Saudi Arabian spy operation forced Wikimedia to fire its entire Saudi Arabia-based admin team: report
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According to reports, two privileged administrators of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia have been arrested by Saudi Arabian officials. The couple were sentenced to 32 and eight years in prison for handling conflicts critical of the government. The jail terms preceded a larger suspected Saudi spy operation within the company that ultimately led Wikipedia to fire every single one of its administrators working in the country.
The bans were the result of an internal Wikimedia investigation uncovered by Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), an advocacy group founded by The late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. DAWN says it learned about the arrests and Wikipedia bans from sources close to Wikipedia and the jailed administrators themselves. Wikimedia did not respond to Gizmodo’s requests for comment.
Wikimedia administrators, sometimes referred to as editors, are not paid employees of the site. Instead, they are volunteers who are granted privileged access to the site, which may include the ability to fully edit sometimes protected web pages. Additionally, in some cases, admins can also reportedly delete pages and block or unblock specific users. DAWN’s report claims the alleged administrators close to the Saudi government became administrators and used those privileges to “control information about the country.”
The detained administrators, on the other hand, were reportedly arrested as early as September 2020 and allegedly charged with “influencing public opinion” and “offending public morals”. DAWN alleges that these arrests were politically motivated and came in response to administrators contributing information to the site that was deemed critical of the Saudi government.
“It is despicable but entirely predictable that the Saudi government would prosecute Saudis simply for posting content about the government’s human rights abuses,” Raed Jarrar, DAWN’s advocacy director, said in a statement. “But Wikimedia must also take responsibility for the fact that its authorized editors are now in prison for their work on Wikipedia pages.”
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DAWN claims Saudi administrators are Wikimedia’s 16 users uncovered it was banned in a public announcement in December 2022. Wikimedia, which did not provide details about the suspended administrators at the time, said users were penalized for “handling conflicts of interest on Wikipedia projects in the MENA region.” These removals followed an internal investigation that began in January 2022.
“As Wikimedia projects have grown in importance around the world, they have drawn increasing attention from those who, for political or other reasons, wish to control the information published on them,” Wikimedia wrote. “Community members have addressed concerns of this nature for many years, but sometimes volunteers who intervene face retaliation for their actions.”
Wikimedia disputed several aspects of the DAWN report in an explanation released after publication. The company said it was “unlikely” that all 16 suspended accounts were in Saudi Arabia, although a spokesman for Gizmodo told Gizmodo they were unable to say definitively which country each suspended administrator was from have seat.
The company also objected to DAWN’s use of the word “infiltrate” in reference to the actions of the banned users, which they believe is a mischaracterization. “These organizations have not shared the statement with the Foundation, and ‘knowledge sources’ as cited in their publication may get things wrong,” Wikimedia said. “Moreover, we have no staff in the said country and have never done so, contrary to a message circulated on social media by the same groups.” The spokesman added that their goal is “within essential Protection policies to be as transparent as possible, which is why we don’t ban in secret, but instead disclose affected accounts and (if a large number are involved) have disclosed the reasons.”
Following its report, DAWN asked Wikimedia to make public more details about its investigation, to disclose a full list of Wikipedia pages edited by the Saudi-affiliated administrators, and to re-examine them. Additionally, the group said Wikimedia should conduct an internal review of these edited pages and put packaging labels showing they were edited by a Saudi spy.
“The infiltration of Wikipedia by government agents acting as independent editors and the Saudi government’s imprisonment of non-compliant editors demonstrates not only the continued use of spies within international organizations, but also the dangers of attempting to produce independent content in the country DAWN Executive director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement. “It is completely irresponsible for international organizations and companies to assume that their subsidiaries can ever operate independently or safely from the control of the Saudi government.”
Update: 1/6/2023 6:25 p.m.: A spokesperson for Wikimedia contacted Gizmodo after publication and said it disputed several elements of the Dawn report. The company questioned Dawn’s claim that all 16 of the banned administrators were based in Saudi Arabia. When asked for clarification, the spokesperson told Gizmodo he couldn’t say exactly which counties the administrators were based in and could only confirm they were based in the MENA region. Wikimeida also objected to Dawn’s use of the word “infiltrate” to categorize the banned administrator’s actions.
Correction: 1/6/2023 6:25pm: An earlier version of this story said that Wikimedia fired the MENA-based admins. The admins have actually been banned as they are not employees of the company.