The Arbitration Committee (ArbCom) on the English Wikipedia is a group of editors that rules on disputes between editors related to user conduct as a matter of last resort, and when those disagreements cannot be resolved otherwise. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales created the ArbCom in December 2003, when the number of disputes that he was asked to handle grew too cumbersome. Various researchers and academics have analyzed the committee as a conflict resolution body, and it has been covered in mainstream news outlets, most notably the New York Times and The Colbert Report. In total, the English Wikipedia ArbCom has decided 371 cases since it was founded, serving to provide action and guidance on some of the more intractable issues within the Wikimedia community.
We wanted to give members of the committee the opportunity to reflect on their experiences since joining and to share their perspective about the future of Wikipedia. Four Arbitrators participated in an email interview. Their service terms run the gamut on experience with the Committee.
Newyorkbrad has edited English Wikipedia regularly since 2006 and is one of the longest serving members of the ArbCom, starting in January 2008 (and clerking with the committee in 2007). Outside of Wikipedia, he is a practicing attorney and has contributed content on the English Wikipedia, primarily on subjects related to law.
Worm That Turned (WTT) is among the newest members of ArbCom, elected at the end of 2012 and seated in January 2013. He created his account on English Wikipedia in 2008 and has been one of the most active contributors to the English Wikipedia’s “adoption” program, whereby experienced editors mentor newcomers and help them acclimate. Outside of Wikipedia, he works in the Information Technology field.
Risker has edited English Wikipedia since 2005 and first ran for ArbCom in 2008. She was later appointed to the committee in January 2009 and is now serving through her second two-year term. Risker is a list administrator for all ArbCom-related lists, is usually involved in appointment processes for committees and has managed orientation of new arbitrators for several years. Outside of arbitration work, Risker enjoys copy-editing and has worked on a wide variety of articles.
Carcharoth has edited English Wikipedia since January 2005 (over eight years) and was appointed to the ArbCom for the first time following the December 2008 ArbCom elections. He was an arbitrator for two years (2009 and 2010), but didn’t stand for re-election at the end of that two-year term. After spending two years focused more on editing, he again stood in the December 2012 election and was elected to another two-year term.
Read the edited interview below, or read the complete interview transcripts on Metawiki here.
Director, Community Advocacy, Wikimedia Foundation
- Why did you want to be on ArbCom? What were you hoping to accomplish?
- Risker – I believed I could bring a different perspective to the Committee in its dispute resolution functions, and wanted to redesign much of the “behind the scenes” infrastructure so that the community could be an active participant in more of the Committee’s responsibilities. I know I still bring a “different perspective” based on the number of times I am outvoted on a position, or disagree with my colleagues on various points. I’ve been a key participant in the development of the Audit Subcommittee (AUSC), in seeking out community members to act as Checkusers and Oversighters, and in ensuring community participation in the appointment of Checkusers, Oversighters and AUSC members.
- WTT – I felt I could make a difference on the committee; one of my strongest skill sets is the ability to talk to people and explain opposite points of view. I play a great devil’s advocate. I was hoping to change the committee from something that was at odds with the community to something the community felt was there for their benefit.
- Carcharoth – The aim was to put myself forward to do a role that traditionally is seen as thankless, but that needs to be done. One of the things that is seldom realised is how difficult it is to act as a deliberative committee, rather than individuals. It can slow things down immensely to the point of seeming paralysis at times.
- NYB – I sought to contribute to the fair and effective resolution of disputes on the English Wikipedia, which are the types of disputes that come before the Arbitration Committee to resolve. Although like most editors I came to Wikipedia to work on article drafting and editing, soon after I started editing regularly, I became aware of the backstage governance and dispute-resolution apparatus of which ArbCom is a part.
- What are your responsibilities as an ArbCom member? Do different members have different responsibilities?
- NYB – The primary responsibility of the arbitrators is to address arbitration cases. These include deciding whether or not to accept given cases for arbitration (the Committee votes on whether to accept or decline each case request; in general, we will only accept a case if other community-based methods of dispute resolution have not succeeded in resolving the dispute, and if we believe that an arbitration decision could help resolve it); analyzing the evidence and voting on the proposed decision in each accepted case; and after cases are resolved, commenting on requests for clarifications, amendments, or termination of sanctions. In addition, the Arbitration Committee is the forum of last resort for users who have been banned or blocked indefinitely by the community, or who have been blocked based in part on non-public information that other administrators aren’t able to review. By Wikimedia Foundation policy, the Arbitration Committee is responsible for appointing checkusers and oversighters on our project and, as a follow-on to that responsibility, it also has the authority to decide that such userrights should be withdrawn. Finally, over the years the Arbitration Committee has taken on a small handful of miscellaneous responsibilities that no one else on the project is in a position to perform.
Each arbitrator has identical rights and responsibilities for analyzing and voting on cases. However, in each case, one or two arbitrators will be designated as the drafting arbitrator(s) who will take the lead on doing the initial analysis and preparing a proposed decision for consideration. A few arbitrators have also taken on special responsibilities within the Committee, either by agreement with their colleagues or simply by stepping up and doing the work. For example, at present, Roger Davies serves as Coordinating Arbitrator; I serve as Liaison to the Wikimedia Foundation Office (a position that the Office suggested we create); Risker serves as de facto coordinator of checkuser and oversighter selection; and so on. We also have two subcommittees, the Ban Appeals Subcommittee, which is composed of three arbitrators and which takes the lead in evaluating many of the appeals from banned or indefblocked users; and the Audit Subcommittee, which is composed of three arbitrators and three non-arbitrator community members (and hence isn’t really a subcommittee of ArbCom at all), which reviews complaints concerning alleged misuse of checkuser and oversighter rights on English Wikipedia. Arbitrators serve on these two subcommittees on a rotating basis.
- How much email do you get and how much can you actually process? What are the various kinds of email that come in?
- NYB – There are probably a hundred or so e-mails a week. The e-mails relate to every aspect of the Committee’s work that I’ve mentioned above, as well as some that are simply informational, or which are misdirected and which we try to re-route to the right place (e.g. we get some inquiries from BLP subjects, which we forward to the OTRS team). I try to read every e-mail, but in practice, some get more of my attention than others, depending on my time availability that day or week, and whether other arbitrators have gotten to a particular e-mail first.
- Risker – Because I am a mailing list administrator, I get probably 3-5 times the volume of emails as the average arbitrator; all those lists generate a lot of moderation request emails, which I sort out using filters so my inbox isn’t completely unmanageable. A typical day will see anywhere from 60-125 emails, not counting “public” mailing lists like Wikimedia-l, Wikitech-l, WikiEN-l and Gendergap. If it’s a heavy day, I’ll focus my attention on Arbcom mailing list threads (which are usually the bulk of incoming messages) and emails directed to me personally, with the next level of attention being email threads from the Functionaries mailing lists, the AUSC, arbcom clerks list, the global Checkuser mailing list.
- What’s the most interesting case you’ve been a part of?
- Carcharoth – The one I remember most is one I drafted on a dispute between two editors in the topic area of socionics, though I wouldn’t call it interesting. Much arbitration work is not really that interesting. It often involves poring through reams of evidence that others can’t be bothered to look at, or where things have been assessed perfunctorily and incorrectly by others, and you need to ensure that the crux of a matter is looked at and discussed and voted on.
- Risker – Probably the ones that I remember most vividly are two from early 2011, Longevity and Shakespeare authorship question – an interesting way to start a new term. The latter, as I recall, became the subject of one or more academic studies.
- What’s the most interesting issue you’ve never worked on, or you wish you had worked on?
- NYB – I think we’ve seen a good cross-section of wiki-disputes in the five-plus years I’ve been on the Committee; I can’t think of a type of dispute that I haven’t had a chance to weigh in on on some level or other. Sometimes I’ll be reading through a day’s worth of noticeboard postings and I’ll think to myself ‘I’d better not comment on that because I’d like to write on that issue as an arbitrator if the dispute comes to us,’ and then sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.
- Risker – There have been several times when I have urged editors to bring a case to the Committee, rather than expressing concern on my talk page or by email. In many of those cases, the situation they were discussing was quite clearly a problem that was affecting the project; however, I can understand that it’s a significant challenge for editors to bring something forward because of the time commitment and the occasional possibility of a boomerang effect. Several of these situations were ultimately dealt with by the community, but only after several more months of problematic behavior.
- In the cases that you’ve seen, knowing what you know now, are there any where you think you should have voted differently, or acted in a different manner?
- Carcharoth – At times yes, but unless those cases come up on appeal, there is little point rehashing old cases. In my case, some of those cases are many years old now, and the committee simply doesn’t have the time or resources to re-examine old cases. In general, though, I think the main thrust of decisions have been correct. The key is not to get hung up on detail, but to try and see the larger picture.
- Risker – There are few situations where I would have changed my votes, although there are times when I think the committee (or one or more of its members) has acted precipitously.
- You’re in one of the more high profile positions on Wikipedia. How does that influence your perception of the project? How are you handling your celebrity?
- Carcharoth – It feels more like notoriety than celebrity! But having been an arbitrator before, it feels pretty much like last time. Which probably isn’t that good in some ways, as a small part of me had hoped that some of the more debilitating aspects of being an arbitrator had been improved, but it seems at times that not much has changed in two years.
- Rister – I do my best not to let this supposed celebrity go to my head; my “ordinary” admin actions are no less vulnerable than any other administrator’s, and my editorial actions are not irreversible. I always keep in mind that the names that keep showing up in relation to the Arbitration Committee (whether in cases or as commenters) constitute less than 5 percent of the active editorship, and that the vast majority of the editorial community wouldn’t know me from Adam.
- ‘WTT – Celebrity? Ha. There’s been a few things I’ve found a little odd, at a recent Wikimedia meetup I did feel attitudes were different. Also, I’m not keen on the veneration of arbitrators – I often see comments that an arbitrator commenting on a discussion somehow adds validation to it. Arbs are just normal members of the project, with just a little more trust. We’re nothing special really.
- There are those who say that the Arbcom is misnamed, and doesn’t arbitrate anything, truly. Do you agree with this? Is the Arbcom an arbiter of disputes or does ArbCom serve another function?
- Risker – The Wikipedia community is rather notorious for using non-standard definitions for terms that, in some cases, defy anything that might be found in an English language dictionary. “Arbitration” is just one of them. We certainly don’t arbitrate in any classic sense of the word, because we do not accept either side’s positions, but instead place our own interpretation on the evidence we are provided or that we identify. Our remedies (or resolutions) are normally quite different from that requested by any parties, whereas most classical “arbitration” situations require the arbitrator to select from one position or the other. So yes, we’re misnamed.One point that I often make is that our “clients” are not the parties to the case. Our “client” is Wikipedia, the encyclopedia. Our decisions need to accommodate the best interests of the project, not the interests of any party.
- Carcharoth – ArbCom can arbitrate (and help resolve) disputes, usually when we accept a case at the right moment in the dispute resolution process. Too early and arbitration can make things unnecessarily complex. Too late and things will already be highly acrimonious and usually all we can do is try and separate the parties to some extent and adjudicate rather than arbitrate. We also have to hope to some extent that competent editors remain at the end of the process who are willing to repair or improve any content that may have been argued over. That is not always the case, and the lack of more involved ‘aftercare’ for a topic area after a case is one of the biggest failings of the process, in my view.ArbCom also ends up dealing with things that no one else can (including privacy-related matters), and this is not ideal as it increases our workload and distracts from our core function of dealing with cases.
- Could you explain your impression of your role, as it pertains to determining governance policies on Wikipedia? What is the Arbcom’s role in governance?
- Carcharoth – It should be zero, but by default and in some cases by mandate, we have ended up dealing with matters like overseeing the oversight and checkuser teams, and sometimes people do look to ArbCom for leadership, when, in my opinion, such leadership should come from within the community.
- Risker – Arbcom’s role is to interpret the policies developed collaboratively by the community; it is not to create policies out of whole cloth. It is my firm belief that Arbcom is not a governance body, but instead handles the problems that the community hasn’t figured out how to (or doesn’t want to) handle on its own.
- NYB – The Arbitration Committee is not supposed to make policy, and despite allegations that we sometimes cross that line, we do our very best not to do so in almost all cases. That being said, arbitration decisions do outline principles that editors should bear in mind, and they also define policy in a bottom-line, operational sense (e.g. “if an administrator does X he or she is likely to be desysopped”). And the Committee sometimes has had to say something about a given policy issue because, for better or worse, the project does not have a Governance Committee.
- Do you think ArbCom should get involved in resolving more content disputes (as opposed to user conduct disputes)? If so, how do you reconcile this with the historical precedent against it? If your answer is “no”, to whom do you believe those content disputes “belong”? Who is the party that should resolve them?
- WTT – No. The crowd-sourcing aspect of a wiki should encourage subject matter experts to a topic, whose understanding of the topic should allow them to put forward strong arguments that lead to consensus. In this way the community should own any content disputes, and arbcom should only step in when users are behaving in a manner that stops consensus being formed.
- Carcharoth – I firmly stand behind the principle that it is the community of editors in and around a topic area that should determine the content and how content disputes are handled. The role of administrators, and in severe cases ArbCom, should be to remove the editors causing disruption. The most ArbCom, and those trying to keep a contentious area calm, should do, is to set up structures and systems to help resolve disputes.
- Will there still be an ArbCom in 5 years? Please explain why or why not. What does the future of the committee look like?
- NYB – I think the overall trend may continue under which the Arbitration Committee decides a smaller proportion of the project’s disputes today and in the foreseeable future than it did in past years. It may be that the community creates one or more other governance bodies to share some governance responsibilities, which would take away some of the Committee’s work at the margins, but the community has not looked kindly on a prior Committee effort to create even an advisory governance body, so I think whatever evolves in that area will do so independent of us.
- WTT – The community is getting much better at resolving its own disputes and needs the committee less and less for arbitration; however we’re still needed for the other jobs that we’ve taken on. Perhaps a new committee would be a good idea. Having said that, the chances of it happening on the encyclopedia are low – we don’t embrace change, let alone big change. So, in all probability, there will still be a committee, though there may not be a need for one.
- What changes do you think will happen to ArbCom over the next 5 years or longer? What changes should happen?
- WTT – I’m hoping for a bit more transparency, and perhaps a bit of a break up of powers.
- Risker – I think the committee continuously looks at what it is supposed to be doing and whether or not it is sustainable. There will be a focus on narrowing the interpretation of what is and is not within the committee’s remit, and more moves toward delegation of matters that the committee has handled in the past.
- What one message would you like to convey to Wikipedians about the Arbitration Committee? If you could sit them all down and make them believe one statement from you, what would that statement be?
- WTT – The committee are a group of independent individuals and generally they have different opinions. There’s no conspiracy, there’s no evil intentions, every one of us is doing our best for the encyclopedia.
- NYB – We are a committee of volunteers, drawn from the editing community of which all of you are a part, selected by yourselves after the most comprehensive vetting and selection process the community has been able to devise, and doing our best to address serious problems that the project has no other way to solve. Input from the community we serve is always helpful to us as we strive to fulfill our role on the project.
- Carcharoth – Stand up and take an active part in arbitration (or indeed any part of the dispute resolution process – it all helps). Take the time to see what we do and to participate in a few cases. [Don’t] just add comments but be constructive with criticism and actively help out. Add support where you see things done well, and be clear on how you would do things differently if you disagree with something.