French spy agency tries to pull 'classified' Wikipedia entry, only draws more attention to it

French spy agency tries to pull 'classified' Wikipedia entry, only draws more attention to it

Summary: In another example of the Streisand Effect, Wikipedia France's most popular article is an entry about a French military installation — the same entry the country's spy agencies allegedly tried to force a Wikipedia editor into deleting under the guise of it being 'classified' material.


What do a French military installation and Barbara Streisand have in common?

Typically, censorship has two outcomes: Either it works, or it fails. In many cases, it fails, as the French government found out today.

This is the military installation the French government doesn't want you to know about.
(Image: S Rimbaud/Wikimedia Foundation: CC)

Wikimedia France said in a press release on Saturday morning that France's domestic intelligence agency, the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI), contacted in early March its parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation, which hosts the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

The DCRI claimed an article on Wikipedia France was in breach of the country's laws by disclosing "classified military information," and should be pulled from the site.

The Wikipedia entry pertained to a French military compound, the "Radio station military Pierre-sur-High," around 70 miles west of Lyon. The installation is thought to act as part of France's nuclear deterrent and detection capabilities.

The San Francisco, California-headquartered Wikimedia Foundation refused the request by the DCRI on the grounds that it did not provide enough information to prove that the entry contained classified information — likely because it would confirm what the DCRI still believes to be information that should not be in the public light.

In the press release, Wikimedia Foundation said it "has often collaborated with public authorities to follow legal decisions," as it has many offices in various countries and therefore abides by local laws — as any company must.

Though the not-for-profit organization cited that it receives "hundreds of requests every year asking for the deletion of articles," this was not one of them, the statement said.

"Without further information, we could not understand why the DCRI believes information in the article is classified," said Wikimedia Foundation legal counsel Michelle Paulson in a discussion thread on the site.

Instead, the DCRI threw its weight behind bullying a Wikipedia editor based in the country to delete the page under the threat of prosecution, with consequences not limited to massive fines and a lengthy prison sentence.

"Bullying and coercive methods"

Not content with the Wikimedia Foundation's refusal to delete the article, the DCRI "summoned" a Paris, France-based Wikipedia editor to its offices on Thursday.

According to the press release: "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."

Once hauled in to the spy agency's office, despite his explanation to the French spies that "this is not how Wikipedia works," he was forced to remove the entry using his access to the site's administrator tools that allow such an action.

After his release, he explained to other editors that the entry, according to the DCRI, violated Article 413-11 of the French Criminal Code, which details compromising the secrecy of national defense infrastructure.

Under the law, a French resident can face five years in prison and a fine of €75,000 ($97,000) for "bringing to the attention of the public or any unauthorized person a process, object, document, information, computer network, computerized data, or file". This also, apparently as this case dictates, includes divulging a military installation that, for the record, can be seen in plain sight from a nearby road passing by.

He confirmed in a following Wikipedia discussion thread: "French police called me in as an administrator, following the refusal of the Wikimedia Foundation to remove this article the state of the information provided."

He noted (translated from French) that anyone who re-added the deleted entry on Wikipedia would be "engaging in criminality" and would be the "responsibility of the administrator [editor] who performed [such] actions".

But Wikimedia Foundation re-added the page within hours of the DCRI forcing the editor to pull the entry, which had existed for many years beforehand, but had only recently come to the attention of the French authorities.

Despite claims that it contains classified material, the entry "corresponds almost perfectly" to a video interview given by the military installation's commander to a journalist. Also, almost all of the content in the entry cites publicly available content. In this case, Wikipedia acts as an editorial aggregator of content located elsewhere on the web.

Censorship backfires, "Streisand effect" kicks in

Censorship often begins to unravel when it impacts often just one person who doesn't subscribe to it. This is the very foundation of transparency, and why it almost always trumps censorship.

As a result of this poor attempt at bypassing the judiciary and forcing the Wikipedia editor into censoring an article that he had no involvement in writing, the editor took the transparent approach and explained why he pulled the article from publication.

Many responded to the thread explaining his actions. Reading through, he states nothing but factual remarks in about 75 words. The rest falls down to the community, which took it upon itself to ask questions and blow the whistle on the DCRI, further unraveling its attempt at hiding what was previously public knowledge.

In just a few hours, it became the most popular entry on Wikipedia France. The French-speaking Wikipedia community is second only to the English-language version.

According to Wikiscan, a service that monitors Wikipedia pages, the entry in question has seen more than 47,000 views on Saturday alone, with more than 145 modifications and additions by 55 different editors to the page.

Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 20.53.25
The most visited pages on Wikipedia France on April 6, 2013.
(Image: Wikiscan)

This is known as the "Streisand effect," the phenomenon whereby an attempt to conceal or remove information in the public domain unintentionally causes the information to rise to extreme popularity or prominence, having the opposite intended effect. In the DCRI's attempt to censor Wikipedia, it has caused a massive influx of users to see, in effect, what all the fuss is about.

The page has become so popular that it dwarfs other popular entries, not limited to the "Attacks of September 11, 2001," the entry relating to "North Korea," and even Wikipedia France's own main "Welcome" page.

Ironically, in sixth place by page popularity, the page "Streisand Effect" has around 15,000 views.

There have also been entries made in English, German, Portuguese, and Catalan. The English version of the page also notes the controversy surrounding the DCRI's attempt to censor Wikipedia, adding to the self-perpetuating cycle of views to the page.

Censorship only works if everyone is all-in; not everyone always is

"Has editing Wikipedia officially become risky behaviour in France? Is the DCRI unable to enforce military secrecy through legal, less brutal methods?" the press release questioned.

One of the key points in this debacle is that the DCRI did not go through the French judiciary and serve a viable legal request to the Wikimedia Foundation. If it did, the foundation would be forced to comply to the best of its ability. Instead, the spy agency took the route of targeting a resident of France, under the law and jurisdiction of the DCRI, by threatening terrorism charges against the editor.

Wikimedia Foundation legal counsel Michelle Paulson added to her remarks: "While we have never received a request of this nature from the DCRI before, it is unfortunately not unheard of for governmental entities to contact, or even harass, local users."

The UK's domestic intelligence agency MI5, for instance, does not have power of arrest, nor can it exercise all of the laws given to its corresponding police and law enforcement agencies.

For example, while MI5 has the ability to use UK law to wiretap and acquire information and data in transit, it does not have the power to subpoena or serve search warrants on a suspect. It has to go through the courts, and due to the nature of its sensitive and classified work, a lot of the time these requests go via UK police forces. MI5 cannot arrest people, and requires UK police to enact these powers on the intelligence service's behalf.

Serving a subpoena or search warrant against a citizen falls within France's legislative rules, as it does in the vast majority of developed nations around the world. However, intimidation does not. "The internet is not a place that has to be regulated in such a brutal manner," the release said.

Paulson said: "The foundation strongly opposes any governmental attempts to intimidate the volunteers who dedicate their time and energy to build one of the world's great educational resources that everyone can freely share in."

And, more often than not, censorship will — and has proven to — blow up in the faces of those forcing such measures.

People don't like being censored, in spite of a lack of "true" freedom of speech laws in the UK and wider Europe. It only works if everyone is all-in, such as in North Korea, where the punishment is many years of hard labor in concentration camp-like conditions — or frankly, by comparison, if you're lucky, a rather undignified execution.

We saw this in the UK with superinjunctions, effectively the British version of US National Security Letters, that prevented anyone from disclosing a particular fact or mistruth, as defined by the court that issued it. The only difference with these gag orders was that they applied to every UK resident, rather than just one individual or organization, except nobody knew it.

Superinjunctions were broken within minutes, hours, or days, and the courts were forced to react. Ultimately, the very notion of such gagging orders became defunct and powerless in the face of online activism and the burgeoning need for free speech and open expression.

While this case boiled down to the intimidation of a French citizen by an overzealous national intelligence agency, the good news is that once again, censorship has taken a kick to the teeth.

The truth will always out.

Topics: Censorship, Government, Privacy, Security, EU

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  • RE: Cenorships

    In the US fear of lawsuits combined with political correctness has done a pretty good job of censorship without government involvement.
  • Ridiculous

    We are talking military stuff here, there is no privacy anymore and having people who believe everyone should know everything spreading word about defence systems is deteriorating our classified defense mechanisms :/
    • Seriously

      I hate activating new log ins to new sites for so many reasons, but this time I had to. I also hate belittling people, because of many obvious and not so obvious reasons. Not the least of this is my service in the United States Army. I fully respect the classified information I handled daily and would have directly reported its unlawful dispersement. However, we are not dealing with the deployment of mobile systems or troops. Or the technical specifications of the system at hand. For example heat signatures for the B2B or the frequencies of the now defunct back-scatter over the horizon radar for NORAD. This is clearly a conspicuous facility. One that had previously been recognized by the same agency to the press, without similar reprisal.
      Further more, any nation considering a nuclear strike against another most likely has satellites. And if they are reading Wikipedia the can see Google maps. The thing kinda sticks out. If they are afraid of protesters or terrorists, then they should build fence around it. But I kinda doubt it is a real target for either. What they are probably worried about is surveillance of the facility and espionage. Begging the real question of why now. What new project is suddenly so secret that no one can see indiscernible activity there, or what just leaked that we don't yet know about and why. Because lets be honest if someone is scouting the facility every day like a hawk, they are getting arrested anyway. Doesn't matter what country you're in.
      As for privacy. I totally agree. I created this account just to respond to this nonsense statement. I was going to log in with Facebook but my friends, their e-mails, my pictures and my posts was a bit high of a price for that. So now I am going to get ton of free spam from ZDNet just because of you.

      P.S. Support the freedombox project and you'll get the best solution to both of these problems.
      • Spam

        I've commented on ZDNet for years and haven't had spam related problems. I doubt you will find them clogging up your mailbox.
        • ZDNET SPAM

          Same here.
          Not a single SPAM from ZDNET.
  • Soo... The journalist thinks censorship is a bad thing?

    Got it. Thanks for that.

    It comes down to moderation, just like everything else. I don't know the facts behind this case anymore than anyone else outside the French military. But I think I can gleam enough off the article to work out the stance; the classic "the people have a right to know"

    Now I don't know whether that applies to this or not, but, my stance has always been that "with great power, comes great responsibility" as the news of the world case in the UK exposed, solely relying on the moral inclinations of those paid by what they unvover is also not fool proof.

    Everyone should be accountable. The Internet should not immunise you from that.

    It's the classic disaster movie. The world is getting hit by a big rock in 10 days, and the government has decided not to tell it's people. Now, if just 1% could be saved by knowing and fleeing, it seems to me that the press breaking that storey would save live lives. However, if everone is a goner... Breaking that story is going to cause anarchy and change nothing.
    • Sorry, you did miss the point of the article. Completely.

      Just in case your wondering, its my job to get the point of such an article. This one is easy.

      There are two intrinsically connected points.

      "Censorship only works if everyone is all-in; not everyone always is"
      “the phenomenon whereby an attempt to conceal or remove information in the public domain unintentionally causes the information to rise to extreme popularity or prominence, having the opposite intended effect”

      Sorry, but while I understand where your thoughts are coming from, the article is clearly not focused on:

      “But I think I can gleam enough off the article to work out the stance; the classic "the people have a right to know"

      Nothing much here about the peoples “right to know” as excuse for keeping the Wikipedia article up.

      The pint simply is, where there is something you want to be kept secret and out of the public knowledge, these days you have to keep it secret and OUT OF THE PUBLICS KNOWLEDGE. Coming along after the fact when you have built a giant installation on a roadside and talked to television stations about it then telling Wikipedia to take it off their website is like trying to rewrap a Christmas present after you have showed it to junior then forbidding junior to talk about it to his friends because moms and pops what you not to know or anyone else to know what you have got for Christmas.

      The article is simply saying; in such a case, now adays, its way too late.

      Nothing to do with the publics right to know. Its about trying to put the Genie back in the bottle and convincing the world it was never really there.

      • You talk of the topic

        I was talking of the context and message.

        As I said we don't actually know what the French government was trying to get pulled. They never said which information it was. Why do you assume it's the existence of the building itself? We don't know that and as you said, buildings can be seen anyway.

        What really begs asking is why they didn't just edit it themselves... Like companies do on wiki.
        • They probably didn't edit it themselves...

          ...because, if you're familiar with Wikipedia, there is a function for comparing the current version of the page to previous versions. The information is still there unless it is removed by site editors. Plus so long as the article exists, anyone can come along and add the information back to be displayed on the page. If someone from French intelligence had just deleted the entire page's contents, most people would consider that unexplained act an act of "vandalism" on Wikipedia and just reverse the deletion with a click. If French intelligence continued to repeat this act, deleting legitimate (for the article page's purposes') content for no apparent reason, their IP addresses would eventually be blocked for the repeated acts of "vandalism". If they instead deleted just a few segments (which would still appear to be vandalism to the ediors and members of the public absent explanation), that would have provided interesting insight into exactly what they were seeking to censor and, as with the Steisand Effect, draw more attention to those particular segements.

          I didn't read the article itself as advocating against any and all forms of censorship, or even as being against this particular attempt at censorship by French intelligence. ZDNet is a technology page, and would therefore naturally have interest in stories concerning issues related to the internet, its use, and its social impact. Although it is noted that the methods used to attempt censoring the page were of questionable legality, and were unquestionably bullying in nature and directed against the wrong person, I found the article to have a factual tone about what happened and the consequences of French intelligence's actions in this internet age. I get the impression the author thinks the methods used by French Intelligence were questionable, and ultimate foolish given how it backfired, but I get no impression that the author would be against all forms of censorship carried out by an intelligence agency. However, whatever opinion the author had did not allow this article to stray from the purely factual.

          As an aside (I note you don't raise this issue and so I'm not attributing this to you, but I think it is worth touching upon since I've now brought it up): Only idiots confuse objectivity with neutrality. Sometimes to be objective it is necessary for journalists to ask questions and be critical, otherwise the Watergate scandal, to give only one example, would not have been uncovered. When the journalistic responsibility towards objectivity and informing the public is neglected in the interest of appearing "neutral", what we get instead are, e.g., "news" agencies uncritically reporting lies about WMDs, and failing to question nonsensical implied (or at time explicitly asserted) links between Iraq and 9-11.
  • is really "really" classified information ??

    i think the barbara striesand effect is an interesting phenomenon that has migrated from the telephone network onto the www.

    but in all fairness, while i do think that terrorists and evil governments can find a lot of confidential information freely on the net, and most things are not truly classified -

    especially those that stick out like a sore thumb and the governments had made little effort to mask or coverup classified technologies. all they have done was to prop up a bob wired electrified fence and a couple of signs like no trespassing.
  • Interesting To Compare...

    ...the reception to this article versus that one:
  • Yup. One look at that photo and I would have never guessed

    it was a military installation. No doubt had I ever been to france, I would have likely never even noticed it had I driven by it.
    William Farrel
  • DCRI is obviously headed by ignorant political appointees

    Nobody who REALLY WORKED in the intelligence community would have made such an egregiously stupid mistake like this.
  • Makes you wonder

    The Socilaists are in power in France perhaps this facility monitors french citizens and thats why they are so bent about it being on wikipedia. They should have just taxed the guy at 75% and sent him on his way.
  • "Streisand effect" is just like RUBBER NECK'RS

    Any time there's a vehicle crash and there's a HUGE sheet blocking the view of the carnage, SOMEONE (actually nearly all) has to slow down to get a peek.
    Some will actually swerve out of there lane to get a closer look. TO HECK with safety, THEY JUST GOTTA SEE!
  • Great way to make a DECOY get the attention!

    Maybe the installation was just a routine non-classified radar station, but in order to conceal ANOTHER facility which is better hidden, the French government "bumbled" a false attempt to censor the entry describing THIS one, so that any REAL enemies will aim their satellite cameras at this one and think they are watching the real one.

    As an example, read the last chapter of Asimov's famous novel "Second Foundation" for the way in which the Second Foundation got the First Foundation to stop looking for it. Heck, you might as well read the whole trilogy and get even more examples of smart and dumb moves by governments.
    • Interesting theory...

      ...but while I think intelligence agencies would be interested in articles containing accidentally leaked classified information, I think most of the worlds' military intelligence organisations get their information from sources other than popular Wikipedia articles. "Oh, here's an article on Wikipedia about VEVAK (Iranian intelligence). I suppose we won't have to perform surveillance on Iran any longer. Lets sell our satellites and listening devices, and tell our informants to bugger off."