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Silk Road Wiki Wars

Should Wikipedia draw a line at including links to illegal marketplaces or websites hosting objectionable content?  And does it have a duty to prevent its readers from becoming victims of phishing if they visit those links?


For such a short Wikipedia entry, Silk Road has been responsible for a lot of behind-the-scenes drama.

It started with a demand on 13 June 2011 (shortly after Silk Road first appeared on Wiki) that the whole entry be deleted by someone who apparently doubted you could really buy drugs online and have them delivered in the mail.  “The only references anyone has been able to provide are a Gawker blog article and a passing reference on a Guardian blog,” went the argument. “Heck, we’re still not entirely sure that it isn’t just a hoax…”

After a bit of discussion, a decision was reached a week later to keep the entry and this decision was uncontroversial.

The real war erupted over whether to include the official URL to Silk Road.  As for all Wikipedia articles about notable websites, the URL was included in the “facts at a glance” sidebar.   Some Wiki editors felt it should not be there.

But a bit like the last Australian referendum calling for the establishment of Australia as a republic, the “No” votes came from diametrically opposed interests.

In one corner were those who didn’t think it was appropriate to link to a black market. ‘Wikipedia is not a recreational drug site, nor should we work as advertising for such a site’ said KillerChihuahua.

In the other corner were those who felt as Jake Wartenberg did, that there was a risk innocent drug purchasers were being cheated out of their hard-earned Bitcoin because of the link. ‘There is a much better technical reason not to have the link’, he said, ‘which is that it’s really hard to protect people from the phishing attempts that have been going on’.

The Silk Road URL being a .onion and thus rather hard to remember, makes it ripe for phishing.  Indeed, many Silk Road users had their accounts cleared out when navigating to the site via Wikipedia; when filling in their login details, they failed to notice the site also requested their PIN, which the legitimate site does not.

So the ‘Edit’ page of the Silk Road entry for that period consisted of daily, even hourly, removals of the link, followed by reinstatement of the link, with justifications for both sides being argued in the ‘Talk’ page.

On 26 December 2012, \bsilkroad.*\.onion\b was added to the Wiki URL blacklist, blocking not only phishing sites, but the genuine Silk Road URL. The final reasoning behind the ban was murky.

This led to a discussion about whether the administrator had overstepped their privileges and the discussion was reopened.  Between March and April 2013, editors put forth their cases for keeping or opposing the link, resulting in a lively and heated discussion now preserved on the Silk Road Talk page. “Bolvb” neatly summarised the reasons for opposing the link:

  • Linking to this site would expose WMF to legal liability (with linking to such sites illegal in some jurisdictions)
  • The true link is hard to distinguish from fake phishing links, and is therefore prone to being changed, and harming Wikipedia’s readers
  • Hosting the link does a disservice to Wikipedia’s readers (i.e. there’s a duty not to send readers to websites where they might be able to commit crimes).
  • Linking to this site is spam or otherwise violates WP:ELNO [Wikipedia’s guidelines on external links to be avoided]
  • Hidden site (.onion) addresses are not regular links and require special software
  • It’s against Wikipedia’s rules to insert links to blacklisted sites (a purely technical objection, since the link had only been blacklisted because of previous editing wars)

Eventually, all arguments against including the link, other than the risk of phishing were defeated by the passionate contributors. The phishing issue was ultimately solved by Wikipedia blacklisting every .onion domain name, but allowing whitelisting of specific domain names.

The only two .onion URLs that are on Wikipedia’s whitelist as of today are Silk Road’s and one for a benign Onion entry site.

Should Wikipedia include links to illegal marketplaces or websites hosting objectionable content?  Where should they draw the line? Does Wikipedia have a duty to prevent its readers from becoming victims of phishing or are they ultimately responsible for their own losses?  And has Atlantis attempted to get its own Wikipedia entry yet?

As an aside, apparently my blog is authoritative enough to link to when making editing arguments, but not for the main page. I think I must be a WP:ELNO *sigh*

2 Responses

  1. So having a link to Bank of America’s website (more prone to phishing) is okay, but SR is not?

    The Fed, the US Congress, the US military, and the NSA are all more “objectionable” than SR (with far more material on the web “objecting” to them than SR) and they all get entries with links, but SR is not okay?

    Those editors should just admit that they are being pretentious statists who wish to censor stuff that don’t fit in to their worldview.

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