FBI asks Wikimedia Foundation to remove seal from websites, Wikimedia declines

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This article mentions the Wikimedia Foundation, its projects, and people related to it. Wikinews is a project of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The FBI asked the WMF to remove this image from its websites. It is used in dozens of Wikipedia articles in several languages
Image: Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has asked the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), host of Wikinews and its sister projects, to take down its image of the FBI seal from its websites. However, the WMF declined, saying that FBI lawyers had misinterpreted the relevant federal law.

Mike Godwin met volunteer contributors to Wikimedia websites in Gdansk earlier last month
Image: Ralf Roletschek.

In a letter dated July 22, David C. Larson, Deputy General Counsel of the FBI demanded that the WMF remove the seal from its websites within fourteen days, claiming that "it facilitates both deliberate and unwitting violations of these restrictions by Wikipedia users."

Cquote1.svg it facilitates both deliberate and unwitting violations of these restrictions by Wikipedia users. Cquote2.svg

—David C. Larson, Deputy General Counsel, FBI

Larson cited 18 U.S.C. 701, which states: "Whoever manufactures, sells, or possesses any badge, identification card, or other insignia, of the design prescribed by the head of any department or agency of the United States for use by any officer or employee thereof, or any colorable imitation thereof, or photographs, prints, or in any other manner makes or executes any engraving, photograph, print, or impression in the likeness of any such badge, identification card, or other insignia, or any colorable imitation thereof, except as authorized under regulations made pursuant to law, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both."

Larson went on to say that use of the FBI seal may be authorized only by the director of the FBI; the FBI director has not given such permission to WMF.

The WMF, represented by General Counsel Mike Godwin, responded, saying in a letter dated July 30, that Larson's interpretation "is both idiosyncratic (made especially so by your strategic redaction of important language) and, more importantly, incorrect."

Godwin said that "while we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it, the fact is that we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version" Larson provided. According to the relevant case law, it "was intended to protect the public against the use of a recognizable assertion of authority with intent to deceive."

Cquote1.svg I have to believe the FBI has better things to do than this Cquote2.svg

—Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Godwin asserted that the use of the FBI seal by the WMF and its projects do not fall under the purview of that law.

The websites of the Wikimedia Foundation are filled with user-generated text, pictures, and other materials, uploaded and curated by independent, often anonymous, volunteers, who change the websites minute by minute. The most well-known sites are the Wikipedias, encyclopedias with over 13 million articles in hundreds of languages. However, the foundation also hosts an image and media library, dictionaries, the Wikinews news websites, book websites and many other educational collaborations.

Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (where Godwin was once staff counsel), said that the WMF's constitutional right to free expression allows it to use the FBI seal. "I have to believe the FBI has better things to do than this," she said. The reason for the FBI's request is unknown, as the FBI seal is published on many other websites, including Encyclopedia Britannica.


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