The “Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intéieur” (Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence, DCRI), a French intelligence agency decided suddenly that an article about a military base contained classified information, and wanted it deleted. As the English-language Wikipedia article on the subject explains:

The Wikimedia Foundation asked the intelligence agency what precise part(s) of the article were a problem in the eyes of the intelligence agency, noting that the article closely reflected information in a freely available television broadcast. The DCRI refused to give these details, and repeated its demand for deletion of the article.

Wikipedia refused to delete it, and then things took a nasty turn, as a press release from the Wikimedia Foundation explains:

Unhappy with the Foundation’s answer, the DCRI summoned a Wikipedia volunteer in their offices on April 4th. This volunteer, which was one of those having access to the tools that allow the deletion of pages, was forced to delete the article while in the DCRI offices, on the understanding that he would have been held in custody and prosecuted if he did not comply. Under pressure, he had no other choice than to delete the article, despite explaining to the DCRI this is not how Wikipedia works.

As the Wikimedia Foundation goes on to note:

This volunteer had no link with that article, having never edited it and not even knowing of its existence before entering the DCRI offices. He was chosen and summoned because he was easily identifiable, given his regular promotional actions of Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects in France.

This is very similar to the situation discussed last week, where Benjamin Mako Hill seems to have been targeted because he, too, was easily identifiable. As we noted then, putting pressure on Wikipedia volunteers in this way is extremely problematic, since it naturally discourages others from helping out. As Wikimedia wrote in its 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

There is also the interesting question of how a national intelligence service only found out about the article now, several years after it was first added: this hardly suggests a firm grasp of what’s happening in the online world. That’s confirmed by the fact that the deleted article is, of course, back on line, in French and a dozen other languages. Moreover, the DCRI’s ham-fisted attempt to censor an extremely obscure Wikipedia page that hardly anyone ever visited, has achieved exactly the opposite effect: in the last few days, the page has been viewed over 45,000 times. This ishow the article about the not-so-secret military installation now concludes:

As a result of the controversy, the article became the most-read page on the French Wikipedia. It was translated into multiple other languages. The French newspaper 20 minutes noted it as an example of the Streisand effect in action.

Will they never learn?

Written by Glyn Moody


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