Wikimedia Foundation elaborates on recent demand by French governmental agency to remove Wikipedia content.
As some members of our community are already aware, a disturbing situation has developed involving Wikipedia and a threat by France’s Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur. We would like to be transparent about our understanding as to what has occurred to date and try to answer any questions the community may have regarding this incident, with the sensitivity required to minimize Wikipedians’ exposure to further unjustified risk.
On 4 March 2013, the Wikimedia Foundation (the “Foundation”) was contacted by the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (“DCRI”), a French intelligence agency. The DCRI claimed that the article Station hertzienne militaire de Pierre-sur-Haute on the French language Wikipedia contains classified military information and that publication of such information violates French Penal Code, Article 413-10. The DCRI demanded removal of the article in its entirety without any further substantive explanation.
The Foundation takes allegations of national security threats seriously and investigated the matter accordingly. However, it was not readily apparent what specific information the DCRI could consider classified or otherwise high-risk. Without further information, we could not understand why the DCRI believes information in the article is classified. Almost all of the information in the article is cited to publicly-available sources. In fact, the article’s contents are largely consistent with a publicly available video in which Major Jeansac, the chief of the military station in question, gives a detailed interview and tour of the station to a reporter. This video is now cited in the article. Furthermore, the page was originally created on July 24, 2009 and has been continually available and edited since. We do not know why the DCRI believes that the article has suddenly become an urgent threat now.
We requested more information from the DCRI, such as which specific sentences or sections they believed to contain classified information. Unfortunately, the DCRI refused to provide any more specific detail and reaffirmed their demand that the entire article be deleted. Therefore, the Foundation was forced to refuse their request pending receipt of more information that we could use to fully evaluate their claim.
On 30 March 2013, we discovered that the DCRI, evidently dissatisfied with the Foundation’s response, contacted a volunteer with administrative rights (a “sysop”) who resides in France. This sysop is not responsible for the hosting of the content on Wikipedia, had no role in the creation of the article, and is not part of the Wikimedia Foundation. As we understand it, the sysop attempted to explain his limited role as a volunteer and directed them back to the Foundation’s legal department.
Unfortunately, the DCRI did not accept this answer and insisted that the sysop use his administrative rights to immediately remove the article, or face serious and immediate reprisals. Under the shadow of these threats, the sysop removed the article as directed. We are reaching out to the sysop and, to the extent he wishes, intend to support him to the best of our ability during this frightening experience. We ask that you respect his privacy as we work through this matter.
There has been significant community discussion regarding the deletion and, as we understand, an updated version of the article was subsequently reinstated by another member of the community.
- The Foundation’s Position
When governments have security concerns about Wikipedia articles, they should direct those concerns to the Foundation, and only to the Foundation. We believe it is unnecessary, irresponsible, and often counter-productive for any governmental agency to contact users or volunteers of any Wikimedia website directly to address issues that should be worked through in close collaboration with the Foundation. In the past, we have worked together with a number of agencies around the world to resolve their concerns in ways that were both consistent with the needs of the agency and the principles of the community.
While we have never received a request of this nature from the DCRI before, it is unfortunately not unheard of for governmental entities to contact, or even harass, local users. The Foundation strongly opposes any governmental attempts to intimidate the volunteers who dedicate their time and energy to build one of the world’s great educational resources that everyone can freely share in. We are saddened and disappointed to discover that the DCRI believes the tactics they employed in the name of security in this matter could be acceptable under any moral or legal authority. The Foundation was, and remains, willing to work with the DCRI to resolve this matter if possible, but we cannot condone any harassment of individuals who have done nothing wrong.
The Foundation is certainly sensitive to national security concerns, but in cases where there is no ‘’apparent’’ threat but rather a vague unsubstantiated claim of threats to national security, we require more information before we will consider removing any content -- to do otherwise would allow censorship to trump free expression, which would be a direct assault on the values of the Wikimedia community. All cases are investigated and evaluated on a case-by-case basis and some are more easily resolved than others. In this case, we have been unable to readily determine that the information is classified on its face and -- especially in light of the video -- therefore believe our request to the DCRI for more information is a reasonable one.
The community remains free, of course, to retain or remove the article as it sees fit under community policies and processes. We value and respect community decisions in this regard. However, we want to remind users who are subject to the jurisdiction of France that there are risks involved in posting content that government authorities don’t want posted, and we advise such users to consult an attorney before acting in a situation that seems potentially risky. At this point, we do not see a demonstrated reason to remove the article on legal grounds.
- A Word of Caution
We would like to remind editors that, even when you are acting in good faith and doing good work, you are legally responsible for your activities on any Wikimedia site and, therefore, should be mindful of the laws governing the jurisdiction(s) to which you are subject. Every person has their own level of risk tolerance. We advise you to use your best judgment, and be cautious about contributing, editing, removing, or otherwise altering anything you are not comfortable taking responsibility for, or that you are unsure about.
Unfortunately, the Foundation’s legal department can only represent the best interests of the Foundation. That is an ethical requirement of the American legal profession. This means we cannot give legal advice to or serve as lawyers for community members, volunteers, or staff members in their personal capacity. We will always provide support to the extent we can, including, depending on the nature of the case, possible referral to the Legal Fees Assistance Program or our policy on the Defense of contributors when appropriate, securing of local independent counsel to defend individual users, or providing public support.
If you are ever contacted by governmental authorities who are trying to make you do something on any Wikimedia project that makes you feel uncomfortable, one good course of action is to simply refer them directly to us. We can be reached at email@example.com.