Wikipedia: The Power and Peril of Openness

Wikipedia: The Power and Peril of Openness

Postby admin » Sun Oct 13, 2013 12:24 am

Excerpt from THE FUTURE OF REPUTATION: GOSSIP, RUMOR, AND PRIVACY ON THE INTERNET
by Daniel J. Solove


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Wikipedia: The Power and Peril of Openness

The virtues and vices of anonymity are starkly implicated in Wikipedia, one of the most fascinating creations on the Internet. Created by Jimmy Wales in 2001, Wikipedia is an experiment in the power of collective knowledge. [73] Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia, whose authors collaborate with readers, who can volunteer information and edit entries. This exchange is made possible by "wiki," a Web-based application by which people can add and edit text collaboratively. It is named for the Hawaiian term wiki wiki, which means "quick."

By 2004, just a few years after its inception, Wikipedia had surpassed 1 million entries. By 2006 it had grown to 3.5 million entries. [74] Wikipedia is now the largest encyclopedia ever written, and it is available for free. As of late 2006 Wikipedia has become one of the most visited websites in the world. [75]

Unlike a regular encyclopedia, which quickly ages in its leather-bound covers, Wikipedia is dynamic, growing and changing each day. It is constantly updated. Anybody can edit and change a Wikipedia article. It relies on the collective wisdom of the Internet.

Most of us would be quite flattered to find an entry about ourselves on Wikipedia. Not so for John Seigenthaler. Seigenthaler was a lifelong journalist who fought for free speech and civil rights. He was an assistant to Bobby Kennedy when he was serving as attorney general during his brother John Kennedy's presidential administration. In 2005 Seigenthaler was in his late seventies and could look back on a long distinguished career. However, he was shocked to find a very different take on his life in his Wikipedia bio: "John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven." [76]

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Seigenthaler was furious. In a USA Today editorial, Seigenthaler wrote:

I have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious "biography" that appeared under my name for 132 days on Wikipedia, the popular, online, free encyclopedia whose authors are unknown and virtually untraceable ....

At age 78, I thought I was beyond surprise or hurt at anything negative said about me. I was wrong. One sentence in the biography was true. I was Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant in the early 1960s. I also was his pallbearer. It was mind-boggling when my son, John Seigenthaler, journalist with NBC News, phoned later to say he found the same scurrilous text on Reference.com and Answers. com. [77]


Ironically, Seigenthaler had previously founded a center to protect the First Amendment right to free speech. Now he was being burned by it. Seigenthaler said that he still believed in free speech, but "what I want is accountability." [78]

Seigenthaler tried to track down the person who had posted the information, but to no avail. He located the Internet protocol (IP) address of the author and from that determined that the author's Internet service provider (ISP) was BellSouth Internet. An IP address is a unique number that is assigned to every computer connected to the Web. An example might look like this: 210.28.111.120. BellSouth Internet knew the name of the customer with the IP address but would not reveal it unless ordered by a court. Seigenthaler would have to file a defamation lawsuit against the person, but he wasn't interested in suing.

Eventually the misinformation was removed from Wikipedia, more than four months after it had been posted. Seigenthaler described the difficulty of cleaning up the stain of the rumor: "When I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils of 'gossip.' She held a feather pillow and said, 'If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I could never get them back in the pillow. That's how it is when you spread mean things about people.' For me, that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia." [79]

Enter Daniel Brandt, an outspoken critic of Wikipedia who had read about the case and was able to trace the IP address to a Nashville company. He then emailed the company asking for information about its services and got a response with the same IP address. Tipped off that the culprit was nearly in sight, a New York Times reporter called the company. This prompted the person to come forward, confess, and apologize to Seigenthaler. He explained that it was just a silly prank to rile a coworker. Because of the publicity, the person resigned from his job. [80]

In response to the Seigenthaler debacle, Wikipedia changed its open policy and required users to register before creating new articles. All users, whether registered or not, could still edit articles except certain ones that were frequently abused. For example, at the top of the Seigenthaler article is the following statement: "Because of recent vandalism, editing of this article by anonymous or newly registered users is currently disabled. Such users may discuss changes, request unprotection, or create an account." The Seigenthaler entry is now corrected, and the offensive information has long been removed. [81] But the cost of protecting the entry from abuse was to sacrifice some anonymity and openness.

One of the problems with anonymity is that it makes it harder to assess an author's reputation. An open system that allows people to edit anonymously is more easily abused because bad-faith authors are not held accountable. For some time, vandals have been attacking Wikipedia, deliberately adding falsehoods to articles. [82] The legal scholar Bruce Boyden observes: "All it takes is one dedicated person with low scruples, a grudge, and a little extra time on their hands, and the harms skyrocket." [83] And it's not just random miscreants who try to manipulate Wikipedia entries anonymously. Several employees of politicians were caught trying to doctor Wikipedia entries anonymously. One intern for U.S. Representative Martin Meehan deleted part of a Wikipedia entry about Meehan's early promises to serve only four terms (he was currently on his seventh term). At one point, the spate of abuses inspired Wikipedia to block federal congressional IP addresses from editing entries. [84] Even Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, was caught anonymously editing his own Wikipedia entry. He deleted references to Larry Sanger as a cofounder of the encyclopedia. "I wish I hadn't done it. It's in poor taste," Wales confessed. "People have a lot of information about themselves but staying objective is difficult." [85]

The Seigenthaler case exposed some of the tensions at the heart of Wikipedia. When anybody can spread information online, it becomes harder to know what information to trust and what information not to trust. When we read entries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, we know that they are written by experts and carefully vetted. Wikipedia entries are a collaborative exercise, and they can be written by those in the know as well as any fool stumbling along the information superhighway. People can just as easily introduce false information as true information.

The results can be extremely useful, yet sometimes unreliable. As the law professor Orin Kerr puts it, Wikipedia entries "seem to be a strange mix of accurate statements and egregious errors." [86] Wikipedia is more optimistic: "We assume that the world is full of reasonable people and that collectively they can arrive eventually at a reasonable conclusion, despite the worst efforts of a very few wreckers. It's something akin to optimism." [87] Pimples and all, Wikipedia is an example of the benefits of collective action. What is remarkable about Wikipedia is how often it works. In many cases, it serves as a terrific resource, but it also has a fair amount of dubious data.

Wikipedia entries matter so much because they often appear near the top of Google searches. And Wikipedia has enough good information to make the articles worth looking at. Ironically, it is because the articles have a lot of valid and useful information that their errors become so problematic. Nobody would even pay attention to Wikipedia if it contained mostly false data. Since it contains so much accurate information, Wikipedia encourages users to rely upon its articles and leaves them more readily deceived by the false information. Wikipedia dispenses with one of the primary features of ordinary encyclopedias. No longer must authors of entries have credentials. On the one hand, we trust a traditional encyclopedia entry because we trust the author. Authors have staked their reputations on their work. In contrast, Wikipedia entries can have dozens of authors, and we know little about them. Wikipedia lists a history of the edits by each author, but authors use pseudonyms like "Gopple" or "Taco," so we don't know who they are or what their expertise is. How much are we to trust a fact added by someone named "Gopple," about whom we know little else?

The irony, in the end, is that Wikipedia must defend its own reputation. It must ensure that its articles are dependable, for if they contain too much junk information, people might no longer find the site trustworthy. Wikipedia's reputation thus depends upon balancing openness and anonymity against accountability. The Seigenthaler case pushed Wikipedia toward a less anonymous system. But the more Wikipedia limits anonymity, the less free and open the project becomes. It's a difficult trade-off, one that lies at the core of so many of the thorny problems with online speech.
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