A single-user ban has exposed the deep rifts between Wikipedia’s libertarian origins and its egalitarian aspirations, and threatened its stability
If the internet has largely been lost to the culture war engulfing much of the Western world, Wikipedia has proven to be an unlikely Switzerland. The open-source encyclopedia, once maligned as the harbinger of a future in which no one had authority over the facts, now looks, ironically, like the last, best hope for a global digital portal to the truth. But behind the unadorned pages that have earned the trust of millions of readers, an argument rages that threatens to drag the project into the muck with the other major social platforms. And it began, as these fights so often do, with something as seemingly simple as a user ban.
On June 10, the Wikimedia Foundation did something unprecedented in its decade and a half history: It banned a user from the English-language Wikipedia for a year. The San Francisco–based nonprofit that hosts the world’s greatest information resource has historically kept its hands off the individuals who use and edit it. Penalties for bad behavior on the English Wikipedia are typically determined and meted out by the community itself, often represented by the Arbitration Committee, the 15-person all-volunteer body elected by fellow Wikipedians. ArbCom is commonly referred to as “Wikipedia Supreme Court.”
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