Wikipedia bans British Dept of Health?

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According to the British Department of Health, Wikipedia banned their IP address from creating or editing entries in August 2007, pursuant to a policy blocking edits from IP addresses that are shared by many users. Gawker’s somewhat sensationalist (entitled “Everyone With Any Authority Is Banned From Wikipedia” and tagged “Webtards”) but amusing take:

The minister of state said Wikipedia had banned them for making “too many edits,” even though two edits a day sounds pretty reasonable for a major government organization. From now on, anyone from the DoH will have to sign in with a username, which should make it harder for anyone to notice if the department’s trying to push any certain message. Thanks, Wikipedia, for making sure governments don’t get too transparent, and ensuring that it will be easier for my cousin Mac to spread the truth that humans are solid all the way through, like potatoes.

I agree with Gawker that this move reduces transparency: after all, wasn’t much of the amazing information that came out of the Wikiscanner project a result of looking at what edits had come from institutional, shared IP addresses? And if Jimmy Wales thinks Wikiscanner is the best thing since sliced bread, (assuming that Mr. Wales can speak for all of Wikipedia, which the article I link seems to suggest, but is certainly arguable) why would a Wikipedia policy work to undermine the Wikiscanner mechanism?

So I did some research. Note that while I am not a Wikipedian (and therefore am unfamiliar with these policies), the only info I pulled up relevant to blocking shared IP addresses as a matter of course was a note that blocks on shared IPs are typically shorter than on individual users to avoid side-effects on other users sharing that IP address, an admonition to exercise caution when suggesting a ban on a possibly shared IP, and lists of shared IPs that Wikipedia knows about and presumably does not ban. Unless the DoH was persistently “vandalising” Wikipedia like the Washington Post, I don’t see a reason why they should have been banned.

If my admittedly brief reading of Wikipedia policies is correct, I think the ban on the British Department of Health’s IP address was less in concordance with the general operating policies of Wikipedia than the interests of the DoH itself, which probably wants to avoid its employees’ personal actions creating the appearance of a DoH agenda. (The DoH denied editing Wikipedia at an institutional level as part of any communication or information strategy, and stated that any edits coming from their IP address were the result of personal use.) Other institutions have in fact banned employees from editing Wikipedia, likely for this very reason. My personal belief is that the true reasons for this block have been obscured as a result of a miscommunication from the DoH, either intentional or unintentional, because I just cannot reconcile their statement with how I understand the Wikipedia policies.

This example highlights some of the underlying tensions in how we think about authorship, online identity, institutional identity, credibility, and anonymity. I think the Wikiscanner project is a fantastic example of the kind of research that would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate outside of the Web and, while it is wise to hedge conclusions involving attributing institutional authorship to individual comments coming from a shared IP, the data it has produced so far is incredibly interesting and valuable. If Wikipedia does in fact have a policy (or at least some administrators are interpreting their policies) to ban shared IP addresses, or if organizations continue to ban edits to Wikipedia that can be attributed to their IP address, Wikiscanner will certainly have much less to tell us in the future. It’s probably already the case that the Wikiscanner coverage has reduced the potential for scandalous edits from institutional IPs, but I think the way that institutions continue to interface with Wikipedia will itself provide some interesting insights.

3 Comments

  1. tsullivan

    March 3, 2008 @ 6:23 pm

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    One thing I don’t understand is why they would ban the IP address from editing all entries, instead of just its own (and maybe some related ones like those about major competitors). Maybe they’re afraid employees of an institution would edit its own entry to remove bad information, but if several employees from the British Department of Health want to update entries on their favorite soccer players on their lunch breaks, it’s hard to see how that’s a harm. Isn’t it likely they could have done this in more limited form?

  2. green bowel movements

    December 19, 2009 @ 9:39 am

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    green bowel movements…

    good stuff – great blog!…

  3. department health wikipedia « education webs

    April 30, 2010 @ 2:47 am

    3

    […] 12.The Web Difference » Blog Archive » Wikipedia bans British Dept of According to the British Department of Health, Wikipedia banned their IP address from creating or editing entries in August 2007, pursuant to a policy blocking edits from IP addresses that are shared by many users. http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/webdifference/2008/03/02/wikipedia-bans-british-dept-of-health/ […]