Image via Wikipedia / Motherboard
The French government isn't very good at the Internet. Well, maybe not the entire French government but an intelligence agency known as the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intéieur (Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence) certainly needs work. For the past month or so, the intelligence agency has been dueling with the world's top Wikipedians over a seemingly benign article that it wanted removed from "the free encyclopedia." As that tagline suggests, Wikipedia does not like it when governments try to censor what it does. Suffice it to say, the situation is working out too well for the French intelligence agency. That article is now the most read piece of content on the French-language Wikipedia.
It all started in early March when the DCRI contacted the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia's parent organization, to request the takedown of an article about the Pierre-sur-Haute military radio station. The agency said it was full of "classified military information" and that hosting "such disclosures violated the Penal Code."
This was a bad idea. If the DCRI had bothered to do any research on Wikipedia, it would know that the organization doesn't respond well to takedown requests. After all, its mission is to make information free. It's not completely out of the question for content to be removed from Wikipedia, but there are a strict set of guidelines that regulate what gets taken down. Reasons like incorrect information, copyrighted content and abusive content are all on that list of guidelines. The wishes of disgruntled governments is not.
The DCRI could've stopped here, but they decided to get clever. It tracked down a Wikipedia admin — that is, someone with a special set of privileges that enable them to takedown and restore pages — and last week allegedly threatened to prosecute him if he didn't take down the page. The French Ministry of the Interior denied on Sunday that it was a "threat," arguing that it's not legal a threat if they just told him he was breaking the law. It's unclear which law he would've been breaking by agreeing to censor the page. Either way, the admin surely didn't want to go to jail so he deleted the article.
Bad idea again! Awful idea in fact. Perhaps especially because the DCRI had requested the article's removal, the Wikimedia France quickly found out what had happened, and an admin in Switzerland restored the page. It also sent out a pretty harshly worded press release:
Wikimedia France cannot understand how bullying and coercitive methods can be used against a person dedicated to promote the freedom and knowledge. As Wikimedia France supports free knowledge, it is its duty to denounce such acts of censorship against a French citizen and Wikipedia editor.
Has editing Wikipedia officially become risky behaviour in France? Is the DCRI unable to enforce military secrecy through legal, less brutal methods.
As any journalist probably realizes, a story involving a spy agency, censorship and the leaders of free information on the web is something that people want to read about it. So over the weekend, the story exploded all over the world. Traffic to the page, which had been basically non-existent spiked the day the story started gaining momentum on Saturday. Yesterday, it had nearly doubled, and the curve is still sloping up today. According to Wikipedia, it's now the most popular article on the French site and has been translated into a bunch of foreign languages.
Let this be a lesson to anyone considering challenging Wikipedians to a duel over free speech. Don't do it. Wikipedia will win. What folks like the French government clearly don't understand is that it's not like other media companies. There is no editor-in-chief and no advertisers to watch out for. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Wikipedia is supported by donors who believe in the mission of free information. These folks are probably thrilled to see Wikipedia swat back at an intelligence agency, and maybe they'll even throw a few extra bucks Wikipedia's way this year.
So yah. Don't make Wikipedia angry. The only thing worse than making Wikipedia angry is making Reddit angry. You definitely don't want to do that.
CLARIFICATION: A representative from the Wikimedia Foundation reached out to clarify that it is a seperate entity from Wikimedia France. He explained:
In [this] chronology, you'll see that the DCRI contacted us in March and requested the page be removed, but we did not see a legal rationale for that action, therefore we declined their request. The article was only removed after the DCRI had detained a French Wikimedia admin and compelled him to remove the article. It was later restored by an admin in Switzerland, not by the Wikimedia Foundation, nor by Wikimedia France.
I've updated the text of the article to clarify that it was a Wikipedia admin that restored the page.