An Arbitration Committee is a binding dispute resolution panel of editors, used on several projects of the Wikimedia Foundation. The first project to use an arbitration committee, and the most widely covered of these, is the English Wikipedia. Each of Wikimedia's projects are editorially autonomous and independent. Therefore, over time some other Wikimedia projects have established arbitration committees, while others have not. Arbitration committees, where they exist, are established by a project's editors, and are usually elected by their community in annual elections. As well as serious disputes, they often address misconduct by administrators, access to various advanced tools, and a range of "real world" issues related to harmful conduct, when these arise in the context of a Wikipedia project.
Arbitration committees generally have the authority to impose binding sanctions, and also to determine which users have access to special permissions.
The first such committee was created by Jimmy Wales on December 4, 2003, as an extension of the decision-making power he formerly held as owner of the site. The committee acts as a court of last resort for disputes among editors. It has been described in the media variously as 'quasi-judicial' or a Wikipedian 'High/Supreme Court', though the Committee states that it is not, nor pretends to be, a court of law in the formal sense. It has decided several hundred cases in its history. Members of the Committee are appointed by Wales either in person or email following advisory elections; Wales generally chooses to appoint arbitrators who were among those who received the most votes.[needs update]
In October 2003, as part of an etiquette discussion on Wikipedia, Alex T. Roshuk, then legal adviser to the Wikimedia Foundation, drafted a 1,300 word outline of mediation and arbitration. This outline evolved into the twin Mediation Committee and Arbitration Committee, formally announced by Jimmy Wales on December 4, 2003. Over time the concept of an "Arbitration Committee" was adopted by other communities within the Wikimedia Foundation's hosted projects.
When founded, the Committee consisted of 12 arbitrators divided into three groups of four members each. As of 2008[update], it had decided around 371 conduct cases, with remedies varying from warnings to bans.[failed verification]
A statistical study published in the Emory Law Journal in 2010 indicated that the Committee has generally adhered to the principles of ignoring the content of user disputes and focusing on user conduct. The same study also found that despite every case being assessed on its own merits, a correlation emerged between the types of conduct found to have occurred and the remedies and decisions imposed by the Committee.
In 2007, an arbitrator using the username Essjay resigned from the Committee after it was found that he had made false claims about his academic qualifications and professional experiences in a New York Times interview. Also in 2007, the committee banned Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Carl Hewitt from editing the online encyclopedia. In May 2009, an arbitrator who edited under the username Sam Blacketer resigned from the Committee after it became known that he had concealed his past editing in obtaining the role.
In 2009, the Committee was brought to media attention as a result of its decision to ban "all IP addresses owned or operated by the Church of Scientology and its associates, broadly interpreted", as part of the fourth Scientology-related case. Such an action had "little precedent" in the eight-year history of Wikipedia and was reported on several major news services such as The New York Times, ABC News, and The Guardian. Satirical news-show host Stephen Colbert ran a segment on The Colbert Report parodying the ban.
In 2015, the Committee received attention for its ruling pertaining to Gamergate, in which one editor was banned from the site indefinitely and several others were banned from topics relating to Gamergate or gender.
In June 2015, the committee removed advanced permissions from Richard Symonds, an activist for the British party the Liberal Democrats. Symonds had improperly blocked a Wikipedia account, and associated its edits with former Chairman of the Conservative Party Grant Shapps, and leaked this to The Guardian. Shapps denied ownership of the account, calling the allegations "categorically false and defamatory". Symonds said in an interview that he stands by his actions.
A 2017 study found that the Committee's decision-making was mostly unaffected by extra-legal factors such as nationality, activity/experience, conflict avoidance, and time constraints. The same study found that the Committee's decision-making was affected much more by time constraints than that of conventional courts.