It’s been said that a community is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members. When it comes to online activities, none are more vulnerable than our children. The thought that there are thousands- if not millions- of predators lurking in the dark corners of the internet makes a parent lose sleep at night. Many parents even separate their children from the greatest educational resource known to man at all costs.
But it’s a futile effort. The internet pervades modern society. Kids are increasingly encouraged to use it at school, for example. And no site is used as an educational aid more often than Wikipedia. For summarized knowledge, sources, supplementary materials, and, all too often, plagiarism, Wikipedia is the go-to resource our children are using to do better in school.
It begs the question: how well does Wikipedia protect its Children? Let’s start with what they are reading on Wikipedia. We all know that every bit of information on Wikipedia is accessible without an account. But it will be a surprise to many of us that Wikipedia can be edited without an account. And those edits are not vetted by editors- adult or otherwise- so vandalism is a fact of life on Wikipedia. Often foul language and fouler ideas are inserted along with false “facts” on the pages of Wikipedia. Most of this vandalism is caught within a few hours, but some isn’t detected for months- or even years.
Most acts of vandalism are perpetrated anonymously with so called IP edits. So can parents at least trust logged in users to take act responsibly towards their children? We should start with how much Wikipedia knows about their editors. The answer might surprise you: practically nothing. In fact, it is one of the few major internet sites that doesn’t require email verification to establish an account. That’s right parents, your children can create an account using their own name or an alias, and they are off to the races. You’d be hard pressed to find a more permissive site in the top 100- or even top 1000- most frequented online destinations. According to itself, Wikipedia running a very competitive #6 in the global race for the most online traffic.
Surely we can rely on Wikipedia to have established solid child protection policies against potential predators on their site, you must be thinking. Guess again. The official child protection policy arguably says more about protecting editors accused of impropriety with minors than children themselves. A committee of volunteers called ArbCom, whose members often don’t consider themselves qualified for such a task, take on triage for all reports of questionable conduct towards children. There word “parent” doesn’t even occur in this document, much less any commitment to notify authorities or parents if ArbCom finds that there is a reasonable accusation of impropriety. The worst consequences for a predator is an indefinite block from Wikipedia, which means that now the editor must go through the hassle of establishing another completely unverified account to continue preying on children at Wikipedia. It is interesting to note that this is the same consequence that any editor who brings up such accusations publicly will face. And, as a side note, this wouldn’t even be policy, had founder Jimmy Wales not unilaterally marked it so. This controversial action rocked the Wikipedia community.
Don’t get me wrong; accusations of child predation carry a heavy stigma, and editors’ reputations must be protected, but I believe this should be left to the authorities who are qualified to handle such claims discreetly. Even this wouldn’t suffice to make educational outreach to minors ethically or morally, and possibly legally acceptable. I believe that it will require nothing less than a new project aimed towards minors that uses Wikipedia as a source for vetted information. Such a project should require much more information from editors who have any interactions with potential minors. Anything less would amount to putting the most vulnerable- and beloved- members of our society in jeopardy.
As Wikipedians, we can, should, and must do better.