“There is a problem with the structure of Wikipedia. The basic problem is that no one, neither the Trustees of Wikimedia Foundation, nor the volunteers who are connected with Wikipedia, consider themselves responsible for the content. If you don’t believe me, then carefully read Wikipedia’s disclaimer.
At the same time that no one claims responsibility, there are two unique characteristics of Wikipedia that can be very damaging to a person, corporation, or group. The first is that anyone can edit an article, and there is no guarantee that any article you read has not been edited maliciously, and remains uncorrected in that state, at the precise time that you access that article.
The second unique characteristic is that Wikipedia articles, and in some cases even the free-for-all “talk” discussions behind the articles, rank very highly in the major search engines. This means that Wikipedia’s potential for inflicting damage is amplified by several orders of magnitude.
As someone who has been jostling with Wikipedia administrators for several weeks, I am very interested in whom I should sue if I wanted to sue. This assumes, of course, that I’ve decided I’ve been clearly libeled by Wikipedia’s article on me, and/or the discussion page attached to it. At the moment, this is an intellectual interest of mine, and I am not currently claiming that I have been libeled. This could change very quickly. I maintain that I qualify as a “private person,” which means that I do not have to show that the article about me is maliciously untrue. The bar for private persons is lower for a finding of libel, as compared to public persons. I also believe that if I ever succeed in a libel case, the fact that the article on me ranks very well in the big search engines will convince the jury to award damages.
Why did I put up the information about administrators on this page? Simply because if I ever decide that I have cause to sue, I’m not sure who should be sued. The first step, it seems to me, would be to seek a subpoena for log information from Wikimedia Foundation. Administrators and editors who are involved, but who cannot otherwise be identified, could be traced through their IP addresses in the Wikipedia logs. If a court decides that a subpoena for these addresses is in order, then it would also support a subpoena for more information from the Internet service providers behind those IP addresses.
If there is a clear case of libel, I don’t believe a court would decide that no one is responsible. If Wikimedia Foundation, and the specific editors and administrators who either inserted the libelous information, or failed to delete it, are all not responsible for the libel, then that would make the libel something akin to an act of God. The Wikimedia process doesn’t quite qualify as God, as far as I can tell, although it apparently sees itself as approaching that status someday soon.
Wikipedia does not even comes close to qualifying as a service provider under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. For one thing, this is not a copyright issue. For another, Wikipedia develops its own information, and its editors put their own spin on the information, and choose which sources to cite, and delete information they feel is inappropriate. By way of contrast, Google, for example, merely makes a faithful cache copy of whatever they find elsewhere, and passes along this copy or ranks it alongside similar material. The two situations are entirely different. No one associated with Wikipedia should assume that the law protects them the same way it protects Google. And no one should assume that the EFF will come running to Wikipedia’s defense in a libel case.
I think a probable outcome in court would place most of the blame on Wikimedia Foundation itself. The very structure of Wikipedia is geared toward maximum anonymity and minimum accountability. The Foundation is facilitating and implicitly encouraging situations such as the one in which I find myself. I think the case against the Foundation would be stronger than the case against individual administrators and/or editors, based on the fact that the potential for libel is ingrained within the Wikipedia process.
But I really don’t know. What I do know is that the editors and administrators feel that they are untouchable, and the Wikimedia Foundation also feels that it is untouchable because it has a disclaimer. This is not a satisfactory situation for Wikipedia in the long run. If push comes to shove, it will not prevail in a court of law.
I’m hopeful that this controversy over the article on me will help clarify the need for improvements in Wikipedia’s structure. There needs to be a greater degree of accountability in the structure, even at the expense of everyone’s freedom to anonymously edit anything forever.
The privacy issues interest me even more than the libel issue. But the applicable laws on privacy are close to nonexistent, so a discussion on privacy would not be as focused. It is true, however, that a greater degree of accountability in the Wikipedia structure, as discussed above, would also be the very first step toward resolving the privacy problem. For me, the two issues stem from a common problem, and both share the same first step toward a solution.”
[Published first on November 9, 2005, on Wikipedia-Watch. Republished here with permission.]
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