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EXCLUSIVE: Shakeup at Wikipedia in Wake of Porn Purge

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia

June 29, 2007: Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, answers a question during an interview in St. Petersburg, Fla.AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

This article was updated on May 17, 2010.

A shakeup is underway at the top levels of Wikipedia, FoxNews.com has learned, as administrators try to deal with the growing controversy surrounding pornographic images that appear on the online encyclopedia and its associated websites.

After much pressure from within the Wikipedia community, co-founder Jimmy Wales has relinquished his top-level control over the encyclopedia's content, as well as all of its parent company's projects.

Though he remains the chairman emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wales is no longer able to delete files, remove administrators, assign projects or edit any content, sources say. Essentially, they say, he has gone from having free reign over the content and people involved in the websites to having the same capabilities of a low-level administrator. (See editor's note, at the conclusion of this article.)

“He had the highest level of control, he was our leader,” a source told FoxNews.com.

When asked who was in charge now, the source said, “No one. It’s chaos.”

According to insider sources and publicly available internal listserve discussions, Wikimedia editors have rebelled in the last week against Wales' attempts to remove pornographic images from the nonprofit's websites. Those images have been the subject of heated discussion within the community since their existence was revealed exclusively by FoxNews.com on April 27.

On May 7, FoxNews.com reported exclusively that Wales had personally deleted many of the images from Wikimedia's servers, and that he'd ordered that thousands more be purged. Now many of those images have been restored to their original web pages.

Hundreds of listserve discussions among Wikimedia board members, administrators and editors reveal the eruption of a heated and chaotic debate over whether to delete the images, which legal analysts say may violate pornography and obscenity laws.

The debate heated up when FoxNews.com began contacting high profile corporations and foundations that have donated to the Wikimedia Foundation for comment — including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Best Buy, USA Networks, Craigslist, Ford Foundation and Open Society Institute.

Several of those donors contacted the foundation to inquire about the thousands of images on Wikimedia’s servers that could be considered child pornography. There also are graphic photo images of male and female genitalia, men and women or groups of people involved in sexual acts, images of masturbation and other pornographic material — all of which can be viewed by children at most public schools, where students are encouraged to use Wikipedia as a source encyclopedia.

When the donors started calling, Wales immediately called on the sites’ editors to quickly purge any possibly obscene or pornographic content from the sites.

This led to outrage among the sites' many volunteer editors and administrators, who charged that Wales’ actions betrayed the essence of the open user-generated online encyclopedia.

One lengthy e-mail response read in part:

“In essence, right now Jimbo is deleting things based on his singular judgment about what should be allowed…. This is a large change and lack of a clear policy creates a very confusing and frustrating environment for editors. (Multiple Commons admins have already stated their intention to resign and/or retire over this.)”

But Wales defended his actions on the foundation listserve, writing:

"Much of the cleanup is done, although there was so much hardcore pornography on commons that there's still some left in nooks and crannies….

"We were about to be smeared in all media as hosting hardcore pornography and doing nothing about it. Now, the correct storyline is that we are cleaning up. I'm proud to have made sure that storyline broke the way it did, and I'm sorry I had to step on some toes to make it happen.

"Now, the key is: let's continue to move forward with a responsible policy discussion."

That post only intensified the debate. One administrator wrote: “If this is an emergency situation requiring a justified, immediate, unilateral, king-like massive action, I regret Mr. Wales didn't take the time to explain the emergency to us. 

"By rush-imposing his views and decisions on people who are not out of the debate yet, he is browbeating their inner self, ignoring their beliefs and opinions, discarding the value of the Other.

"This lack of respect and of equality of vote should be extremely well argumented and the reasons transparently communicated. Otherwise, trust, faith and adhesion to the [Wikimedia Foundation] values dissolve. I don't think we should let this happen. Mr. Wales, I hope you enter reason and dialogue realms again….”

By Thursday the discussion had devolved into an all-out war pitting board members against board members, and with top leadership sparring with lower level administrators.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Jimmy Wales is the president of the Wikimedia Foundation. He is the chairman emeritus.