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Editorial: The loss of the moral high ground

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By Adam Cuerden
This article was originally meant to be published in the 26 July 2010 issue, but got pulled due to fears of controversy. In this new feature, we're going to republish some of the more interesting of the Signpost's lost articles. The views in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Wikipedia Signpost or the Wikimedia Foundation as a whole.
The image of Muhammad singled out in the 2008 petition. 17th-century copy of a 14th-century original. Deemed acceptable for Wikipedia.

As covered in last week's Signpost, the Acehnese Wikipedia has erupted in controversy over images of Muhammad hosted on Commons.

This is by no means a new debate. In 2006, the article on the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy was featured on the main page, and caused significant controversy for including the cartoons. In 2008, a petition to delete images of Muhammad circulated. However, as long-standing policy stated, like Wikipedia itself, our image host, Wikimedia Commons, is not censored. That it could cause offense was not sufficient to remove an image.

Amongst those advocating for this view was Jimbo Wales. cited his free speech advocacy, and stated that "we can not deviate from our goals to accommodate [those governments who would force Wikipedia to be censored]."

However, the current petition comes after we have lost some of the moral authority we once had.

An artwork personally deleted by Jimbo Wales: An art deco image of lesbians by noted illustrator Franz von Bayros.

Jimbo Wales, out of fear of a media attack, led by Fox News, about allegations of pornography on Wikipedia, instituted a massive deletion of content from Commons, including many examples of artwork by notable artists. For example, the artwork to the right, by Franz von Bayros, was personally deleted by Jimbo, who even edit warred to keep it deleted. On being challenged about this deletion, Wales wrote:

He also deleted several works by major artists, for example, File:Félicien_Rops_-_Sainte-Thérèse.png by Félicien Rops, and numerous line art illustrations used to illustrate articles on sexual content.

Only long after these deletions were done did he state his reasons:

It wasn't even effective: Fox News shortly thereafter posted an article attacking Wikipedia.

If Wikipedia is going to sacrifice its moral high ground and neutrality – for saying that things offensive to Fox News are worth mass deletion sprees including historic artwork, but that the complaints of Muslims are not, is highly non-neutral – we should not sell ourselves cheap. We recently did, and only the effective loss of all Jimbo Wales' powers over his actions leaves us any moral high ground at all. This petition is much harder to deal with, as we have shown that, yes, we will give into pressure – but only if it comes from our mainstream Western culture.

Looking back at this from 2023, it's hard to say what was learned: after Jimbo gave up most of his founder privileges, the matter kind of just... died out. Most of the images deleted were restored, though, unfortunately, deleting images means they get removed from articles, so whether all the article usages ever got dealt with is very unclear. Later in 2010, we reported, quoting a dead link that appears to be the same as or very similar to this article in the The Sydney Morning Herald:
I guess everyone just decided we should pretend all of this never happened?
I honestly think these events were important to Wikipedia's history, though: This was when WP:NOTCENSORED got tested. He even edit-warred to try and keep images deleted. Had Jimbo won out, years of saying that images of Muhammad shouldn't be censored would have blown up in our faces. Because Jimbo made us lose the high ground, but the hundreds of people who fought against him regained it.
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"...original illustrations of children engaged in sexual acts... Sanger referred to an early 20th century colored illustration of a young girl performing oral sex on a much older man. Its caption reads: “If Mom returns? She'll tell you that it's very rude to talk with your mouth full." The image is accessible via Wikipedia's article on "Pedophilia," at the bottom of which is an image with a link directing readers: "Wikimedia Commons has media related to Pedophilia.” The link takes you to a page that contains 25 to 30 explicit and detailed drawings of children performing sexual acts. In a May 6 2010 discussion, Wales spoke specifically about the above image and others in the “pedophilia” and “zoophilia” categories (the latter includes illustrations of children engaged in sex acts with animals)."

There is a very good reason: As far as I can tell None of the works Jimbo deleted in 2010 had anything to do with children or animals.. Here is a list of every file Jimbo deleted. If you can spot a single child or bestiality image in there... Adam Cuerden (talk)Has about 8.2% of all FPs. Currently celebrating his 600th FP! 23:35, 20 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
@FeralOink: Basically, there's literally zero evidence he deleted a single image on grounds that it was illegal or immoral. I don't think we have the works Sanger commented on anymore - but that has nothing to do with Wales' deletion spree. It's hard to check now - and I'm not sure I'd want to - but I believe all such images were deleted long before Wales began his attack on adult sexuality. We can argue about whether what he did delete should have been, but as far as I can tell it falls into the following categories:
  1. Artworks, mainly by van Bayros, who, while explicit, is showing consentual adults.
  2. Illustrations of sexual acts for articles on them, all of which are for adults
  3. Explicit pictures of adults
  4. Adult pornographic content.
It may be that some of it - especially from the latter two categories - would have been deleted as out of scope in a deletion discussion. But there's literally nothing in the list that I can see that could justify the extreme breaking of procedures.
Sanger's complaint may have been valid - I can't and don't want to see what was deleted in response to his complaint - but it doesn't have the slightest bit to do with Wales's actions. Adam Cuerden (talk)Has about 8.2% of all FPs. Currently celebrating his 600th FP! 23:39, 20 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
You have no idea whether or not Wales deleted any child porn, because child pornography images are expunged from Wikimedia servers; it's illegal to store them in any way. Deleted and suppressed files/images/articles/other pages remain on the servers, in case you weren't aware, even if they aren't viewable by the general public; therefore, when expunged, it is likely that any record of the existence of those "documents" is also expunged. That would include deletion, undeletion and suppression logs, as I understand. It is my recollection that there were indeed quite a few images that could have been perceived as child porn that were involved in that deletion effort. Risker (talk) 07:37, 21 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
Possible, but Wales never said anything about it at the time that I can see, and quite a lot about wanting to remove sexuality in general. I can't prove it, but as I remember, people were pointing out at the time that he was utterly ignoring anything related to that but mass deleting adult sexual content and artworks. Adam Cuerden (talk)Has about 8.2% of all FPs. Currently celebrating his 600th FP! 15:11, 21 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
Commons still hosts explicit drawings by Martin van Maële depicting child sexual abuse and bestiality today. There is even a well-stocked Commons category "Erotic activities involving children", and some of the drawings are fairly widely used in Wikipedia mainspace. I guess WMF lawyers must have decided they can be legally hosted. Andreas JN466 13:37, 21 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
Here is my summary based on the public records: Hatemongering groups made false claims that Wikipedia was hosting inappropriate content. The Wikimedia Foundation through its representatives deleted certain content, and their process included making accusations and attacks against content which Wikimedia community consensus has deemed appropriate for hosting in the platform, including media for the arts, sexual education, erotica, and pornography. The long-lasting harms from this include lowered reputation of the Wikimedia community in the public imagination, disenfranchisement of Wikimedia community members as participants in our democratic system, censorship to align with arbitrary morals which the community rejects, and false Wikimedia Foundation claims that they as an organization have the right to conflict with and override the Wikimedia community's judgements on matters of ethics and values.
LGBT+ people are attacked from all directions by organizations which attack expressions of sexuality, gender, and freedom of expression. My opinion is that the Wikimedia Foundation's behavior in this case is rightly described as homophobia, and the correct response for any future such situation would be respect for community stakeholders through a community conversation process which the Wikimedia community itself confirmed was without power disparity.
Always say NO to anyone speaking on behalf of minority groups! Let the people speak for themselves! Bluerasberry (talk) 19:21, 21 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
It is notable that the only non-Wikipedian artworks Jimbo deleted were related to lesbians and female sexuality. But that's often how censorship works: LGBT works get much stricter scrutiny. Adam Cuerden (talk)Has about 8.2% of all FPs. Currently celebrating his 600th FP! 19:50, 21 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
@FeralOink: I think each person who looks at the currently available discussion and records will come to different conclusions about what happened. I reiterate that I both see LGBT+ content in the collection, and I perceive the significant and conscious absence of LGBT+ engagement in the issue. Few people want to enter a discussion which major media sources and the Wikimedia Foundation itself have labelled as child exploitation.
This comment section is not the place to sort it. At any time in the future, if and when Wikipedia is of interest to journalists or researchers in media studies or gender studies, then I think there is more to tell about this story even with contemporary examination of the available records. The story that I would want to tell is 1) the wiki community sincerely and effectively creates and upholds ethical standards and 2) it is not the place of external powers to swoop in, claim authority, and circumvent the community's ethical review process. The wiki community way is transparency and public discussion; it was the WMF choice in this case to avoid that. Transparency and frank discussion would still make this occurrence better. Bluerasberry (talk) 13:17, 27 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
  1. Sometime in March or April 2010, Larry Sanger made a formal complaint to the FBI, about child porn on Wikimedia servers that was then included in Wikipedia articles.
  2. On 27 April 2010, Fox News published a news report about it.
  3. On 7 May 2010, Fox reported that Jimmy Wales and Wikimedia officials were assessing and deleting pornographic images of children from WMF servers. I found evidence of Jimmy Wales deleting some adult sex photos, a few instructional images contributed by Flying Lady (I forgot her user name, but she died about a year or two ago), a few drawings of adolescent males masturbating, as well as some photos of adult females being physically beaten that were Wikipedia-editor contributed, and a few naked images of possibly 14 year old to 21 year old women posing on beaches etc. Fox didn't report at that level of detail.
  4. On 10 May 2010, Fox wrote the last of its three part series on the subject. That is not consistent with The Signpost's description of a single Fox News article on 10 May 2010, "attacking Wikimedia".
Thanks for sharing clarification. 💙 Bluerasberry (talk) 13:22, 27 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]


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