Saturday, June 28, 2008

ArbCom fumbles the ball

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

This has been an interesting day on Wikipedia, to say the least.

First, arbitrator FT2 made a post to the admin noticeboard, mentioning that "A large amount of work has been in progress by the Arbitration Committee, in the background, for a considerable time, to look at a number of systemic problems deemed of importance, and possible solutions," before unveiling a hidden arbitration case where Orangemarlin has been sanctioned in absentia. FT2 also created a June 2008 announcements page, covering proposals including a new ban review group delegated by arbcom, activation of a new view-deleted-pages userright, the potential appointment of new checkusers, clarifications of the committee's role, an unfinished work on the BLP enforcement guidelines, and pages on old problems regarding skilled edit warriors and the consensus process.

This was sure to make some waves, all by itself. Kirill Lokshin, another arbitrator, made a post to the admin noticeboard several hours later:
The announcements made today by FT2 (including both the Orangemarlin issue and the various other matters) were posted without the approval or prior knowledge of the Committee as a whole. Further, no formal proceeding, secret or otherwise, has taken place regarding Orangemarlin or any other editor named in that particular statement.

As far as I'm concerned, these announcements have no authority or binding weight whatsoever.
Obviously, at least one of these fine gentlemen is wrong. After a brief attempt to archive the thread, pending news from the committee, the frenzied discussion moved to Wikipedia:Administrators' noticeboard/Orangemarlin and other matters. Given the unfortunate lack of concrete information, many confused and upset users immediately leapt into the fray with supposition and guesswork. Popular theories have supposed that one or both arbitrators have gone rogue, or that some effort is underway to destroy FT2's credibility. My theory is that we have a serious failure of communication.

This would not be the first time arbcom's penchant for private discussion and decision has been problematic. Just recently, arbitrator emeritus Raul654 filed a request to give Kingturtle checkuser access, on behalf of the committee; the issue was challenged, and then up in the air until FT2 offered some blunt clarification. It's been my experience that it's regularly difficult to tell whether an action is being undertaken by a single arbitrator, or the committee as a whole -- they sometimes seem to take advantage of this confusion. Often the only clear issues are those in which the committee has taken a formal vote on the wiki, and those are unfortunately quite rare; in many cases, it's difficult to tell even what the committee has or hasn't considered. It's a black box model at its worst.

Here, today, we have FT2 saying that there was a clear consensus supporting his announcement, and Kirill suggesting in reply that there was little or no discussion. It's hard not to be reminded or the arguments following Durova's block of !!, based on another private mailing list. I expect the committee will be discussing this extensively, but I find it disturbing that none of the other arbs have yet seen fit to make any prominent announcement to the effect of "We're looking at it, please stand by." No doubt they are currently unavailable, simply haven't thought to, or wish to avoid the storm of insistent messages any such statement would surely bring; it would take a certain strength of character to ask an angry mob to wait. Outside of FT2 and Kirill, do we have arbs of such character?

FloNight and Morven have both posted something to this effect, but I fear they'll be lost in the crowd. Still, they have my sincere thanks for saying something.

Obviously this is going to need clarification. We need word from the committee; silence simply will not do. Between FT2 and Kirill, the situation is chaos. In the short term, are these announcements valid? Are the decisions binding? What happened, here? In the long term, how can we avoid these problems in the future? Is there some way to make agendas or votes public, without necessarily revealing entire discussions? Do we need new policy or cultural reform, to deal with this?

If nothing else, communications breakdowns like this one can strike serious and unfortunate blows to the credibility of the committee and its members, and to order within the community. This confusion is damaging to the project. Perhaps it's past time that we as a community insisted on clarity from this committee regarding its decisions and operations.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

BLP special enforcement

Note: this was originally posted to wikien-l in this thread, but as I'm having technical difficulties (post keeps getting truncated), I'm posting it here and linking to it. For reference, it discusses the BLP special enforcement provision of the Footnoted quotes arbitration.

On Tue, Jun 17, 2008 at 8:26 AM, Sam Blacketer wrote:
It is headed 'special enforcement' rather than 'special policy', and I think the distinction is more than merely terminological. The policy basis is WP:BLP which has been in place for some time and has wide acceptance; I agree it would be wrong for Arbcom to change that policy.
From our own article on the subject: "A policy is a deliberate plan of action to guide decisions and achieve rational outcome(s)."

The distinction you mention is semantic and academic at best. We have here a committee which is not only manifestly decreeing policy in a way that toys with the philosophical foundations of this project, but even preparing itself to make content decisions, both things the committee was and is (supposedly) not supposed to do. I welcome you to make your case, but to pretend this isn't a big deal is an insult to the intelligence of the community that you represent -- it is a very big deal.

Administrator status is "not a big deal" precisely because we can self-police amongst ourselves. Reprehensible actions are less problematic on a wiki precisely because they can, in most cases, be quickly reversed. This ability of anyone to edit, more than anything, is what makes a wiki a wiki. Obviously, with blocking and protection, we have made necessary concessions to the reality that too much chaos can be damaging. As a community, we expect that consensus will show us a proper path, further reducing chaos. But here and now, we're providing an avenue by which adminship is absolutely a "a big deal" because any admin will, for any reason, be able to take any action of any kind against any user or article, without any need for petty things like consensus or discussion, and without any easy way to reverse that action. It takes that pesky "wiki" process out of the picture; so much easier to run the project when people can't easily edit, no?

We're even threatening dire consequences for any user, admin or not, who dares to challenge one of these actions without filling out the proper paperwork to request permission to do so. "Be bold!" we say -- just not if you're the second person on the scene. Specifically, I see a lot of mention that we should trust the good judgement of administrators, and yet this policy decree seems to do the exact opposite.

Where are the consequences for abuse or misuse of this power?

We as a community should be very careful when erecting systems which will inevitably become barriers to the creation of content and the free editing of the wiki, or which will enable users acting unilaterally to create such barriers arbitrarily and without easy oversight or accountability. We as individuals should be very careful to scrutinize the Arbitration Committee when it seems to overstep its bounds, as many users seem to think it has here.

The remedy is, as of yet, untested, and I believe predictions of impending doom are a bit overblown, but the fact remains: this is not a minor issue and should not be dismissed as one.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Metapedian, 2008-06-16

Board elections are open for another few days, if you hadn't been aware. You'll have until the end of June 21 to review candidates and submit any votes. Votes this year are being counted using the Schulze method, which allows voters to rank candidates according to their preferences -- a touch more robust than the approval voting used last year.

At the close of the "Footnoted quotes" arbitration, the Arbitration Committee has authorized administrators to apply new "special enforcement" provisions with regard to biographies of living persons, including the use of "any means at their disposal," and requiring appeals of any such action be directed to the admin noticeboard or the committee directly. Associated policy proposal is here. Many users are concerned by what seems to be a concentration of power, either into the hands of administrators or the committee.

On a somewhat similar note, the committee is currently voting 6-3 not to propose a "sourcing adjudication board" in the Homeopathy arbitration.

After a recent poll, the requirements to become an autoconfirmed user have changed: users will now need an account that is 4 days old with 10 edits. A new poll aims to increase the requirements to 7 days and 20 edits.

A new draft of the Wikimedia privacy policy is in the works at meta. Trimmed drafts are available on the talk page; other discussion is available there or on foundation-l.

The global sysops proposal (formerly Anti-Vandal Fighter) is currently up for polling at the metapub. Extensive discussion here.

Several users have begun an in-depth review of the requests for adminship process, and are currently seeking users to fill out a questionnaire.

An Ethnic and cultural conflicts noticeboard has been opened.