The city attorney of Durham, North Carolina, attempted to coax the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) to reveal the identities of three editors and to prohibit the placement of certain verifiable and truthful content on Wikipedia pages of city officials, Indy Week and The News and Observer report.
A letter, dated June 29, outlined three complaints about content on Wikipedia. Two of the complaints pertained to coverage of a council member's alleged attempted extortion of a developer, while the third related to an image depicting the signature of the mayor of Durham. The letter requested that the Wikimedia foundation remove the image and bar users from uploading it on Wikimedia projects, and requested the names and identities of the various editors who added the text and/or image content to Wikipedia.
Recent months have been a tumultuous time for Durham's seven-member city council. In March, Elaine M. O'Neal, the mayor of Durham, publicly read an allegation that a Durham city council member (subsequently identified as Monique Holsey-Hyman) had extorted a developer for campaign contributions. The aftermath of the meeting was testy, with the public able to hear shouting between officials, despite them being out of public view. An eyewitness interviewed by Indy Week alleged that Durham council member DeDreana Freeman had attempted to strike Durham Mayor-pro tempore and council member Mark-Anthony Middleton during the shouting session, but instead struck O'Neal once and punched the head of fellow Durham council member Leonardo Williams twice before Williams subdued her. In the aftermath of these incidents, O'Neal announced that she would not seek re-election as Mayor, and a state investigation was opened into the extortion allegation (Holsey-Hyman denies the alleged extortion attempt and a separate allegation that she ordered city employees to perform campaign work on her behalf).
For making edits to the Wikipedia entries about certain figures implicated in this scandal, the letter requested the identities ofand . The entries contained unflattering information about the public officials at the time of the letter's sending, but the entries were well-sourced; Indy Week reports that the entries' descriptions of the scandal were written "without any apparent factual error and with links to news articles as references".
Several figures have publicly expressed concerns about the sending of the letter. Barry Saunders, a member of the editorial board of The News and Observer, wrote that, "[u]nless the Wikipedia posts were egregiously wrong—and there's no evidence that they were—the three Durham officials should have taken a page, when it came to criticism, from the title of the 1970s hit by the band Bachman-Turner Overdrive: let it ride .... Few voters, though, will forgive attempts to silence critics".
Duke University law professor Stuart Benjamin was taken aback by the letter. He told The News and Observer, "I understand why public officials do not want unflattering information published about them, but it is deeply troubling that any public official tried to unmask someone who posted this accurate information."
David Larson, opinion editor of The Carolina Journal, concurred. "[T]his attempt to intimidate anonymous people online for daring to discuss real but unflattering details of your political service is the stuff of dysfunctional regimes", he wrote.
The WMF, for its part, told Indy Week that it is "strongly committed to protecting the privacy of editors and users on Wikimedia projects".
The letter, signed by city attorney Kimberly Rehberg, also states that she had removed the image of the signature from the Wikipedia article about Elaine M. O'Neal on June 28. This checks out; that article was edited on that day by a user named , and Kimlynn69 wrote a message to that identified herself as "Kimberly M. Rehberg" and as the city attorney of Durham. As it had for the editors who touched content relating to the scandal of the March 23 meeting, the letter had also requested Johnson524's name and identity as well.
In response to Rehberg's message, Johnson524 explained that he had obtained the signature from Durham Performing Arts Center playbills. Indy Week reports that, following Johnson's reply to the message, Rehberg said in an email "there is little legal basis to demand that Wiki reveal the identity of the User or prohibit the upload of a photo of the signature to the Mayor's Wiki page".
The mayor, per an email obtained by Indy Week, was unsatisfied with Rehberg's reply. O'Neal told Rehberg that her request to send the letter to the WMF "still stands"; Rehberg said in an email sent later that day that the letter had been sent. Despite this, the letter may have never actually arrived at its intended destination. The WMF told Indy Week that they had not received the letter and that the letter that had been made public contained an incorrect postal address for the WMF's headquarters. Rehberg, meanwhile, told Indy Week that the letter had only been sent by physical mail.
The Signpost reached out to Johnson524 following the publication of Rehberg's letter. "I was so happy to see an outpouring of support from the Wikipedia community from editors who have been around longer than I have," he wrote: "I have always valued that Wikimedia has also never succumbed to external powers—and has continued to fight for a world of free information: whether that be not to take down/severely censor their project in Russia, to campaign for those jailed editors in Saudi Arabia, or even just go against unjust decisions by local governments here in the U.S."
He remained, however, displeased with the mayor's handling of the situation. "I would have even put it past the mayor Elaine O'Neal if she went back on her statement after I explained how I got the signature publicly, but since she doubled down on her attempt to try to 'unmask' me and two other editors after without really any prior contact, I am glad she will not be running for mayor again, because I don't think how this situation was handled was right at all", he wrote. – R
(For further coverage of this story see this issue's In the media.)
Vladimir Medeyko (User:Drbug), the former head of Wikimedia Russia and founder of the Russian government-approved Ruwiki fork, has been "banned indefinitely by the Wikimedia Foundation from editing all Wikimedia sites". Medeyko had previously been blocked indefinitely on the Russian Wikipedia, following a discussion at the Russian Wikipedia's Administrators' Noticeboard, as well as on Commons, where the reason given was –
Long-term abuse: creating a Wikipedia fork which includes stolen content from Commons as well
France is working on a tech bill to regulate the entire online environment [...,] the projet de loi visant à sécuriser et réguler l'espace numérique (SREN). There are several problematic articles and aspects in the proposal that would change how content moderation on [Wikimedia] projects works. Such examples are provisions aiming to keep links to 'banned' media off websites (think Russia Today) or an obligation to not allow banned users from re-registering (which would require some sort of background check on all new registrations).
The report also calls attention to "Italy['s] Crusade Against the Public Domain", referring the country's efforts "to restrict and get paid for re-use of public domain material" such as Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. – H
The Wikimedia Foundation has launched an instance on the federated social network Mastodon, at https://wikimedia.social/ (for technical reasons, it was not possible to use a wikimedia.org domain). According to a July 17 announcement on Wikimedia-l,
At the moment, sign-up is open for Wikimedia Foundation staff as we examine moderation and other areas. Product and technology staff will use it primarily for developer engagement. The goal is to create a space for people to connect and talk tech.
At the time of writing (July 30), the server lists 72 active users, although its directory of recently active local users shows only five who have posted. The Foundation's own @wikimediafoundation account leads, with 14 posts, and has already gained over 5,000 followers – undoubtedly helped by a Hacker News post that made it (close) to the top of that site's front page.
The announcement comes amid continuing concerns about Twitter (where the corresponding @wikimedia account remains active, although viewing a list of its recent tweets currently requires registration, due to recent changes by X née Twitter). In late 2022, suggestions that the Foundation should mirror the official Wikipedia Twitter account (run by its Communications department) on Mastodon had fallen flat. This later motivated the creation of a community-run Wikipedia account on the Wikis World Mastodon server in April 2023 (see our coverage: "Wikipedia gains an official presence on Mastodon ... without the Wikimedia Foundation's involvement" and "Who speaks for Wikipedia? Mastodon accreditation reverted"). At the time of writing, it continues to be active, with 16K followers and a verified checkmark, while requests by WMF staff "to change the name of the account [from @wikipedia] to 'Wikipedia movement', 'Wikipedia volunteers', 'Wikipedia worldwide', or something similar" remain unheeded. – H