The Wikimedia Foundation has sketched out efforts to gather personal information on some Chinese Wikipedia editors, by entities opposed to their activities on the platform and likely to threaten the targets’ privacy or wellbeing. The Foundation’s response has been to ban seven users in mainland China, cancel sysop privileges for another dozen, and warn plenty more Wikipedia editors to modify their behaviour.
The bans and warnings were revealed in a Monday letter from Maggie Dennis, the Foundation’s vice president of community resilience & sustainability.
Dennis set the scene by revisiting the June 2021 decision to suspend recognition of non-disclosure agreements for “applicants who live in jurisdictions that have blocked access to Wikimedia projects and where there is reason to believe that the domicile associated with their user account is known to others than the individual applicant(s) and the Foundation.
“Granting such NDAs would put the applicant(s) as well as other volunteers relying on the Foundation’s platform at undue risk,” states the policy update.
Dennis’s letter explains that the policy change mainly sought to protect “individuals who have become vulnerable to exploitation and harm by external groups because they are already trusted insiders”. Wikipedia is banned in China, but a Mandarin-language version at zh.wikipedia.org is among the ten-most-visited versions of the online encyclopedia.
The letter later describes exposure of personal information of Chinese editors and states “we know that some users have been physically harmed as a result”.
The NDA policy changes alone didn’t address the risks the Foundation perceived. Hence what Dennis described as “a second phase of addressing infiltration concerns, which has resulted in sweeping actions in one of the two currently affected jurisdictions”.
“We have banned seven users and desysopped a further 12 as a result of long and deep investigations into activities around some members of the unrecognized group Wikimedians of Mainland China,” Dennis wrote. “We have also reached out to a number of other editors with explanations around canvassing guidelines and doxing policies and requests to modify their behaviors.”
Dennis wrote that she believes the two phases of actions protected at-risk users from disclosure of their personal information.
The letter doesn’t explain the source of the conflict, but today’s news that China has issued new guidance for online behaviour that makes it plain only the Party line is acceptable suggests one reason: it’s known that contributors to Wikipedia and Chinese authorities have had differences of opinion about how to present the nation’s history on Wikipedia.
Alleged edits to Wikipedia pages attributed to the Chinese government are not hard to find.
Someone at the Government of the Republic of China anonymously edited “????? Taiwan NO.1” on Wikipedia. https://t.co/8dQUpQCXMO
— ChinaGovEdits (@ChinaGovEdits) September 15, 2021
Many contributors to zh.wikipedia.org live outside China, but the Middle Kingdom is known to run influence operations beyond its borders. It is not a far-fetched scenario for disputes about interpretations to have escalated to doxing or physical harm, within and outside China.
Dennis’s letter suggests the Foundation is aware of the wider challenges it faces.
“Community ‘capture’ is a real and present threat,” her letter states. “The Foundation recently set up a disinformation team, which is still finding its footing and assessing the problem, but which began by contracting an external researcher to review that project and the challenges and help us understand potential causes and solutions for such situations.
“We have also recently staffed a human rights team to deal with urgent threats to the human rights of communities across the group as a result of such organized efforts to control information,” she added.
“The situation we are dealing with today has shown me how much we need as a movement to grapple with the hard questions of how we remain open to editing by anyone, anywhere, while ensuring that individuals who take us up on that offer are not harmed by those who want to silence them.” ®
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