Wikimedia Commons: An evolving community; far from “ethically broken”

This week, an email list discussion I took part in ballooned to 70 messages. It started with concerns about an image of a pile of corpses, featured on the front page of Wikimedia Commons; but it turned into an argument about whether (as some have phrased it in recent years) the leadership in the Commons community is “ethically broken.” My colleague Kevin Gorman stated:

“…the fact Commons’ has a history of not wanting to comply with WMF board resolutions…”

That assertion is false, and statements like it — especially from people in leadership positions — are damaging to the collaborative spirit which drives the Wikimedia movement. Leaders in our movement have even falsely accused specific elected administrators of aiming to get as much pornography or objectionable content as possible onto Commons; seemingly, with no awareness that those specific administrators have deleted hundreds or thousands of objectionable images from Commons, or that one image (considered objectionable by some) might be more in line with Commons’ educational mission, or with its responsibilities toward various parties, than another.

There are, to be sure, sometimes problems with decisions made at Commons; when a web site hosts more than 16 million freely sharable files, there are bound to be a few disagreements. But those disagreements do not result from any lack of integrity on the part of the community that curates the collection. To accuse these dedicated volunteers of being “ethically broken” is wrong. It’s damaging to the collaborative spirit that has allowed us to amass this collection of free media.

There are many reasons why disagreements arise:

  • The interests and rights of an audience, of a content creator, and of the subject of commentary/criticism have naturally come into conflict throughout the entire history of civilization; the “right” decision for a publisher or curator is not always as straightforward as it may appear.
  • There is a flood of new files added to Commons every minute; every day, deletion is proposed for literally hundreds of files that may fail to comply Commons policy, and a small handful of volunteers processes those proposals.
  • The technology that guides the behavior of uploaders (the Upload Wizard for desktop computers, as well as the Wikimedia Commons mobile app) do not explain the mission of Commons, or outline the upload requirements, as well as they could at the time of upload. So huge amounts of useless junk and copyright violations are uploaded every day, by people who couldn’t reasonably be expected to know any better.
  • The technology supporting deliberations on Commons does not always make it easy to determine or implement a good decision.
  • The policies we have adopted at Commons are good, but not (yet?) perfect, and do not always guide us in the right direction, in spite of contributors’ best efforts to adhere to them.
  • Commons has (I think) the most multicultural community, and the greatest number of participants engaging in a language that is not their own, of any Wikimedia project; cultural differences and the nuances/idiom of language often cause misunderstandings, or amplify ones that might otherwise not be a big deal.
  • Probably many other factors.

In spite of all these challenges, as Wikimedia Trustee SJ Klein recently said (hear hear!):

“Commons is one of the gems of the free knowledge movement; and has the highest ratio of mindblowingly great work to active editors of any project (ok, wikidata and wikisource may recently be catching up here 🙂 If anything, a core problem here is that we need better tools, and better way to recruit new contributors, to keep up with steadily geometric growth.”

In the email list discussion, I suggested it would be worthwhile to explore specific examples of the allegedly rebellious disposition of the Commons community, rather than simply trading assertions and generalizations. Another participant in the discussion provided the first two examples on the list below; I offer 13 additional annotated examples below that. I look forward to hearing from others — both in and outside the Wikimedia community — about what patterns they see; I also welcome additions to the list of sample decisions.

Note: This blog post is about controversial content; the linked discussions involve images that could be distasteful or offensive to some viewers. But the images themselves do not appear at the pages directly linked below.

Examples from Andreas

I asked for examples of bad decisions; Andreas provided two where (we agree) a good decision was arrived at eventually (one and two years ago, respectively), but where the path to a good decision was more torturous than it might have been. I’ve pasted his comments verbatim below:

Clear violation (no evidence of model consent, photographer made clear the models wanted them off Commons). Took six attempts over several years to delete, despite a board member personally voting Delete in one or two prior nominations.

Again, review the prior deletion discussions where these were kept. Models shown full-face, recognisable, no evidence whatsoever of model consent, geo-tagged to a precise street address.

Examples from Pete

Here are some examples I’ve assembled, which I think reflect good deliberation and decision-making in the Wikimedia Commons world:

This image became famous not just due to its presence on Commons, but because it would show up in innocent Wikipedia search results like “toothbrush.” Deletion of the file was originally suggested with the following justification: “Out of scope, there is no use of this homemade, poor quality porn.” In a spirited discussion, votes were cast both for and against deletion. Four elected Commons administrators teamed up to evaluate the points made and decide the outcome (instead of the usual process, one administrator). Their conclusion (see the bottom of the linked page) addresses the various points, and clearly identifies an underlying problem markedly different than the “Commons is ethically broken” position.

This photo depicted a woman bathing outdoors, as seen from an elevated place nearby (maybe a second story window). As an American, I don’t pretend to know how female toplessness is regarded in Haitian society, or what is considered a “public place” in a social context where walls and fences may qualify as a luxury. But I do think it’s worthwhile to err on the side of caution, especially in a case where the photographer most likely did not seek the subject’s consent. The decision reached here concurs. (On a side note, the photo is still available on Flickr, a site which may or may not be “ethically broken”; the comments there praise its journalistic value, but don’t mention the possible invasion of privacy.)

This is a logo for an organization deemed insufficiently notable for a Wikipedia article. The discussion highlights the issues relating to Commons’ primary purpose, supporting other Wikimedia sites; and also, the question of whether/when a file should be preserved on Commons even when it’s unsed on other Wikimedia sites like Wikipedia. Although I have stated that this logo should be deleted, I believe there are legitimate reasons on both sides, and no clear-cut answer.

Original nomination contained a personal attack (accusing the uploader of creating “revenge porn,” without evidence) and no well-articulated reason for deletion. Nevertheless, deleted without controversy (14 “Delete” votes, 0 opposed). How successful would we be at curating our 16 million images, if every one of the hundreds of nominations every day required this much discussion? The cause of controversy here was not a problematic community, but a hasty, overstated nomination; and in spite of the controversy, a unanimous and favorably decision was made pretty quickly.

These two were nominated out of concern for the dignity of the subjects of photo. The first was quickly deleted for a much more straightforward reason: it was a clear copyright violation. The second is still under discussion, with some helpful analysis, but appears likely to be deleted as well.

Photo (c) Glamourina, promotional photo, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

Photo (c) Glamourina, promotional photo, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

Some confusion about whether the lower or higher resolution version of a file was released under a free license. The interests of the subject of the photo were honored. Was this the right decision? I think so, but I don’t think it’s entirely clear cut. The more extensive discussion on (the presumably non-broken) English Wikipedia (not on Commons) explores the challenges inherent in this case.

Is illegal graffiti in Slovenia subject to copyright? An interesting window into the kinds of technical issues a Commons administrator must sort through.

Highlights the ambiguity around the word “consent” — is it “consent to be photographed,” “consent to have the photo published somewhere,” or “consent to have the photo published in a place like Commons”? Ourguideline on privacy does not address this issue effectively; efforts to address this are underway. I think the right decision was ultimately reached in this case.

When there is no indication that the subject of a photo (taken in a private place) gave any kind of consent, often the photo is deleted. Still, as you can see in this discussion, some community members think that the photo must be shameful in some way for this principle to apply. But that view does not always win out.

Minors frequently upload photos of themselves or their friends. This presents a dilemma: on the one hand, users sharing pictures of themselves supports our goal of building a friendly and collaborative community; but also, the consent of a minor isn’t always legally meaningful, and in practice, may not reflect the minor’s best long-term interests. Here’s an example where the necessary outcome seemed pretty obvious, but many cases are not so clear-cut.

How should Commons users respond, when encountering a photo that does not assert (as the COM:IDENT guideline requests) that the subject of the photo consented to broad publication? In particular, what if the people in the photo are children?

Is it OK to display a photo of prisoners performing in a prison? Is that a public place? Here, I believe we appropriately erred on the side of caution (similar to the Haitian Shower example above).

When a photographer or the subject of a photo uploads it, without clearly asserting their connection with it, it is often difficult to assess whether the use of a free license, or the release of personality rights, is legitimate. In this case, a deletion debate prompted actions which clarify the status of the photo, which was kept.

What next?

Do you want to see Wikimedia Commons do a better job with controversial decisions? If so, what are the most promising areas of opportunity? Please add comments to this blog post, tweet at me, or copy the content of this blog post (which I release under the CC BY 3.0 license) to a wiki page for further development or analysis.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here: wikistrategies.net/pete-forsyth
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