedia policy, we are forced to curtail the quantity and quality of information we offer our readers.

This state of affairs is not desirable for any news outlet that hopes to keep its readers informed. In the short term, we will append a short message, linking to this editorial, to the bottom of any story in which we must compromise our intended words to comply with Wikipedia policy. In the longer term, we look forward to a day when Wikipedia’s policies can adequately protect individuals’ genuine privacy interests while simultaneously supporting various legitimate discussions involving identity and related topics.

The Signpost loses and gains a co-editor-in-chief

User:Go Phightins! is stepping down from his position as the Signpost's co-editor-in-chief today:

It is not without a degree of disappointment that today I announce that effective immediately, I will be stepping down as co-editor-in-chief of the Signpost. My tenure has lasted 18 months, but due to real-life obligations, there have been prolonged droughts where I have been barely able or not at all able to contribute. It is not fair to the remainder of the team that produces this publication for me to continue to hold a title without contributing my fair share. Therefore, now is a good time for me to step back. I plan to continue to advise and contribute as I can in the future, but will do so in a reduced capacity.

I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to The ed17 for offering me (a.k.a. dragooning me) to take on this responsibility in January 2015, Rob for serving with me for most of this tenure and taking on a lion's share of the publication process, Tony for his unwavering support of the publication's goals and reliable reporting as one of our most prolific writers, the entire Signpost editorial board for their consistent work in churning out issue after issue, and especially Andreas for his willingness to be drafted into service on this project and his huge body of work maintaining it.

My sincerest hope is that the publication continues on its current upward trajectory while attracting new blood to help give those who have been longstanding contributors a break to avoid burnout.

To that end, it is with surpassing pleasure that we announce that Pete Forsyth will be joining us as our new co-editor-in-chief. Pete has been a Wikipedian since 2006, and has covered Wikipedia happenings in the Signpost, and in news outlets from USA Today to the blogs of Creative Commons and the Wikimedia Foundation. We are excited to have him join us in this official capacity.

As always, we are eager for new contributors, and now is a great time to consider whether joining The Signpost team is something you are willing to do. Please contact Rosiestep if that's something you would be interested in doing.

Thank you for your continued loyal readership!


Ben Go Phightins!

Thank you, Ben, for your many years of service to the Signpost. I am delighted that you will continue to be a member of the Signpost editorial board, and contribute as and when time allows.

I am equally delighted to welcome Pete Forsyth as my new co-editor-in-chief. Pete brings outstanding smarts, insight and experience to the position, and I couldn't have wished for a better replacement. I look forward to our work together, covering news in and around the Wikimedia world. AK

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Yes the community has weighted in and the legal department at the WMF has also weighed in. The position of some functionaries; however is not that supported by either the majority of the community or legal. I guess the question is what should we be doing about this. Doc James (talk · contribs · email) 11:59, 5 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]
@Doc James: That is only the most recent instance of a larger Signpost argument. The Signpost has been trying to claim freedom of the press in an effort to bash living people in joke articles and are using a COI instance to further their point.--v/r - TP 19:25, 5 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • Please stop pretending that The Signpost is a newspaper, that its contributors are journalists, or that freedom of the press is impinged by not being able to use it as a platform to harass other Wikipedians through outing. You do yourselves, and real journalists, a grave disservice. That said; congratulations to Pete Forsyth, and thanks to Go Phightins! for all your efforts. - Ryk72 'c.s.n.s.' 06:15, 5 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • I'm also somewhat surprised by the claim that the Signpost is traditionally neutral in discussions of Wikipedia policies. I'd say that the opposite is actually the case. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be best to acknowledge that the Signpost's coverage of discussions of policies typically reflects its author(s)' views - while it's true that editorials on policies are rare, the Signpost frequently publishes rather opinionated news articles. Nick-D (talk) 06:34, 5 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • Perhaps it's time for the Signpost to be published off-wiki? BethNaught (talk) 08:11, 5 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • Signpost operates within Wikipedia, which has rules composed for an encyclopedia and a community of encyclopedia writers/editors. The rules are not intended to accommodate things like freedom of the press, as Wikipedia is not "the press" in the sense of journalism, news, etc., regardless of how it appears to function sometimes (e.g. coverage of developing current events). I get the frustration, but as much as I like the Signpost, what it needs should never be a reason to change the rules that apply to the whole site. Publishing a community member's opinion about this or that policy because of the impact on the encyclopedia or on the community is typically a good thing, and Doc's recent piece did just that, but it seems problematic to also use the platform to opine about and/or influence policy based on what's best for the Signpost itself or its editors. That's not to say I agree or disagree with the underlying ideas, of course. Riffing off BethNaught's suggestion above, you could also go partially off-wiki for some of the content that might be either problematic or perhaps out of scope for the on-wiki version. I'd read. It would be nice to see more off-wiki content about the community that's neither in opposition to the community nor just a single person's opinions (which are fine, but, of course, not the same thing). — Rhododendrites talk \\ 13:39, 5 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]
    • There is also an obvious disparity between how we treat editors, or potential editors, and how we treat biography subjects (who may also be – or become – editors, at least of their own biographies). For example, taking "workplace address, job title and work organisation" (listed in WP:Outing as the sort of personal information that must not be posted, unless self-disclosed on Wikipedia), Wikipedians generally have no qualms reporting in a biography that the subject works as a professor at a particular university, in a particular town, provided there are sources satisfying WP:V (which may include self-published sources). The way WP:Outing is currently framed, however, this is actually a policy violation punishable by a site ban. On the other hand, if we have a person who declares in a press release that he coordinates paid editing, then policy forbids us from mentioning who the person works for, even if they work for an editor who is banned, and whose present and future employees and agents have also been banned by the community.
    • Another problem is legal names. Their mention, too, is forbidden by policy, unless self-disclosed on Wikipedia. Now, what shall we do in a case like the Library project reviewed on this page? The press article names the name of someone involved in running the project ... if the name has not been disclosed by the person on Wikipedia, do we censor the name, and do we censor the link to the article that mentions the name? Really, if you follow the policy to the letter, you would hardly be able to write a biography on Wikipedia that includes any "personal information", except for such "personal information" as the biography subject has actually come here and disclosed on Wikipedia. We would only have autobiographies. The policy just hasn't been thought through. Andreas JN466 14:18, 5 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]

AFAICT, the stated purpose of Wikipedia is to create a neutrally worded encyclopedia about notable topics. As such, material which is not in furtherance of that goal may be restricted by Wikipedia. It is clear that such information as phone numbers and the like is not of long-term encyclopedia value, and that courts of proper and competent jurisdiction have held the same to be true. [1] gives the background on Brand's famed comment. "On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other." That quote is thus inapplicable here. Collect (talk) 14:54, 5 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]

  • Go Phightins!, thank you for all your good work; and I'm delighted to see Pete volunteering. And thank you Andreas for this well-written summary of recent news, and James for those links to the fascinating harrassment policy discussions. I'd missed those. Lane Rasberry's argument in the RFC is excellent. The Signpost provides a vital service to people like me who spend less time in Wikipedia's back room.
If you're worried the Signpost is biased in some way, nothing's stopping you from starting your own newspaper. I'd welcome it. But please don't constrain our press from responsibly reporting events inside and outside Wikipedia.
Signpost people, I'd really appreciate more frequent tweets, pointing to interesting current discussions, if you have the time and inclination. --Anthonyhcole (talk · contribs · email) 17:20, 5 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]

Thank you all for the comments and the congratulations. Throughout the years, I've always benefited from the Signpost, and I look forward to contributing to it more substantially going forward.

On the present editorial, three things seem to require clarification -- which probably speaks to our skill in composing it, as much as to the high intensity and strong opinions relating to this issue.

  1. The Signpost never expressed an opinion on this matter in a previous issue. For those speculating that publishing an op-ed equates to endorsing its author's views, you are mistaken. These pages will always be open to diverse opinions, but we can't publish columns that are not submitted.
  2. The Signpost has not endorsed any specific fix to the policy; we merely describe a problem with the policy as currently drafted.
  3. Certainly, hosting the Signpost is not part of Wikipedia's core purpose, and should not in itself be a factor in policy decisions. But values akin to freedom of the press are important to Wikipedia. Nearly every biography of a living person violates WP:OUTING as written. A good policy does not prohibit worthwhile everyday practices.

And Anthonyhcole, thanks for the note about tweeting links. I agree, it's something we should do more. We currently lack a social media editor; if we can fill that role, that should help. -Pete (talk) 20:12, 5 August 2016 (UTC) (ed.)[reply]

  • Pete, you're already making questionable comments if you believe every BLP violates WP:OUTING. Outing is about posting an editor's personal information or revealing the real person behind is pseudonym. Even articles about living people that also happen to be editors, the article isn't about the editor. It's about the person based on secondary sources about the person. It would be inappropriate to link an editor to a BLP, though.--v/r - TP 20:53, 5 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • BLP policy was originally intended to be about BIOGRAPHIES of LIVING PEOPLE, to insure that unsourced defamatory information did not appear at the top of the Google hit parade in WP biographies. Anti-Outing rules were originally intended to stop the OUTING and harassment of privacy-seeking WP editors. These are both noble enough goals. Of course, fanatics have expanded, expanded, expanded scope of their favorite hobby horses into written policy because those who don't share their obsessions aren't going to monitor policy pages 24/7 and its as easy as clicking save to morph A into B... To those worried about this obnoxious bureaucratic rules-creep I say: we still have the fundamental WP policy of IGNORE ALL RULES in our arsenal. If bureaucratic stupidity keeps you from improving the encyclopedia, use common sense and ignore it and do the right thing. Carrite (talk) 21:38, 5 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]
    • Well yes re IAR. But this debate was never about how the harassment policy affects BLP's - it very rarely does and where it does the issue gets addressed by editor common sense and consensus. What actually generated this debate is whether amateur sleuthing into the identities of undisclosed paid editors should be posted on-wiki. This viewpoint is born from genuine frustration at the lack of workable mechanisms to address the firehose of crap that undisclosed paid editors foist upon the encyclopaedia each day, in the form of corporate puff pieces and non-notable bios. Instead of dubious claims like BLP=outing or WP=muzzling of the press, let's focus on the original point which is that we need a useful, fast-moving mechanism for reporting and addressing breaches of our paid editing policy, handled with relative privacy so that incorrect claims don't damage the innocent. -- Euryalus (talk) 23:00, 5 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]
      • TParis, sounds like we basically agree on the principles involved. My point is that the policy, as quoted above, explicitly denies a distinction between editors and literally anybody else. So, there's work to do to bring the policy in line with the principles that we apparently agree on. It's not such a major point. It seems to me that the resistance on this page generally boils down to various assumptions that we're saying or implying things that we're actually not. As for WP:IAR, Carrite you make a good observation, and I agree that it's an important safeguard in cases like this; it's basically a clear statement that common sense should prevail. It's good we have that principle formalized, but it's something we should rely on as little as possible -- because it's always possible to improve our other policies to better serve the purpose of writing an encyclopedia. That's the point of this editorial. -Pete (talk) 03:01, 6 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]
  • From common sense, The Signpost must be governed by a slightly different set of policy/guidelines from WP articles, else it would directly fall foul of simple things like WP:OR. Seems not too difficult to come to consensus about what those differences should be, but suggest avoiding the thorny obvious one, for now, of outing. Widefox; talk 15:57, 6 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]

The freedom-of-press defeating wording of the NPA policy makes me think of two comparisons: first, the meta:copyright paranoia, and second, of the global terrorism-related security-vs-liberty debate. In all cases those cases it seems to that "good intentions" (be civil, respect law, prevent harm) are squashing other principles (freedom of press, illustrating encyclopedia, human rights) that are loosing because the latter are more public goods and/or have fewer parties interested in vocally defending them. Or are less "politically correct"/subject to populist endorsements. Anyway, as I said before, it is ridiculous that the Signpost should be prevented from reporting things are are clearly public information. Perhaps a solution would be to publish some articles on another site like meta where English Wikipedia policies have no reach. --Piotr Konieczny aka Prokonsul Piotrus| reply here 08:57, 7 August 2016 (UTC)[reply]


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