Business Technology

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Chairman of Wikipedia charity banned after pornography row

Wikipedia has around 90,000 active contributors
Wikipedia has around 90,000 active contributors

Christopher Williams

THE chairman of the charity that promotes Wikipedia in Britain has been banned from editing the online encyclopaedia, following a series of clashes over the inclusion of pornography.

Ashley Van Haeften is chairman of Wikimedia UK, a charity with an £1m annual budget funded by donations by Wikipedia visitors and dedicated to promoting the website among British museums and universities.

Despite his volunteer role at the head of the charity he is now banned indefinitely from contributing to Wikipedia because of “numerous violations of Wikipedia's norms and policies”.

Mr van Haeften’s punishment exposes a deep rift among Wikipedia contributors over the mass of explicit material in the online encyclopaedia, at a time when the Government is developing new controls on internet access to protect children online.

David Cameron has backed plans to force broadband subscribers to “opt in” if they want to access adult material, potentially limiting access to Wikipedia, the world’s sixth-most-visited website.

ArbCom, the elected committee of senior Wikipedia administrators who adjudicate on disputes among contributors, found that Mr van Haeften mounted personal attacks on people with concerns about explicit material on Wikipedia, including material he posted. He was criticised for including a “highly inappropriate” link to pornography in the biography of a living person, one of the most contentious classes of Wikipedia page.

Mr van Haeften, who works as an IT project manager, was also found to have violated a series of editing rules, including by using multiple accounts to change pages after he had asked for a “clean start”.

The Wikimedia UK chairman even fell out with Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia. Mr Wales recently told Mr van Haeften to “permanently stay off” his profile page after a discussion about explicit material on Wikipedia became “unnecessarily hostile”.

“Your false insinuations about other users, and badgering responses, are exactly what stand in the way of thoughtful progress on this and related issues,” Mr Wales said.

Mr van Haeften told ArbCom he had been the target of a campaign of homophobic harassment by people who discovered bondage images he uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, a repository of photographs and videos used on Wikipedia. The committee agreed he had been subject to a “campaign of criticism and some harassment”, but said he had “failed to differentiate between those who are harassing him, and those with good-faith concerns”.

Although he can no longer contribute to the main website Wikimedia UK aims to promote, the charity’s board offered its “full support” to Mr van Haeften following a meeting held last week in secret.

“The board is united in the view that this decision does not affect his role as a trustee of the charity,” it said.

“His work at Wikimedia UK has always been enthusiastic and diligent. In particular, his knowledge of charity governance, and his ability to bring about consensus at Wikimedia UK’s board meetings, have been particularly valuable.”

Mr van Haeften can appeal against the ban after six months and is still able to contribute to non-English versions of Wikipedia.

But the incident will fuel debate over Wikipedia’s permissive policy on pornography. Fundraising materials boast that Wikipedia “is a safe and trustworthy website for children to do their research”, yet Wikimedia Commons makes massive volumes of pornography freely available to any Wikipedia visitor.

Mr van Haeften was not banned for posting explicit material, but for where he posted it, his reaction to criticism for doing so and violations of editing rules.

Larry Sanger, who co-founded Wikipedia with Mr Wales in 2001, has highlighted the issue in a YouTube video showing how easy it is for anyone to access pornography on Wikipedia, including via its “schools gateway”. Even searching for benign terms can throw up explicit material by accident.

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