Wikipedia’s ArbCom: Busy doing nothing

So. ArbC have finally voted on GamerGate; my preliminary analysis was in my last post – but things subtly and significantly changed after that. What did ArbCom actually decide in the end? To put it simply, they punted. They made sure their result was fair so no one could accuse them of bias (we all know how well that went), and they made their scope of direct interventions as narrow as possible, trusting to the Admins to do the actual work. Which ultimately means they did very little about GamerGate as it applies to Wikipedia that the hard working admins already covering the article wouldn’t have done themselves. And the whole thing has ended by taking a long time to do not very much.All the changes made in the decision since my last post have been subtle, but a few of them have been highly significant. The banning situation changed slightly. TaraInDC is now not topic banned, but NorthBySouthBaranof is. Minor but important as TaraInDC is no longer editing the article whereas NBSB is (both oppose GamerGate). LoganMac is topic banned – mostly, I think, due to annoying the Arbs during the case.

The storm in the teacup will be the total site banning of Ryulong which people will read as contradicting the ArbCom public statement that no one was being site banned. The Arbcom statement was true when it was written; Ryulong wasn’t so much banned from Wikipedia as gathered themselves a Darwin Award by complaining on the Administrators’ notice board that the sanction ArbCom wanted to impose was unworkable. ArbCom’s response was effectively “OK. You say you can’t stick to the sanctions we’re imposing as a last resort. Let’s save everyone time and ban you instead.”

The big change passed after my post, and the one that shows ArbCom to have been of little use was, however, Resolution 14: Limits of Arbitration:

Limitations of arbitration

14) Despite superficial similarities, Wikipedia Arbitration is not, and does not purport to be, a legal system comparable to courts or regulatory agencies. While the Committee strives for fairness, the system has limitations. Evidence is generally limited to what can be found and presented online. The disclosure of information cannot be compelled and witnesses cannot be cross-examined. Furthermore, only issues directly affecting the English Wikipedia can be considered and resolved. Arbitration decisions should be read with these limitations in mind and should not be used, or misused, by any side in connection with any off-wiki controversy, dispute, allegation, or proceeding.

(Emphasis mine).

This is ultimately tacit permission for off-wiki collusion, and it restricts ArbCom to ruling in the case on as narrow grounds as administrators would be able to. One of the purposes of ArbCom is that they are one of the few places that have the authority to re-write policy for Wikipedia because it is necessary to handle complex cases (as they did in the Scientology case and more regrettably in the Chelsea Manning case). Indeed the Scientology case provided a precedent that “The Arbitration Committee may determine that editors who edit with the same agenda and make the same types of edits be treated as a single editor.” – a precedent that would have enabled ArbCom to deal with off-Wiki collusion much more effectively.

Prior to the passing of the Limits of Arbitration, the most sweeping non-standard resolution was “Enough is Enough” saying that robust measures may be adopted (translation: non-standard problems can use non-standard solutions). ArbCom were, however, despite being the group on Wikipedia best placed to do this, unwilling to even formally propose such non-standard solutions.

So ArbCom has basically done three things, one actually productive: Firstly they have saved the Admins a little time by banning a small handful of people (on top of the already large list) and slightly tightened up the general sanctions already in place. Secondly they have taken the case and punted it, allowing them to say they’ve handled it in future while providing nothing useful. The third and actually productive thing they’ve done is put everything about GamerGate, and all gender related controversies under Standard Discretionary Sanctions – which is Wikipedia’s way of saying that the admins are authorised to operate a zero tolerance policy. (The wording says “Broadly construed” so it by default includes pages like Zoe Quinn’s – and anyone else either attacked by or overtly supporting GamerGate now or at any time in the future).

The other group on Wikipedia to have failed, of course, is ComCom – the Communications Committee. ComCom were so slow off the mark when ArbCom were being misrepresented in the media that ArbCom felt the need to issue their own statement. WikiBureaucracy needs work.

(Wikipedia logo puzzle picture by Filip Maljkovic used under the  CC-BY-SA-3.0 licence via Wikimedia Commons. Chocolate teapot from here)


One thought on “Wikipedia’s ArbCom: Busy doing nothing

  1. The Problem (speaking as a former Arbitration Committee CANNOT rule on content. Only on conduct. And the Committee CANNOT “rewrite policy”. The community can, but the few times the Committee tried to propose new things, the community was VERY savage in knocking it down.

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