Despite Content Purge, Pornographic Images Remain on Wikimedia

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Despite efforts by Wikipedia's parent company to rapidly purge porn from its servers over the weekend, the original images that the online encyclopedia's co-founder reported to the FBI are still up on the site — along with an entire category called “nude children” and other photos of naked children.

Last week, asked dozens of Wikimedia Foundation’s corporate donors — including Microsoft, Google, Best Buy, Ford Foundation, Open Society Institute, USA Networks and Yahoo! — for comment about the vast pornographic content on the company's educational servers. (The Wikimedia Foundation is the tax-exempt nonprofit behind Wikimedia Commons and its Wiki projects, including Wikipedia, which public school students throughout the country use for online research. Wikimedia Commons is Wikipedia's media and image host.)

On the heels of this reporting, Wikimedia began suddenly purging thousands of pornographic images from its sites.

But countless graphic images remain on the sites, including those of a 16-year-old boy's genitals, according to the file description, and an early 20th century color illustration of a young girl performing oral sex on an older man.

Over the weekend, Wikimedia president Jimmy Wales announced on a foundation listserve that he was taking a rest from purging the websites of porn. He wrote:

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"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.

"I'm taking the day off from deleting, both today and tomorrow, but I do encourage people to continue deleting the most extreme stuff.

"But as the immediate crisis has passed (successfully!) there is not nearly the time pressure that there was. I'm shifting into a slower mode.

"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."

Further into the comment thread, some members blast Wales, accusing him of eliminating porn because of pressure from

But despite the weekend purge, much pornographic content remains on Wikimedia Commons and is accessible through Wikipedia, including the images of a boy's genitals and the original illustrations of children engaged in sexual acts that  Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger reported in his April letter to the FBI early last month.

While the pictures are drawings and not photos, some legal experts say they are obscene -- and illegal. But others contend that they technically do not reach the level of obscenity required to be ruled against the law.

One of the images Sanger referred to in his letter is an early 20th century colored illustration of a young girl performing oral sex on a much older man. Its caption reads: “If Mom returns? She'll tell you that it's very rude to talk with your mouth full."

The image is accessible via Wikipedia's article on "Pedophilia," at the bottom of which is an image with a link directing readers: "Wikimedia Commons has media related to Pedophilia.”

The link takes you to a page that contains 25 to 30 explicit and detailed drawings of children performing sexual acts. Other categories depict similar, and in some cases more graphic, sexual acts in cartoon form.

In a May 6 online discussion with other Wiki users, Wales spoke specifically about the above image and of other illustrations in the “pedophilia” and “zoophilia” categories (the latter includes illustrations of children engaged in sex acts with animals).

Within the course of four hours, Wales appeared to reverse his position on whether images in this category should be deleted. First, he wrote “I didn’t look at all of them but most of them don’t even contain nudity. And they are historical drawings, which does strike me as a legitimate factor to consider.”

Less than four hours later, Wales said of the same images, “I see little or not educational value in any of those.”

Wikipedia streams unfiltered into public school classrooms throughout the country. If students researching documented cases of pedophilia were to click on the link, they'd arrive at drawings of naked children performing sexual acts. The images aren't photos; they're drawings. But some experts say that distinction doesn’t matter legally.

“Clearly some of the currently available drawings are obscene, and individuals have been prosecuted for downloading and possessing similar material,” said James Marsh, an attorney who represents victims of child sexual exploitation.

The FBI has not commented on whether it's pursuing charges. But it could, said Marsh, who pointed to several legal precedents in which prosecutions have been made based on sexually explicit depictions of children similar to the images on Wikipedia.

But some legal analysts say that while the images are pornographic, they are not obscene -- and therefore not illegal.

“It’s almost impossible for non-visual material to be considered obscene,” said Eric Goldman, an associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and director of the High Tech Law Institute.

"With respect to child pornography, the real harm is in the production of it -- not the fact that it's also socially irredeemable."

He said because laws involving child pornography and obscenity are enacted largely in the interest of protecting the child involved, it gets tricky when the children involved are synthetic -- in cartoon or drawing form. He referred to numerous previous laws relating to non-photo child pornography that were shot down by the Supreme Court for being too broad in scope and overstepping the bounds of First Amendment rights.

But Marsh says he has the definitive answer:

“Wikipedia has an undisputable affirmative corporate responsibility to keep such material off their sites, which are almost universally available in elementary schools and public libraries,” he said. “Every other content provider has to play by these rules. Why not Wikipedia?”