Tuesday, 13 October 2009


Openmoko, a group which produces and distributes an open-source mobile phone environment, as well as phones to run it, has released the WikiReader, a dedicated device for reading Wikipedia. The WikiReader has a 240 by 200 pixel touchscreen and uses a compressed, text-only version of Wikipedia stored on a microSD card. Users can subscribe to receive quarterly updated copies on a new microSD card, or download the updates for free.

There are many implementations out there for reading Wikipedia on mobile devices, but to my knowledge this is the first dedicated Wikipedia reading device. However, beyond the inherent simplicity that a dedicated device provides, it's difficult to see many advantages to the WikiReader over other options.

One of the major advantages of Wikipedia is its up-to-the-minute coverage, and as an offline device (even with quarterly updates) the WikiReader loses this advantage. Mobile online access to Wikipedia has not been the best in the past, but the Wikipedia mobile portal has received plenty of tender loving development recently and is now quite decent, even on older devices. Aside from this mobile web interface, there are also dedicated Wikipedia reading apps for devices such as the iPhone.

Naturally not everyone has mobile internet access, or is always in a location where it is available, so offline methods are essential for many people. But there are plenty of implementations available for other devices, such as Encyclopodia, for the iPod family, or a TomeRaider format Wikipedia ebook.

Of course, the convenience of Wikipedia has been central to its success, and the convenience of a dedicated device may outweigh its disadvantages. It will be difficult for the WikiReader to succeed, however, when there is so much more flexible competition out there.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Arbitration Committee mail traffic

Some brief traffic statistics on the Arbitration Committee's mailing list:

  • a total of 14692 messages were received by the list from January through June this year
  • an average of 81 messages were received each day
  • this is more than foundation-l (4473), wikien-l (4015) and wikitech-l (2924) combined over the same period, with change left over

Conclude from this what you will.

Monday, 29 June 2009

All Quiet on the Waziri Front

There's an interesting piece in the New York Times today on investigative journalist David Rohde - who was kidnapped in Afghanistan last year and who escaped last week from his captors in Waziristan, in northern Pakistan - and the efforts to extend the media blackout on news of the kidnapping to his Wikipedia article.

The blackout was orchestrated by the New York Times Company and was said to have involved forty international news agencies, from NPR to al-Jazeera. NYT personnel "believed that publicity would raise Mr. Rohde's value to his captors as a bargaining chip and reduce his chance of survival", the story says, quoting Rohde's colleague Michael Moss as saying "I knew from my jihad reporting that the captors would be very quick to get online and assess who he was and what he’d done, what his value to them might be".

Along with staff at other news agencies, NYT personnel contacted Jimmy Wales too, who passed the matter along to a small group of administrators who reverted mentions of the kidnapping and protected the article a number of times over the following months. Michael Moss also apparently edited the article to emphasise Rohde's Pulitzer Prize-winning work on the Srebrenica massacre, as well as his work on Guantanamo Bay, believing that if his captors read the article they might view him as more sympathetic towards Muslims.

Jimbo acknowledges in the NYT piece that the matter was made easier by the lack of reliable sources reporting the kidnapping - a consequence of the blackout - which meant that the biographies of living persons policy could operate to keep any references to the kidnapping out of the article. The policy, of course, was originally intended to keep fabricated material out of articles, but it worked equally well to assist the blackout in this case.

The ethics of the blackout have come into question following Rohde's escape. NPR reported Poynter Institute journalism ethics lecturer Kelly McBride as saying "I find it a little disturbing, because it makes me wonder what else 40 international news organizations have agreed not to tell the public". Dan Murphy at the Christian Science Monitor says that the question of whether the press has a double standard in keeping quiet about their own while regularly reporting on other kidnappings will likely become part of the debate. Greg Mitchell, the editor of industry journal Editor & Publisher, details that organisation's internal debates and ultimate decision to adhere to the blackout. Mitchell raises a potential competing public interest argument, that information about events such as kidnappings in a certain area could, in some cases, help protect the public (though the average NYT reader doesn't hang out near Kabul that often - it might help protect other journalists though).

On the Wikipedia front, this is an interesting biographies of living persons case because every aspect of it involves journalists, who as a profession develop, apply and teach a whole suite of ethical principles governing their work, principles that many have suggested Wikipedia ought to adapt or learn from.

It's regularly true that hard cases make bad policy, and it is so here: the kidnapping was said to have been reported by an unnamed Afghani news agency, and apparently by Italian agency Adnkronos too; the existence of reliable sources on the matter (which I cannot verify due to absent or broken links) throws into doubt the legitimacy of enforcing the blackout on Wikipedia.

This may well put a wedge between two similar but distinct camps of support for the biographies of living persons policy: those who believe that such articles should be written from a "do no harm" perspective, and those who have a similar sympathy but only go so far as supporting a strict, immediatist adherence to ordinary content policy (instead of the typical eventualist stance), and no further.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

New tools

A couple of new tools I've put together that people might find some use for:

  • Admin activity statistics: shows some statistics on how many admins have used their tools at all over various timeframes, and on how many actions are taken by each active admin over various timeframes. Works on any Wikimedia project.
  • Per-page contributions: like [[Special:Contributions]], but shows contributions just to a particular page. Works on any Wikimedia project. I've already found it quite useful in several arbitration cases, especially for users who have made a large number of edits, or for pages which have been edited many times.

The image below is one of the graphs produced by the admin activity tool, it shows how many admins have performed at least one administrative action over various timeframes on the English Wikipedia:

Monday, 20 April 2009

More bug statistics

Last November I put together some simple charts with the information from the weekly bug statistics that are automatically generated for the wikitech-l mailing list. There's now thirty-two weeks of data available, so here are some updated charts.

The distribution of resolution types seems to have stayed more or less the same over time, continuing the pattern seen in the original charts:

However, there are some changes in the other graph, which is based on information about the number of bugs each week. It shows the number of new, reopened, assigned and resolved bugs each week (using the scale on the left) and the total number of open bugs (in blue, using the scale on the right):

While there is still the same rough correlation between the number of new bugs and the number of bugs resolved each week, there is also a steady trend upwards in the total number of open bugs. Indeed, the total has risen nearly 20% since October last year.

So what are the consequences of so many bugs being opened but not dealt with? The following chart, generated by Bugzilla directly, shows the distribution of the "severity" parameter of all currently open bugs:

It shows that three-fifths of open bugs have severity given as "enhancement", essentially meaning that they're feature requests, entered into Bugzilla for tracking purposes, rather than being true bugs. A further 13% are marked "trivial" or "minor", and nearly a quarter "normal"; only 3% are "major".

So while the number of unresolved bugs is steadily rising, most of these are either feature requests or only minor bugs. Still, the backlog is fairly steadily getting worse, a reminder that it's constantly necessary for new volunteer developers to become involved with improving MediaWiki.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Parts of Wikipedia blacklisted in Australia

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has added whistleblower website Wikileaks to its secret website blacklist. This comes after Wikileaks published a recent version of the blacklist, which includes Wikipedia pages, in addition to various religious websites and the site of a Queensland dentist.

In February an anti-censorship activist submitted a Wikileaks page (containing a copy of Denmark's secret blacklist!) to ACMA's online complaints facility, as a test of ACMA's guidelines. ACMA blacklisted that page, satisfied that it was "prohibited content" or "potential prohibited content" under the relevant legislation. However Wikileaks then published details of the report, including the correspondence, and then published a leaked copy of the ACMA blacklist from last August. Following this, ACMA blacklisted the entire Wikileaks site.

As of the time of writing, it does not seem possible to access Wikileaks from Australia, so I do not know what is on the leaked blacklist. But media reports indicate that, in addition to the intended targets of child porn sites, there is a substantial minority of other sites blacklisted, including some Wikipedia pages, YouTube videos, and online gambling sites, as well as a few bizarre examples in a tuckshop management company and an animal carer group.

The responsible minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, has denied that Wikileaks' list is the real thing, and one of the ISPs involved in the mandatory internet filtering trial has backed that up, saying that it is not the same as the list supplied to them recently.

Yet whether Wikileaks' list is accurate or not, the attention now being paid to the practices of ACMA in relation to the blacklist has at least exposed the risk to educational sites like Wikipedia posed by similar censorship systems. The ACMA blacklisting scheme is designed to dovetail with Australia's existing content classification system (for films, television etc) by defining "prohibited content" to mean content classified as RC (refused classification) or X 18+ by the Classification Board (and also R 18+ content to which unrestricted access is allowed, and under certain circumstances, M 15+ content).

This system has been criticised in a number of ways, not least because Internet content is subject to the film and television classification rules, rather than the rules for publications (with the result that, for example, a printed newspaper and a newspaper website showing the same material will be treated differently, depending on which version is classified first). Nevertheless, the Classification Board has extensive experience in content classification, and, as it is a singular organisation whose decisions are subject to review, is at least broadly consistent in its application of the guidelines.

The blacklisting scheme goes further, however, and allows ACMA to blacklist not only content which has actually been classified, but also "potential prohibited content", that is, unclassified content which it believes would ultimately be prohibited if it were classified. In practice, this means that ACMA bureaucrats - whose decisions are not subject to the same process of review, and are not even guaranteed to be made in the same way and applying the same process as the Classification Board - can blacklist sites if they think there is a "substantial likelihood" that the content would be prohibited.

Under the National Classification Code (PDF), classification not only depends on what the content depicts, but on the manner in which it is depicted. Relevantly for Wikipedia, educational materials covering subject matter like sexuality will likely be treated differently than other genres of material depicting the same subjects. With this parallel ACMA scheme, there is no guarantee of consistency, no guarantee the code will be correctly applied and no prospect of review. Thus, the public's access to legitimate educational content, such as Wikipedia articles, is subject to the whims of ACMA bureaucrats.

A related problem is that the ACMA blacklist is the basis of the aforementioned proposed mandatory internet filtering scheme in Australia, which aims to filter the Internet at the ISP level. Depending on the way such a scheme (if it is actually instituted, which seems unlikely at this time) is actually implemented by ISPs, we may end up with a situation in which access to Wikipedia is widely blocked, as happened recently in the UK.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Maryland court rejects identification subpoena

Zebulon Brodie, a franchisee for Dunkin' Donuts, sued Independent Newspapers (operator of the Newszap.com classifieds and forums website) and three pseudonymous members of the site for defamation and conspiracy to defame, after the three participated in a forum thread in which the cleanliness of the store was critiqued.

The liability of Independent Newspapers (IN) was fairly easily resolved: the trial judge found that the company, as the provider of an "interactive computer service", could not be treated as the publisher or speaker of the forum postings due to s 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and as such could not be liable in defamation for the postings' contents. This provision has protected a range of service providers from liability for defamation and similar actions, including the Wikimedia Foundation itself.

However, the liability of the three pseudonymous users is a different story, and it was this issue that has been contentious in the case. The Newszap website required users to register before using the forums, and Brodie sought, by way of a subpoena, to compel IN to identify a total of five pseudonymous users who had participated in the forum thread. In turn, IN sought motions to quash the subpoena, and for a protective order to be issued; however, the trial judge rejected those motions, and ordered IN to identify the users.

The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned that order in a decision published this week (PDF). The basis for the decision was that three of the users did not make any comments that were actionable in defamation, and the other two, though they did make arguable actionable remarks, were not actually named as defendants in Brodie's original complaint (and by the time the case had proceeded to that point, any action against the two was barred by limitations provisions).

Though the case was thus resolved on an essentially procedural point, the Court of Appeals nevertheless went on to discuss the underlying question of when anonymous or pseudonymous users in such sitautions should be identified, and offered some guidance to lower courts.

All seven judges agreed on four steps that should be undertaken by courts considering defamation actions involving anonymous or pseudonymous defendants, where disclosure is sought:

  1. require the plaintiff to make efforts to notify those defendants of any subpoena or application to disclose their identity - in the context of Internet forums, by posting a message there;
  2. allow those defendants reasonable opportunity to oppose the application;
  3. require the plaintiff to clearly identify the speech said to be actionable in defamation; and
  4. determine whether the plaintiff has advanced a prima facie case against those defendants.

However, four judges comprising the majority went further, and added a fifth step that courts should undertake: if all the other requirements were satisfied, the court should weigh the strength of the prima facie case against the anonymous or pseudonymous defendants' First Amendment rights.

First Amendment jurisprudence concerning free speech has tended to recognise that an author's decision whether or not to disclose their identity may be protected as much as the content of their speech itself. In practice, this has translated into, for example, the Supreme Court of the United States striking down a local council ordinance forcing anyone soliciting door-to-door (in that case, Jehovah's Witnesses) from identifying themselves and obtaining a permit before doing so. While anonymity, like any other aspect of the right to free speech, does not protect speech which is defamatory, the majority were keen to point out that anonymous or pseudonymous posters have a right "not to be subject to frivolous suits for defamation brought solely to unmask their identity." In their view, the additional balancing test, beyond the prima facie requirement, was necessary to give adequate protection to this right. A lower standard of protection, in their view, "would inhibit the use of the Internet as a marketplace of ideas, where boundaries for participation in public discourse melt away."

The three judges who dissented as to the need for the balancing test were of the view that the prima facie requirement provided sufficient protection of First Amendment rights, given that they are already taken account of in the ordinary law of defamation. Judge Adkins, writing for the minority, cautioned that "the majority decision invites the lower courts to apply, on an ad hoc basis, a 'superlaw' of Internet defamation that can trump the well established defamation law."

The case is an interesting example of the way in which computer services providers who are protected by section 230 nevertheless have a significant role to play in legal processes that reach past them to target users of their services. The court also placed emphasis on ensuring that anonymous or pseudonymous users have an opportunity to participate in legal processes before their identity is disclosed. As a consequence, providers are not merely passive targets for subpoenas, nor must they be zealous defenders of all users of their services; rather, they have an important mediative role.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Small screen$


Angela subsequently provided a correction for this post; the error was in the cited publication:
"The new platform has nothing to do with Nokia as far as I know. I've sent a correction to the author of that article. The Foundation already has a branding deal with Nokia but that's not related to this."

Angela Beesley (former member of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, and current chair of the Advisory Board), has indicated during a talk at Linux.conf.au that the Foundation will be announcing a new mobile platform for Wikipedia later in the year. According to ZDNet Australia, the platform is currently under development and will be licensed to Nokia.

There are already a number of iPhone apps for reading Wikipedia, whether online and offline, including plenty of good free apps. In addition to dedicated apps, there is a solid specialised Wikipedia mobile interface, and there have been efforts to make the regular web interface of Wikimedia wikis more practicable in mobile browsers.

It's good news, however, to hear that a dedicated Wikipedia interface is on its way for one of the closed mobile platforms. What's also interesting is to hear that the platform will be licensed to Nokia, which makes it sound as if there's some commercial arrangement involved. It's interesting in that Angela's talk also touched on the recent success of the fundraiser, and the possibility of alternative sources of funds, such as selling physical versions of content like books and posters.

Licensing a branded mobile platform strikes me as an interesting potential revenue stream. It reminds me of Mozilla's arrangement with Google: something that benefits users, and also allows money to be made without compromising on principles (unlike, say, introducing ads).