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.


lucasbfr said...

The voice of reason, may you be heard!

Durova said...

Good insightful post. What do you think of the request for comment?

Moulton said...

The way I read the events, FT2 put the case together and posted it to the rest of ArbCom, calling for their expression of approval, disapproval, or comment.

FT2's use of the Latin phrase, nemine contradicente (none objected) tells me that after a period of time, hearing no response, no comments, and no objections, FT2 concluded that "silence meant assent."

The same thing happened to me a few weeks ago, when I submitted a plan to some trusted admins and waited for their comments. I took their silence to mean they had no objections.

Even after I carried out my plan, they did not voice any ex post facto objections.

It didn't matter. The ad hoc ochlocracy came after me with their pitchforks, nonetheless.

So it goes,

Luna Santin said...

@durova: Hopefully it leads to proactive action. I kept reminding myself to post some comments on it, but it looks like (some) things may be happening already. If I have more time.

Any RfC on that scale is likely to spin out of control, if not carefully managed. Not in the sense that it's "dangerous," just more that it's difficult to get involved in the discussion or extract useful meaning from it, if it's not carefully organized. But that's more a matter for RfC construction in general, than this specific case. Always difficult to manage discussion with a group so large.

@moulton: I wondered if that might be how things turned out, yeah. I'm not sure how to best deal with that sort of difficulty. Maybe if it's made clear that only a (preferably public) vote of the committee is authoritative, we can avoid this problem of distinguishing between individual/group actions, but I worry about throwing up obstacles to progress. At least for a full arb case, it seems to me that it should be a must.

I have wondered if the private arbwiki could be set up with one public namespace, to suit that purpose. Apparently this is difficult from a technical perspective (or so I've been told; I'm afraid it's all over my head).