The public square just got a whole lot less open.
On May 29th, Wikipedia, "the encyclopedia anyone can edit" banned all IP addresses affiliated with the Church of Scientology from editing any part of the online encyclopedia. The decision came after four months of debate among Wikipedia's top administrators. This is the first wholesale banning of an organization from Wikipedia, as opposed to bans for individual users or protective restrictions placed on pages that are prone to vandalism (as after the Colbert-mediated African elephant prank). The new policy is a major step back for Wikipedia and all internet communities.
Almost no one would deny that Scientologist editors have persistently caused problems for Wikipedia. The latest case is the fourth scientology-related controversy to require arbitration at Wikiedia's highest levels in as many years. Edits and deletions of material that criticizes scientology have occurred on a massive, seemingly coordinated scale. It is entirely possible that, on net, edits from within the Scientology compound do destabilize the Wikipedia community, without contributing very much of value, but banning all members of a controversial organization sets a terrible precedent for the regulation of online speech.
Today, online communities like Wikipedia and facebook are the public square, or at least the one with the most relevance to most citizens. When the assumptions for free speech change here, it represents a threat to our civil liberties that is every bit as dangerous as an attack on them in the 'real world.'
There are ways to curtail the kinds of edit wars that were raging on the Wikipedia Scientology pages. WikiScanner, a free software available online, can identify the sources of anonymous edits made on Wikipedia by analyzing the IP addresses of the perpetrators. With the motto of 'Radical Transparency' this software has already uncovered self-serving edits by Diebold Election Systems, Exxon, and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Wikipedia's commitment to sourcing its articles and maintaining a neutral point of view should allow it justifiably to revert biased editing that isn't supported by facts. In the long run, Wikipedia can succeed only by fact-checking and not by bans. Very few organizations' edits stem from a central location that can be discerned by IP address, and, even for those that do, it is easy to send operatives out to public libraries to edit Wikipedia articles with real anonymity. Wikipedia's policy to ban all Scientologists, regardless of past behavior, is ineffective, at best, and sets a terrible example for online communications.
One disheartening preview of the future has been playing out on the forums of Bioware, a company that runs a Star Wars-themed MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game). Bioware banned the use of the words "gay," "lesbian," and "homosexual" in forums discussing the characters that players created. Bioware community manager Sean Dahlberg's initial comment was simply, "As I have stated before, these are terms that do not exist in Star Wars. Thread closed."
After an outcry by the Bioware's users (and a listing of several famously gay characters in the extended Star Wars universe), discussion of homosexuality was allowed back on the forum. This situation was resolved, but it is hardly the first scandal of this kind. Sony's Home network for PlayStation users banned the words "gay," "bi-sexual," and "Jew" in 2008, and a Microsoft-run Xbox forum banned a user who self identified as a lesbian, on the grounds that discussion of sexual orientation was "offensive."
This kind of censorship is more dangerous that simple hate speech. Bioware, Sony, and Microsofts's actions were meant to stifle debate, mute speech, and shove gays back into the closet. Wikipedia's recent actions, like those of these companies, prevent an entire class of people from engaging in communication and commerce.
As long as there is sufficient competition, perhaps this kind of discrimination can be overlooked, if we assume that the targeted group can simply switch to a different service, but the issue is really less a question of losing out on a service than one of losing out on society. We don't live in an era of block parties and neighborhood associations, and, today, the public square isn't in our streets, it's on our computer screens. Our lives and our business and personal connections are moving online to sites like facebook, flickr, paypal, and Wikipedia.
Wikipedia should reverse its Scientology ruling rather than set a precedent of discrimination that will only grow more dangerous as our lives move online. Shutting out entire subgroups from these networks is shutting them out of 21st century society. This discriminatory policy will have repercussions that we can't revert with a single click.