The baby and the bathwater.

A quick Google search gave an email address for slowking4, and even a name, Jim Hayes. I wrote Hayes to ask what went down with the sock puppetry charge. “I’m basically creating accounts to get work done,” he told me in a telephone interview.

Hayes has been fighting what he sees as a guerrilla war against Wikipedia’s overly strict rules on what images can appear on the site. The question is whether Wikipedia should emphasize the placing of “free” images on the site, which can be used without restriction, instead of “fair use” images, which, though under copyright, may be reprinted in order to educate the public.

Fair use can be a vital tool for Wikipedia, Hayes said. If done correctly, it allows a relevant book cover, artwork, or famous news photograph to illustrate an article, giving Wikipedia a freer hand to illustrate the world. “If you are writing an article on a contemporary artwork, you need to have a fair use of that artwork to talk about it,” Hayes said. “I’m concerned with improving the quality of Wikipedia.”

But there is a catch. Fair use may be the law of the land, but it is not the law of the globe; and it does not apply to all kinds of websites. Wikipedia aspires to be freely distributable. Hayes says he is focused on Wikipedia and doesn’t worry if other sites downstream—foreign, noneducational, or for-profit ones, for example—can’t re-create the breadth of Wikipedia because its images are limited to fair use rather than free use.

Wikipedia has come down emphatically in favor of the free-culture side of the debate. Hayes has been told that he cannot add fair-use images to Wikipedia’s articles unless he meets a long list of conditions, including that he show he first made a serious effort to find a comparable free image and that he explain in writing why fair use applies. He says the way these requirements have been applied has grown more onerous over time. Administrators believe he is trying to make his own rules.

When blocked for this behavior, Hayes simply creates a new account, which he said he’s done 30 to 40 times so far. He hasn’t been particularly clever in naming his false identities—they often rhyme or involve Pokémon characters, for example. (The name Queen-Washington is derived from the intersecting streets beside a library in Alexandria, Virginia, where he likes to work.) Why should he be sneaky? He’s not operating a typical sock puppet, with “an ongoing mission to tilt articles in a certain direction or scrub negative information away.”

Not surprisingly, slowking4’s fronts have been caught repeatedly, antagonizing Wikipedia administrators who are tired of playing a pretty dull game of cat and mouse. Hence the across-the-board ban on slowking4’s contributions, including those to which he never added fair-use images. (The photo on my article, for example, was taken at a Wikipedia conference and released as a free image; it wasn’t Queen-Washington but another editor, Gamaliel, who added it to the page.)

Despite all the banning and sock puppeting, Hayes has been a prolific editor. By his own estimate, he has created 3,000 articles on English Wikipedia, with an emphasis on women and other underrepresented groups, and made 50,000 editing changes. His Queen-Washington sock puppet alone had created 577 articles, beginning in the summer of 2017. Many are women volleyball players. A dozen or so are writers, including Julie K. Brown, the Miami Herald reporter who broke so much news about the Jeffrey Epstein case, and the Irish novelist Caoilinn Hughes.