Wikipedia bans the chairman of the Wikimedia charity

There will be a more than a few people chortling today, at the news that the reclusive gang of anonymous editors who control Wikipedia have now banned a user who is, wait for it, chairman of the charity that raises funds for Wikipedia.  According to the Daily Telegraph, Ashley van Haeften, known as Fae was banned for “numerous violations of Wikipedia’s norms and policies”.

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.

Naturally he has now resigned.

His resignation follows a call by members of Wikimedia UK for an Extraordinary General Meeting to discuss the controversy. They said the decision of the charity’s board to keep Mr van Haeften on as chairman despite his ban from contributing to Wikipedia “not a sufficient response to this situation”.

An EGM could still go ahead, however, as the call was for a vote on a resolution “to remove Ashley Van Haeften from the Board of Trustees of Wikimedia UK”, not only to strip him of the chairmanship.

“By not resigning as chair immediately after the ArbCom decision was announced I am afraid that [Mr van Haeften] made an error which can now only be corrected by his resignation from the board altogether,” said one Wikimedia UK member.

Serious stuff!  No doubt even this will not be enough, and the inevitable next step is imprisonment, and the sale of his children into slavery.  Such measures could hardly be an adequate response to his many and serious crimes, but they are perhaps the most that could be done.

But what were his crimes, exactly?  It is curiously awkward, for an online site, for any normal person to find out.  I tend not to believe the spin statements in the Telegraph articles.  These suggest that the issue is pornography in Wikipedia.  But … where’s the evidence of this?

The “case” before the “court” may be found here, and makes wretched reading.  An accusation is made by a certain Michael Bisanz, rather diffuse, complaining that … well, erm, what?  Digging into it, I find hurt feelings on the part of the accuser:

… you have made extreme accusations as to my character as an editor and I request a determination by some authority to clear my name, unless you are willing to withdraw your allegations of abuse of my trusted status. I understand you are going on a trip, but letting the allegations lay on the table and further sully my name is unacceptable.

Erm, and this is a crime, is it?  The “offences” urged are trifling, urged as if they were great crimes.

And I find another “request for comment” on Mr van Haeften here, which is referenced in the accusation.  The latter comments:

The RFC/U was created by Delicious carbuncle (DC) in conjunction with a series of canvassing threads of Wikipedia Review that included a large number of personal allegations …

The user “Delicious carbuncle” was himself “admonished” during all this, at which, no doubt, he quaked.

Reading even a small portion of all this tripe would weary any normal person.  So much of it consists of personal comments, attacks, and insinuations.  Very little of this material would be admissible as evidence in any judicial environment.   None of this rubbish would be acceptable to any fair person. 

People contribute to Wikipedia because they want to add content.  They get a good feeling from so doing.  Once they are being subjected to a process of accusations by strangers sustained over a period of months or years, that drains the will to continue.  Most just leave, I suspect, although we don’t really know.  The process itself is the punishment, and any malicious user can target another in this way.  Such a process is nothing less than assault, and it should be treated as such.

Mr van Haeften has referred to being “hounded”.  Just looking at those few pages, the complaint seems amply justified.  There is nothing of substance in all this piffle, as far as I can see; but ample evidence of people tussling to get their way. 

There are allegations that Mr van Haeften may be addicted to various loathsome (but legal) vices, as his accusers allege (and he does not deny).  But whatever has that to do with the matter?

The “verdict” states:

Fæ has been the target of a sustained campaign of criticism and some harassment, related to images that he has uploaded to Wikipedia’s sister site, Wikimedia Commons, his administrator status on Wikipedia, and his role involving a Wikimedia Foundation-related charity. However, he has at times failed to differentiate between those who are harassing him, and those with good-faith concerns.

No doubt a user who is the “target of a sustained campaign of criticism and some harassment” may indeed “fail to differentiate” between the different classes of his tormenters.  There is also a complaint that Mr van Haeften used more than one account with which to edit. But this is not forbidden in Wikipedia.  Indeed a user being attacked under one name may naturally create another in order to continue to contribute elsewhere without obstruction.  It only becomes sock-puppeting when multiple users are used to create the impression of several different people.  There is no suggestion that he was using these in that way, so the accusation seems to be merely a convenient stick with which to beat him.

And there we have it.  The many, serious crimes turn out to be, erm … nothing much.  The dispute resolution pages appear to be mainly about the person, not the edits. 

I have remarked in the past that the Wikipedia dispute resolution is broken.  This seems to be another example of it. 

Mr van Haeften must now be drinking the bitter cup of many another ex-contributor to Wikipedia, who has come to regret that he ever gave any of his time or energy to the site.

Reform of Wikipedia’s Byzantine and unfair administration is required.  Simple justice towards those who try to contribute and find themselves victimised demands it.  It is surely time and past time that it was subjected to legal scrutiny.

Mr van Haeften might consider consulting a firm of British libel lawyers and pointing them at the statements on these Wikipedia pages.   For in England, when a case of libel is brought, the onus is on the defendant to prove that the statements are not defamatory.  I would usually feel that this is excessive; but the outcome could only serve the public good, in this case.

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