What does the Case Review Committee do?

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Wikimedia projects are a result of successful collaboration of contributors towards shared objectives. Certainly not everything goes smoothly in this community. Because we are a large group of humans working together, sometimes challenges arise and difficult decisions must be made. Decisions are not made by one governing body, but rather by various committees focusing on certain topics, issues, or resources.

Volunteer committee members often need support to carry out their work. The support comes in a number of ways, including peer support and support from the Wikimedia Foundation. The Wikimedia Foundation recently added a Committee Support team within Community Resilience and Sustainability to support volunteer committees. A fun fact: all of the staff on that team came from the community! The Committee Support team works to ensure governance committees are able to succeed in their duties and volunteers on committees are able to grow in their commitment to the community and Wikimedia projects.

Committees can be traced back to the early formation of the Wikimedia projects. Since that time, committees have grown and expanded to support the vast community of contributors with various important roles. Who are these committees and what do they do? I asked long-time community member and now Vice President of Community Resilience and Sustainability, Maggie Dennis, to share some insights about this post’s featured committee, the Case Review Committee (CRC).

How did community committees get started?

Maggie Dennis: When humans first gathered in groups beyond families, they realized that they could work better if they created clusters, and, lo, the first committees were born. From time beyond memory, we have come together in committees to get things done, creating first oral and then written bylaws, taking minutes, making charters. The Wikimedia Movement, too, embraced this universal human trend, with individual communities creating committees and working groups around many facets of the wikiverse. The Meta-wiki page on committees was launched in 2004 with nomination for leadership of a variety of committees to do Wikimedia work, ranging from finances to technical matters. It was totally A Thing. In time, that almost jovial but simultaneously sincere desire to organize and lead specialist groups to get work done evolved into fully formed committees. And in 2020, the Trust and Safety Case Review Committee emerged among them.

What is the history of the CRC in particular?

The Trust and Safety Case Review Committee (CRC) was forged from multiple streams, including conversations of Movement Strategy, but the final instigation was a call by the Foundation’s Board of Trustees. The Statement on Healthy Community Culture, Inclusivity, and Safe Spaces called for the Foundation to establish such a review committee. “Work with community functionaries to create and refine a retroactive review process for cases brought by involved parties, excluding those cases which pose legal or other severe risks,” said the Board, footnoting that “To clarify: it means that review happens post-action, and not as a precondition to taking action.” Mindful that the ongoing conversations around the Universal Code of Conduct and its subsequent Enforcement Guidelines might come up with a different practice, staff consulted with functionaries and launched the CRC as an interim approach at first. The committee was fully operational by October 2020.

What is the role of the CRC in the movement?

MD: The role of the CRC is to work in close collaboration with designated Wikimedia Foundation staff to review appeals by users directly involved in cases closed by the Foundation under its office action policy for harassment. As noted above, the CRC does not evaluate cases which the Foundation’s attorneys deem ineligible because they are legally mandatory or because they constitute strong danger to the physical safety of community members. 

A key component of the success of the movement is our movement-wide commitment to self-governance. In almost all cases, local user communities are best positioned to regulate content and regulate user behavior. This system has served the movement quite well for decades, including in the development of local policies, albeit within the framework of certain global policies, such as the Terms of Use and now the Universal Code of Conduct. As the movement has grown and globalized, the Foundation continues to work to recognize this essential and values-aligned respect for autonomy while also ensuring we meet our responsibilities as an online host. 

In practice, this means that we have evolved a policy of leaving most cases of inter-user conflict to local communities and global functionaries, like the stewards, to handle, becoming involved either on request of administrators or functionaries or when local communities lack policies and processes to handle problems. Because there is typically a certain amount of “gray area” in determining when local policies and processes are not sufficient, and because sometimes inter-user behavioral conflicts are not clear-cut, we value the availability of a body of experienced volunteers who can, on request, review these cases to ensure that Trust and Safety is working within its mandate–to protect community members from overly intrusive, overly strict, or overly lax enforcement of conduct standards by the Foundation. 

In any case brought before the committee, the CRC is asked to evaluate four things, that: a) The cases were appropriately handled by the Foundation rather than deferred to local community processes, b) The Trust and Safety team assembled sufficient evidence to assess the allegations within the parameters of respecting the safety of any confidential information, c) The Trust and Safety team correctly determined according to evidence assembled if the conduct described in the report does or does not qualify as a violation of relevant policy, and d) Sanctions issued by Trust and Safety (or choice to issue no sanction) are appropriate to the circumstances of the case.

If they disagree with any of these four statements, they may either immediately overturn a Trust and Safety decision or, in some cases, recommend to the Foundation’s General Counsel that they be overturned. (They do not, for instance, have the right to immediately issue a Foundation ban if the Trust and Safety team did not, and they cannot reverse a ban without review if that ban was assessed as necessary for the safety of other users. Such cases require final legal approval.)

Why is the CRC anonymous?

MD: After consultations with functionaries and legal review, the decision was made when the CRC was created that its members need to be anonymous during their service and for a certain term thereafter. However, there are a few staff and volunteers who know who they are. While even Trust and Safety staff do not know who participates on the CRC, the Ombuds Commission has agreed to review the final list and verify the generalized information about the group which is released on Meta-wiki. The CRC is anonymous for the members’ safety. Community governance carries with it several risks, including a risk of retaliation by people disappointed with case review outcomes (even from those who are simply informed that their case is not eligible for review, for instance, because it is criminal in nature) and a risk of pressure to expose private information, even through hostile external organizations or governments. Committee members are permitted to disclose their own involvement if and when they feel safe after they depart the committee but not to disclose who participated with them.

Why should community members be interested in what the CRC does?

MD: The CRC has not often been called into service, although individuals are informed of their right to appeal to the group when the Foundation communicates about sanctions. In fact, they’re such a quiet committee that we’ve shifted their reporting to quarterly. Historically, the bulk of appeals that are sent to them are not the kind of “borderline” or “grey area” cases they were created to review, but rather those which our lawyers have determined are essential to uphold the Foundation’s responsibility as a service provider. Nevertheless, their existence offers an important outlet for those who worry the Foundation has overstepped in their case or has acted with inadequate evidence. They also stand to support those who think the Foundation did not take serious enough action. (The bulk of Trust and Safety cases lead to no sanction, and this can obviously feel very unfair to those who request the Foundation to act.) We know that those who appeal aren’t likely to be satisfied by anything short of getting the outcome they want–and that will not always happen. However, we think it’s important to do everything we can to ensure that the system is fair, and these checks and balances help achieve that.

You can find reports from the Case Review Committee on Meta-wiki. Are you interested in joining the CRC? Read more about what some of the CRC members had to say about their work on the committee. Their answers might inspire you to join.

One member of the CRC says:

My sense of justice and knowledge of Wikimedia guidelines motivated me to participate in the Case Review Committee. Being part of the CRC allows me to learn more about the movement, the relationships between the different parts of the movement, and the user experience. I see my work as finding ways for valuable contributors to continue their work building the Wikimedia projects.

Another member says:

At first I hesitated about joining the Case Review Committee. I worried about dealing with the Wikimedia Foundation bans because of the lack of transparency in a movement which values open discourse, transparency and community autonomy. The CRC actually started because of the most controversial Foundation ban.

I felt joining the CRC would mean I was aligning myself with the parts of Foundation bans which the community did not like. Maggie Dennis emailed me and changed my mind. She was right. We do need people who can disagree and discuss with civility. I participate on this committee to make sure people are being treated appropriately and bans are not overstepping where the community could handle the situations. Now that I am on this committee, I would like to see the CRC review additional Trust and Safety cases, particularly where the Foundation rejects cases. 

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