FBI Flashes Badge at Wikipedia, Ignores the Internet

If you were tasked with finding an image of the FBI’s seal, where would you look?

FBI seal on Google


diggIf you were tasked with finding an image of the FBI’s seal, where would you look? Likely, you’d head to Google or Bing, where a quick image search would return tens of thousands of results. But shhh, don’t tell the FBI about those. Out of all the images of the seal sprayed across the Web, the FBI is faulting Wikipedia for displaying it, and even threatening legal action.

In July, the bureau wrote to the Wikimedia Foundation demanding that its flagship organization Wikipedia remove the image of the FBI seal from the bureau’s entry on the site. “You can’t use the FBI seal, by law, unless you have the permission of the FBI director,” a bureau spokesman told The New York Times yesterday. The FBI claimed Wikipedia violated law on the proper use of official badges and insignia.

Thankfully, Wikipedia’s not backing down. In a snappy response to the charges, Wikimedia general counsel Mike Godwin lays down the law, correcting the FBI’s misinterpretations, citing precedent cases, and all around showing why you probably shouldn’t mess with an encyclopedia. “Our inclusion of an image of the FBI Seal is in no way evidence of any ‘intent to deceive,’ nor is it an ‘assertion of authority,'” fires Godwin, of a statute the FBI cited. “[The image is] widely available elsewhere, including on the Encyclopedia Britannica website, last I checked.”

“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 [your] aspirational version,” he wrote.

Why is the bureau picking a fight with Wikipedia? It would be conspiratorial to suggest this is some response to the FBI’s past problems with the site, but with such a poor case presented, a backlash against the FBI for attacking a non-profit open-source provider of knowledge should have been predictable.

After all, images of the FBI seal are available everywhere online–even on the FBI’s own Web site.

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About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.