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Online Safety Bill: Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia UK launch open letter

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By Tilman Bayer and Andreas Kolbe

Foundation and British chapter launch last-ditch attempt to get Wikipedia exempted from the UK's sweeping "Online Safety Bill"

On June 29, Wikimedia UK and the Wikimedia Foundation published an open letter (accompanied by social media campaign) asking the UK government and parliament to exempt "public interest projects" – such as Wikipedia – from the proposed Online Safety Bill. The chapter states in an accompanying Medium post that

"[the OSB's] requirements around content moderation, age-gating, and user verification are incompatible with the way in which information on Wikipedia is created and curated, as well as the website’s commitment to user privacy and freedom of speech. ... As it is currently written, the Online Safety Bill could require the Wikimedia Foundation to collect data about Wikipedia users’ identities, track their actions, intervene in their editing processes, and interfere with their ability to set and enforce rules for what constitutes well-sourced neutral content about a given subject. Such requirements are counter to Wikipedia’s editorial guidelines and policies, as well as its privacy policy."

In a post on the Public Policy mailing list, the WMF's Global Advocacy team put the open letter in context of previous efforts (see our previous reporting) and stressed its timeliness:

"In December 2022, Wikimedia UK and the Wikimedia Foundation began outreach to British regulators to educate them on how our projects work and how the Online Safety Bill would threaten them. Over the last several months, we ramped up our advocacy efforts as the bill was debated in the House of Lords. We successfully convinced key Lords and Baronesses to support our proposed amendments and built public and media attention, but the UK Government has resisted making the necessary changes.

Our best chance of protecting Wikipedia is to persuade the UK Government to exempt public interest projects from the OSB, so we’ve written this open letter and formed a coalition of signatories. The list is a testament to the network of allies that WMUK has established over years of promoting free knowledge in the UK. If the government fails to act, our last chance to push this exemption to protect Wikipedia is with Parliament during the Bill’s “Report Stage” voting, starting on 6 July."

The public statements of both organizations are (perhaps understandably) short on concrete examples of how the new law might require WMF to "intervene in [the community's] editing processes, and interfere with their ability to set and enforce rules for what constitutes well-sourced neutral content about a given subject". But it is not hard to imagine that it might become difficult to maintain the "Wikipedia is not censored" principle in its current form, were Wikipedia and its sister projects to continue to remain accessible in the UK in non-age-gated form. The current situation – where the Foundation largely relies on the volunteer editing community to set and enforce content rules on potentially offensive or sexual content – is informed by extensive controversies over a decade ago. See the Signpost's previous reporting: "Foundation commissions external recommendations about objectionable material " (2010), "2010 in review", "'Personal image filter' to offer the ability to hide sexual or violent media" (2011), "News and notes", July 16, 2012 ("At Wikimania the board formally acknowledged the divisiveness of the filter, rescinding its request for the development of the filter mechanism while reaffirming the general principles it had espoused concerning controversial content").

What's more, Wikimedia UK's FAQ argues that one major problem of the bill is its vagueness, giving broad powers to regulators and the executive to decide on concrete requirements and update them in the future:

The offices of the "Office of Communications" (Ofcom, next to Southwark Bridge in London), which the Online Safety Bill would authorize to issue rules for sites like Wikipedia and "force [them] to use content filtering and user blocking technologies, without a judge"

As the Bill stands, PIPs [public interest projects, such as Wikipedia] will be required to understand and apply this new 260-page law, which imposes at least 29(3) new and often onerous legal duties. Worse still, as a "skeleton" (or "future proofed framework" law), the Bill's full impact on PIPs will only become clear to them once they have also mastered dozens of additional "implementation" rules, guidelines and Codes of Practice that will be issued by Ofcom and the Secretary of State.


The Bill's clearest requirements are often the most problematic for PIPs: for example, even "citizen history" and "open science" projects will be required to perform statutory assessments of their impact on (i) illegal immigration; (ii) operation of unlicensed crossbow rental businesses; (iii) selling stolen goods; (iv) controlling prostitutes; (v) and displaying words contrary to the Public Order Act 1986 (among many other "Priority offences") (clause 8(5), read with Schedule 7).

The Bill may even subject the more widely-used PIPs to a new duty to submit annual earnings and userbase statistics to Ofcom, so that Ofcom can, if it sees fit to do so, charge that PIP a new "fee" — in essence, a tax to operate in the UK (Clauses 74-77). Ofcom is also given the power to force PIPs to use content filtering and user blocking technologies, without a judge. Those same "proactive technology requirement" powers have already attracted widespread criticism for threatening the privacy and confidentiality of WhatsApp and Signal conversations.

Noncompliance exposes PIPs to serious fines, UK blocking orders, and even staff imprisonment.


New Elections Committee

Wikimedia Foundation board member Nataliia Tymkiv

Wikimedia Foundation board member Nataliia Tymkiv has advised the community on the Wikimedia-l mailing list that the Wikimedia Foundation Governance Committee has appointed a new Elections Committee:

To recap the process: there was an open nomination period for 2–4 open seats on the Elections Committee from April 10 to April 24 (Anywhere on Earth). 11 candidates applied, and you can read all applications on Meta. After that, staff checked their documents (proof of identity), and if there are any trust & safety concerns. Some candidates opted to not move forward.

Once the first checks were completed, I interviewed each candidate in an hour-long interview where I asked the same questions of each candidate – including if they would be willing to be an advisory member of the committee if they are not selected as a member (this is a non-voting role). Each candidate was also given time to ask questions of me. After the interviews, I provided a confidential summary of the discussions to the Governance Committee and continuing members of the Elections Committee with a recommended slate of Members and Advisory members. Both committees provided feedback before the Governance Committee officially appointed the Elections committee on June 20. Many factors went into determining the committee composition, for example we tried to balance languages, regions, projects, relevant onwiki and offwiki experience.

In parallel the members of the Elections Committee, whose term ended on March 31, 2023, were asked if they wanted to stay on. Four of them decided to continue as voting members for the next term, and one – as a non-voting advisor. I am grateful to the outgoing Elections Committee members for all the work done in the past to support the process.

The committee consists of 8 members and 5 non-voting advisory members.

Committee members
Name Languages Location (time zone) Term ends
AbhiSuryawanshi en, hi, mr, pa, bn, bho, ur, kok Various timezones 2026
Ameisenigel de-N, en-4, nds-2, fr-1, tlh-1 Germany (UTC+1) 2026
Carlojoseph14 tl, en-5, es-1, ceb-1 Philippines (UTC+8) 2026
Der-Wir-Ing de-N, en-4, fr-3 Germany (UTC+1) 2026
Emufarmers en-N, la-2 United States of America (UTC-4) 2026
HakanIST tr, en-4, az-3, es-2, de-1 Turkey (UTC+3) 2026
KTC, Committee Chair en-N, yue-N London, England (UTC+1) 2026
Mervat en-4, ar-N Jordan (UTC+3) 2026
Advisory members
Name Languages Location (time zone) Term ends
Arcuscloud bjn-N, id-N, en-3 Indonesia (UTC+7) 2024
Guerillero en-N, fr-1.5, da-0.5 Denmark (UTC+1) 2024
Matanya en, he Israel (UTC+2) 2024
Nealmcb en-N, eo-2, es-1 United States of America (UTC-7) 2024
ThadeusOfNazereth en-N United States of America (UTC-8) 2024


Wikimedia Europe convenes for the first time

Group photo at the WMEU general assembly

On June 9–10, Wikimedia Europe held its first general assembly in-person in Prague. It was founded in July 2022 by various European Wikimedia chapters and other affiliates, and currently has three employees. In March 2023, Brussels was chosen as its legal seat – perhaps unsurprisingly, as it is the de facto capital of the European Union, and WMEU is building on the work of the Free Knowledge Advocacy Group EU.

Among other things, Wikimedia Europe has taken over the publication of the monthly EU policy monitoring reports. The May 2023 report highlights a successful effort by Wikimedia France to get "not for profit online encyclopaedias and not for profit educational and scientific repositories" exempted from a planned law in France that would require online platforms to age-gate their content. In an ensuing discussion on the Public Policy mailing list, Luis Villa raised concern about a "now-ongoing stream of exceptions for 'online encyclopedias'" (an approach that was previously used in the EU Copyright Directive, which Wikipedia blackouts and mass demonstrations had failed to stop on a wider basis). WMEU's Dimi Dimitrov (long known as "Our Man in Brussels") responded that a more general exception had been "not feasible in France", and also addressed the question whether all sister projects would be covered ("Meta-Wiki is what I worry about. I have no answers on this"). What's more, he pointed out that legislative efforts around age restrictions are not confined to France (see also separate story about the UK's Online Safety Bill, above):

I understand that the discussions around controversial content, especially on Commons, have never been easy and we have never managed to get to a consensus. Don't get me wrong, I would also prefer to not change anything. I am not advocating for content-gating solutions with lawmakers. But I want to have this very difficult discussion, not avoid it. The world is changing and age-gating will be a huge legislative topic in the years to come. I guarantee you that.


Brief notes

The tradition of showing appreciation to Wikipedia editors with virtual barnstars is almost as old as our community itself. On Ukrainian Wikipedia, volunteer editors have adapted this custom by giving out virtual – and even real – tins of condensed milk.
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