by John W. Dozier
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January 26, 2009
Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, is proposing a new editorial process for edits in which a trusted team of editors will review and approve new edits. The pervasive issue of false and defamatory edits hit a new low last week with a false entry that Senators Kennedy and Byrd had died.
Traverse Internet Law is on both sides of this issue. Clients ask us for guidance in what can, and what cannot, be edited, ever mindful of the fine line that must be navigated to stay away from publisher liability for the content of third party posts. Wikipedia is to be commended for focusing the net's attention on the need to use discretion and edit content. But unless Wikipedia is willing to assume a huge risk and become a publisher of content and not a mere conduit of information and a service provider, you won't see this new plan implemented.
That's because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act won't give them immunity from liability that arises when false information is included in third party posts and edits. And there is no way Wikipedia can truly make judgment calls as to what is, and is not, defamatory. Even lawyers and judges disagree vehemently.
Let's hope that Congress sees the wisdom in amending Section 230 to establish more appropriate guidelines for editing that will allow immunity to be preserved when all one is really trying to do is have a decent, civil, honest and fair online society. Of course, that will be seen by Public Citizen, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and others as an attack on free speech. So the battle will be a heated one when the time comes for Congress to amend a 13 year old law that may have made sense before Web 2.0 and User Generated Content took over the web, but makes absolutely no sense now.