Earlier this month, France's homeland intelligence agency marched a volunteer Wikipedia editor into its offices and demanded he scrub an article from the encyclopedia or face prison time. He complied—but not before explaining that Wikipedia doesn't work that way: You can't rip something out like you would a page from a book.
The volunteer was right, of course.
Not only has the article returned, but media organizations, blogs, and news aggregators around the world are slowly picking up the story, ensuring that what was once an obscure corner of the biggest encyclopedia on the planet is now on the homescreens of hundreds thousands of computer users around the world. Oops.
To be fair, France's Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (DCRI) tried a gentler approach the first time around. Around March, someone at the agency apparently stumbled upon Station hertzienne militaire de Pierre-sur-Haute, an article about a military installation in the French countryside. DCRI contacted the French chapter of WIkimedia, the nonprofit foundation that runs Wikipedia, and demanded it removed the four-year-old article.
The organization refused.
"The Wikimedia Foundation considered that they did not have enough information," Wikimedia France wrote in a blog post Saturday.
The Wikimedia Foundation has often collaborated with public authorities to follow legal decisions. It receives hundreds of requests every year asking for the deletion of articles, and always complies with clearly motivated requests.
That's when DCRI approached the administrator, who was apparently targeted solely for his relatively high ranking at Wikipedia. Indeed, he'd never previously edited or had anything to do with the article in question.
It's still not clear what DCRI thought was classified. French blog Numérama discovered that most of the article's information was pulled from an interview with a journalist who was legally invited to the installation.
Michelle Paulson, a legal counsel to the foundation, explained that the DCRI never provided details on what was so dangerous about the article:
The Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur repeatedly failed to provide any further information and simply continued to make a general takedown demand, despite my explanation that we could not remove the information without more information from them. Eventually, I had no choice but to refuse their request until they are willing to provide me with more information so that I can properly evaluate their claim under legal standards. The community remains free, of course, to retain or remove the article as it sees fit. But at this point, we do not see a demonstrated reason to remove it on legal grounds.
Meanwhile, the Station hertzienne militaire de Pierre-sur-Haute article dominated French Wikipedia's traffic over the weekend. It was only eclipsed on Monday by the Margaret Thatcher article (following the announcement that the former British Prime Minister had passed away).
The whole episode reads like a sideplot in a satire about a comically inept fascist regime trying to cope with the Internet for the first time. How do you say Streisand Effect in French?
Photo by S. Rimbaud/Wikimedia Commons