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

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.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

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.

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