Scientology "banned" from Wikipedia

In an effort to close some long-standing conflicts on Scientology-related topics, the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee (ArbCom, for short) has used some interesting measures in an attempt to settle the problem more thoroughly.

Most prominently, ArbCom has called for a blanket ban on editing from Scientology-associated IP addresses. Specifically, the sanction is the following:

2) All IP addresses owned or operated by the Church of Scientology and its associates, broadly interpreted, are to be blocked as if they were open proxies. Individual editors may request IP block exemption if they wish to contribute from the blocked IP addresses.
Passed 10 to 1 at 13:31, 28 May 2009 (UTC)
This is an interesting development, but I think it's being misinterpreted to some degree in the media. Given Scientology's reputation for attempting to influence media in their favour, it's entirely understandable that a group in Wikipedia's position would want to bar them from contributing, so I don't blame journalists and the public for misunderstanding the IP ban for an organizational ban—but they can't be excused for missing the fact that a number of anti-Scientology activists were topic-banned (disallowed from editing Scientology-related articles, on penalty of blocking) as part of the decision.
To a certain degree, it is the case: Wikipedia doesn't need the kind of relentless view-pushing that Scientologists present. Whether they're "fighting religious discrimination" or "suppressing the truth", their drive to stamp out criticism of the movement is undeniable, and on Wikipedia, that's unacceptable.

It's evidently not the case that Wikipedia is outright banning the organization. The above sanction only blocks the IP addresses rather than bans the organization. If you read the principles defined for the definition, this becomes more evident. Specifically, the following principle is interesting:

11) It is rarely possible to determine with complete certainty whether several editors from the same IP or corporate server are sockpuppets, meat puppets, or acquaintances who happen to edit Wikipedia. In such cases, remedies may be fashioned which are based on the behavior of the user rather than their identity. 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.
Passed 7 to 4 (with 1 abstention) at 13:31, 28 May 2009 (UTC)

It's not only the principle that justifies the block, in my opinion—since multiple uniformly pro-Scientology editors using Scientology IP addresses can't be distinguished from a single one abusing multiple accounts—but one of the more controversial principles in the case.

I find this curious, and so looked at the votes placed on the principle. Risker opposed the principle with the concern that it could be used badly, since users might be attacked using this principle based on the point of view that their edits support.*
*Having edits which support a particular point of view is, in my opinion, not inherently in violation of Wikipedia's policy of neutrality; even if someone's edits uniformly present a particular point of view, correcting other imbalances, or presenting material favourable to one view neutrally, is not necessarily a problem.

As I was writing this post, I stumbled upon a Huffington Post article which deals with this kind of concern. It's interesting in part because of the points that it misses, but in part because of the relevance that it has to the subtler implications of the ArbCom decision, and suggests that it may be a dangerous precedent. In "Wikipedia Removes Semi-Protection from Civil Liberties", Leah Anthony Libresco argues that Wikipedia's decision to ban Scientology is misguided. Libresco argues that setting the precedent of banning an organization like Scientology, a whole class of people, is akin to taking away civil liberties. There is some confusion: Libresco says, for example, that WikiScanner can "identify the sources of anonymous edits made on Wikipedia by analyzing the IP addresses of the perpetrators", when this isn't really the case (WikiScanner correlates edits made without a user account with a database of known IPs of organizations, but can't equal tools like CheckUser which can investigate registered users). I think that Libresco misunderstands the depth of the problem (that Wikipedia's methods for investigating abuse are insufficient for the Scientology IP addresses) and the seriousness of the remedy, while falling into the usual assumption of an organizational ban rather than a technical block. Libresco does, however, make some cogent points about the need for open discussion—if speech is suppressed, neutrality becomes more difficult to create and, worse, to expect.

This kind of sentiment was echoed in another article which criticized the decision. In "Why Wikipedia was wrong to ban Scientology", Evgeny Morozov attacks the ArbCom decision as one which suppresses the group from joining in the debate about itself. Two sections of his article summarize the article well for me:

I am no fan of Scientology, but I think that banning them from Wikipedia is going to be counterproductive. Unfortunately, it presents the Wikipedia admins/editors as a non-neutral group that opposes a particular set of ideas. In an ideal world, I don't think that the Wikipedia editors should be making any value judgements on whether a particular idea is good or bad, for it undermines the trust that users place in an open encyclopedia, no matter how innovative it is.


However, bowing down to Scientology-bashers is almost guaranteed to trigger similar requests from people who hate satanism, fascism, or even pokemons. [sic] Granted it's harder to identify and ban the more decentralized community of, say, satanists than that of scientologists [sic] (who have registered physical addresses), but I am sure that very soon somebody will request that another group is excluded from online deliberations over what kind of materials to publish about it. In a way, Wikipedia's decision opens Pandora's box : why allow Christians to edit articles on Christianity, for example?

It misses many of the obvious considerations, and has been thoroughly criticized so far in the comments, but it does raise a good point in the larger scheme of things: is a decision to block particular sets of IP addresses on these grounds tenable? It's certainly possible that it may—as the first quoted section, and some other articles have suggested—have negative public image effects for Wikipedia. It's certainly a reminder that, especially in administrative actions, even the appearance of impropriety in an action can be damaging without the need for any true abuse.

On another issue, the criticism raises questions. Libresco's article in particular makes the parallel of civil liberties in suggesting that the suppression of any particular group is troubling. While I think it's fallacious to make a direct comparison of Wikipedia to many existing political and economic systems, there are parallels that should not be ignored. I plan to outline some interesting parallels in a future article.

Is the block dangerous, justified, or merely ugly and unfortunate? I'd like to hear your opinion.


  1. I don't know what ArbCom decided to view the block as if it were open proxies. Essentially it is a COI based block, and there are already many COI accounts, and IPs that are blocked for the very same reason.

  2. Personally, I think that the blocks on the IP addresses are being blown extremely out of proportion by the media. Out of all the articles I've read concerning the block, almost none of them mention that anti-Scientology editors were also sanctioned, or even that editors by name were sanctioned.

  3. As a former member of that cult, subject to their "fair game" policies, I applaud Wikipedia for their decision. I'd suggest that if they subsequently decide to reverse it, then they should also reverse their decision to block the opposite side of the debate -- Perhaps reserve a section especially for debate on the subject and just let the two sides fight it out. When members of the cult are caught in the act of being themselves, all will be revealed.

  4. @wikileon: The block isn't a conflict-of-interest (COI) block because such blocks don't generally occur. Conflicts of interest are not a significant problem unless they cause users to violate other policies like "neutral point of view", in which case the conflict of interest merely exacerbates the issue. The block is alike one of open proxies because the problem is the same: users on Scientology IP addresses can't be distinguished from one another easily. Were it simple to identify unique users, the widely-misinterpreted general IP block on Scientology computers would not be so necessary.

  5. It's a justified block. The US Senate editing articles to place themselves in a better light, is no different than this case.

    It just seems since a church's IP address was blocked, well WP is somehow infringing their "freedom of speech", which well, doesn't exist on Wikipedia. If it did, then NPOV, COI, etc policies would not exist; because they all restrict "freedom of speech".

    If scientologist still want to edit wikipedia, they are welcome to, from their house. Not from work.