[Foundation-l] Controversial Content Study Update

R M Harris rmharris at sympatico.ca
Mon Aug 23 14:05:58 UTC 2010

Robert Harris here again, the consultant looking at the
issues surrounding controversial content on Wikimedia projects. I wanted first
of all to thank all of you who have taken the trouble to once again weigh in on
a subject I know has been debated many times within the Wikimedia community. It
has been very valuable for me, a newcomer to these questions, to witness the
debate first-hand for several reasons. The first is to remind me of the
thinking behind various positions, rather than simply to be presented with the
results of those positions. And the second is as a reminder to myself to
remember my self-imposed rule of "do no harm” and to reflect on how easy
it is to break that rule, even if unintentionally.

So far, the immediate result for me of the dialogue has been to recognize that
the question of whether there is any problem to solve at all is a real question
that will need a detailed and serious response, as well as a recognition that
the possibility of unintended consequence in these matters is high, so caution
and modesty is a virtue.

Having said that, I will note that I'm convinced that if there are problems to
be solved around questions of controversial content, the solutions can probably
best be found at the level of practical application. (and I’ll note that
several of you have expressed qualified confidence that a solution on that
level may be findable). That's not to say that the intellectual and
philosophical debate around these issues is not valuable -- it is essential, in
my opinion. It's just to note that not only is the "devil" in the
details as a few of you have noted, but that the "angel" may
be in the details as well -- that is -- perhaps -- questions insoluble on
the theoretical level may find more areas of agreement on a practical level.
I'm not sure of that, but I'm presenting it as a working hypothesis at this

My intended course of action over the next month or so is the following. I'm
planning to actually write the study on a wiki, where my thinking as it
develops, plus comments, suggestions, and re-workings will be available
for all to see. I was planning to begin that perhaps early in September. (A
presentation to the Foundation Board is tentatively scheduled for early
October). Between now and then, I would like to continue the kind of feedback
I've been getting, all of it so valuable for me. I have posted another set of
questions about controversy in text articles on the Meta page devoted to the
study, (http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Talk:2010_Wikimedia_Study_of_Controversial_Content)  because my ambit does not just
include images, and text and image, in my opinion, are quite different forms of
content. As well, I will start to post research I've been collecting for
information and comment.  I have some interesting notes about the
experience of public libraries in these matters (who have been struggling with
many of these same questions since the time television, not the Internet, was
the world’s new communications medium), as well as information on the policies
of other big-tent sites (Google Images, Flickr, YouTube, eBay,etc.) on these
same issues. I haven't finished collecting all the info I need on the latter,
but will say that the policies on these sites are extremely complex (although
not always presented as such) and subject within their communities to many of
the same controversies that have arisen in ours.  We are not them, by any
means, but it is interesting to observe how they have struggled with many of
the same issues with which we are struggling. 


The time is soon coming when I will lose the luxury of mere
observation and research, and will have to face the moment where I will enter
the arena myself as a participant in these questions. I’m looking forward to
that moment, with the understanding that you will be watching what I do with
care, concern, and attention. 

Robert Harris


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