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[Ira Matetsky, guest-blogging, May 12, 2009 at 9:53pm] Trackbacks
Wikipedia, the Internet, and Diminished Privacy:

This is the second in my series of guestblog posts about the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, how it is organized and governed, and some aspects of its impact. My thanks to everyone who has commented on my post from yesterday. Later in the week I'll have a post or two specifically focused on people's comments, so please keep them coming.

As I mentioned yesterday and was picked up in the comments, one of the sources of Wikipedia's popularity and influence is the fact that pages in it rank so highly on Google and other search engines. Where the Wikipedia page is an accurate, well-written, well-sourced article on the topic it covers, that is fine. On the other hand, some articles are better than others. And even if a page did once contain brilliant prose, it could have been changed for the worse by anyone, before a given reader finds it and reads it.

The shortest way of expressing this is that Wikipedia's primary weakness precisely corresponds to its greatest strength. The best feature of the site is that anyone can edit (virtually) anything contained on it. The worst feature of the site is that anyone can edit virtually anything contained on it.

The ability of anyone to edit raises especially serious issues where an article concerns a specific living person. As long as an individual is "notable" by Wikipedia standards (with notability defined partly by a series of guidelines and partly subjectively), any registered editor is free to create a Wikipedia page about him or her, and anyone else is then free to edit that page.

In the first instance, this makes sense. Articles about human beings and their achievements are part of the core content of an encyclopedia. One could hardly imagine a general-purpose encyclopedia without articles about all of the U.S. Senators, or major-league baseball players, or astronauts, or Metropolitan Opera singers, or any of myriad other categories of prominent people. (Perhaps even law professors with dozens of publications and prominent blogs.) So there are several hundred thousand of these articles, known in Wikipedia parlance as "BLPs" -- "Biographies of Living Persons."

Consistent with the whole Wikipedia model of open collaborative editing, there is virtually no control over who is writing or editing these articles. Sometimes, the author is a knowledgeable subject-matter expert familiar with subject and his or her work. Other times, he or she is a good-faith contributor drawing and summarizing information from published, reliable sources. On the other hand, a BLP could also have been created or recently edited by its subject's worst enemy, his most bitter professional rival, her leading political opponent, or just a "vandal" out to make mischief.

Many Wikipedians have come to realize that the negative effects of false or misleading articles about living people can seriously damage the subjects of the articles. This is an area where many of the critics of Wikipedia have made very valid points.

There are two basic problems. One is the potential that an editor will insert inaccurate, misleading, and in some cases overtly defamatory or malicious content in an article. I'll discuss that aspect of the problem and how it might be addressed tomorrow.

But there is another equally serious problem inherent in Wikipedia articles about some living people -- except that it is not a Wikipedia problem per se, but an Internet-wide one. That is the problem of how easy it is, in the era of near-universal Internet access and instantaneous search engines, to inflict devastating and nearly irreversable damage to people's privacy. I'll give a couple of specific examples.

In January 2007, a 13-year-old boy whom I will call John (I refuse to further disseminate his name) was kidnapped from his family and mistreated in a horrifying way over a period of 4 days before being rescued. Although the names of minors who are victims of this type of crime are often kept out of the news, in this instance John was a missing child, which rightfully led to intensive publicity both in print and online as the authorities searched for him. Since John was rescued, there has been extensive press coverage of how he was found, of the trial of the kidnapper, and to a lesser extent, of his and his family's efforts to resume normal life. Much of that publicity also has included John's full name; there seems to have been no particular attempt made to put the genie back in the bottle.

In the spring of 2007, someone decided that the case had been the subject of enough mainstream press coverage that it was notable and warranted a Wikipedia article. Reading that article made me miserable: not just because of what had happened, but also because I knew that behind the article was a teenage boy who must be dealing, in his own way, with the memories of what happened to him. I knew that as his life charts its course, and that as he lives it, when he applies to college or for a job or meets people, people will type his name into Google --- and since to the best of my knowledge he is in other respects unexceptionable, the main thing anyone looking him up will learn is the fact and the details of what happened for 4 days when he was 13.

I decided, as a Wikipedia administrator equipped with a "delete" button, that Wikipedia did not need to contain this article. After a long discussion on the "deletion review" page, my deletion of John's article was upheld. Later that summer, policy was clarified to make it clear that in deciding whether to keep or delete a page, it is legitimate to take the effect of the page on its subject into account, at least to some degree.

But in spite of the deletion, John's name still turns up on Wikipedia -- it appears in our article about the criminal who abducted him, despite my and others' having argued for removing it. Moreover, and equally important, a Google search turns up not just a few but thousands of other hits with the same content. This is by no means just a Wikipedia issue, though of course that does not absolve Wikipedians of our obligation to handle this type of content responsibly.

We face the Internet-wide question whether there is anything we can do to avoid effectively making a collective decision that this horrific incident is the key piece of information that should be available about John's life. Except that there is no real decision to be made, because there is nothing to be done. In John's case, as I wrote on the deletion review, we have collectively added violation by the crowd to violation by the crime.

Another constant source of these issues is coverage of "Internet memes" -- videos or pieces of information that catch public attention, often in a humorous way, but in the process often are humiliating to their subjects. For example, I once arranged to deletion an article discussing an otherwise unknown person who sold his used laptop computer. When the computer didn't work properly, the purchaser took revenge by releasing embarrassing personal information and files from the computer onto the Internet. The resulting publicity, it was reported, had basically ruined this person's life. The people involved were identified on Wikipedia by name and location. To say the least, I thought we could remain a complete and worthwhile encyclopedia without further publicizing this matter. I nominated the article for deletion and got it deleted. The process took a month. (Today I might be more confident and just speedy-delete it myself.)

Another article we eventually decided we could live without discussed a young woman, also identified by name and city, who has been mocked for her poor judgment in having been overly detailed about how guests should behave at her 21st birthday party. For the rest of her life, if someone types her name into Google, they will find publicity about this supposedly grievous error she made, which may overshadow the coverage of anything else that she ever does or accomplishes. Wikipedia did not need to, and no longer does, discuss this episode; it never should have.

More examples come up every day. For those who follow such things: Should we include the "Star Wars Kid"'s full name? What, if anything, should we write about "Boxxy" or "Chris Chan" or "Brian P."? Do we mention, and how much weight do we give to, the difficult times in people's lives, especially where the person's notability is borderline to begin with?

I do my best to advocate that Wikipedia not include content that will obviously hurt the subject of an article and does not enhance the encyclopedia we are writing. (I haven't done as much of this as I would like, given my ArbCom duties, but writing this essay has reminded me once again to place a priority on this work.) But even where a deletion or a redaction sticks, I don't delude myself any more that I've actually helped the subject of the article very much, where the news coverage of their situations on fifty or five thousand other websites spreading the same gossip and showing the same disrespect for privacy and dignity are still out there. Wikipedia is a critically high-profile website, and I don't denegrate for one minute the importance of improving things on our site. But there are plenty of times I read something despicable on another website and wish I could delete it and block the person who wrote it. Only on-wiki can I even try.

Even developments in the spread of online information that seem unambiguously positive turn out to have more complex overtones when one thinks through the privacy ramifications. For example, complete free online searching of the complete back contents of The New York Times has recently become available. That's a home run for increasing the flow of information to the world, right, and great news?

Well, yes, it certainly makes research easier in a number of ways, as opposed to screening the old microfilms as one used to have to do, and for purposes of my research for both sourcing Wikipedia articles and my everyday legal research article-writing, I like it very much. And yet ... anyone who ever committed a youthful indiscretion that happened to make page C17 of the paper on a slow news day, will now be defined by that as one of the top results for his or her name, for the rest of his or her life. And multiply by dozens of other newspapers, and every other type of medium and website, and on and on and on. (The increasingly free public online access to court pleadings is another example whose ramifications are still being thought through.)

Incidentally, it is unlikely that many of the people affected by these damaging (but non-defamatory) types of unwanted publicity will have much chance for legal redress, at least in the United States. (And bringing a suit to redress this type of harm may be useless anyway; its main effect may be to further magnify the very publicity one is complaining about.) For readers wishing to explore the legal issues created by unwanted publicity and the question of whether media disclosure of facts that someone would prefer to conceal can ever give rise to a tort claim, the best place to start is probably Judge Posner's opinion in Haynes v. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 8 F.3d 1222 (7th Cir. 1993), available at http://altlaw.org/v1/cases/493290. It thoroughly surveys the competing policy arguments, the precedents, and the constitutional considerations. If anyone knows of a comparably thorough discussion brought up to date for the Information Age, please tell us in the comments.

Isaac Asimov famously predicted fifty years ago that emerging technology would come at the cost of vanished privacy, though he didn't get the exact form of the technology right. Fifty-odd years later, much of his prediction has come true, and I only hope that the website I help administer can avoid being a central part of the problem. In a way, we all live in the goldfish bowl now. It is not always a pleasant place to be.

Bleepless:
I just read the Wikipedia article on I. F. Stone. As usual, the far Left writes an article and rewrites history. The authors refuse to deal with the substantive issues involved in Stone's alleged employment by Soviet intelligence and do not even mention that the files claim his having actually been on the payroll. The whole piece reeks of hagiography.
5.12.2009 10:23pm
Splunge:
So, Wikipedia functions in part as a high-bandwidth, prettily formatted and footnooted human misery porn server? Gee, not the kind of accomplishment I'd like to have listed in my obituary, but whatever, to each his own.

Seems to me your solution is pretty simple, however. When you find those articles that are unusually painful to your highly developed conscience, use your God-like Wikipowers to require the writer or editor to publish his own real name and address in the article. (You can do like the ordinary porn servers and use credit card info to verify.) Also make that bit of the article positively uneditable once it goes in, whatever happens to the rest of the article.

I expect that might encourage a certain delicay and reticence in what people say, hmm? The problem with gossip in general is not that people have the urge to say it, or listen to it, nor that there is no good way to suppress it that does not run afoul of liberty values -- the problem is (and has always been) anonymity. When people must take public credit for what they say, they tend to be much more circumspect, thoughtful of others, et cetera.

Inasmuch as you have, wittingly or not, provided a whingdinger method or promulgating gossip anonymously, maybe you should take some steps to roll back the anonymity bit. Free speech, sure. But that doesn't mean cost-free, responsibility-free speech.
5.12.2009 10:37pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
As much as some incidents are painful, I also have problems with shielding all purported victims as a matter of course. Even to this day some outlets refer to Crystal Gail Mangum via euphamisms. If even a middle value of 10-12% (between the estimates of 2 and 25% I've seen) for false allegations of rape, that is an awful lot of protection afforded people who don't deserve it.
At what point does an event become notable enough that it /should/ haunt them for the rest of their life?
5.12.2009 10:45pm
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
Hopefully this is just the second warm-up, because deleting articles about kidnapped kids is pretty non-controversial.

Maybe for tomorrow's post, our host can take a look at a few articles about persons that - surprise! - omit key information.

For instance:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valerie_Jarrett

As discussed here, while the endless details about her personal life are fascinating beyond belief, there are a couple things they forgot to tell all those who've visited that page (the #1 search result for her name).

For extra credit, see the exchange I ("LonewackoDotCom") was involved in here:

/wiki/Talk:Antonio_Villaraigosa#Distortion_from_supporters

P.S. That's my old user name; I was blocked under WP's very special no-URLs-in-usernames rule. I had used it on and off - even creating an article - without incident. But, posting negative info on BHO's *talk* page raised the ire of one of WP's vigilant defenders of the truth and I had to get a new name.
5.12.2009 10:58pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
"Boxxy?"

Really? Did that word just get mentioned on Volokh.com? That's sort of like the Supreme Court quoting Ludacris?
5.12.2009 10:58pm
D.O.:
Can you leave the painful/embarassing episode in (as with the example of a notable crime), but strike the name of the victim? And when referring to other pages, require that they do not contain the name either. It will require some automatic monitoring, but it can not be a big deal.
5.12.2009 11:00pm
Kent G. Budge (www):
I agree with Splunge. The chief problem with Wikipedia is a lack of accountability. You are in a position to help fix that. Go to.
5.12.2009 11:06pm
gwinje:
When is someone going to add "Where Ira and Eugene met" to the math camp entry? Now I'll go read the post.
5.12.2009 11:19pm
giovanni da procida (mail):

I just read the Wikipedia article on I. F. Stone. As usual, the far Left writes an article and rewrites history. The authors refuse to deal with the substantive issues involved in Stone's alleged employment by Soviet intelligence and do not even mention that the files claim his having actually been on the payroll. The whole piece reeks of hagiography.


If only Wikipedia allowed non-leftists to edit their articles! Then the article might not include hagiographic quotes like "To put it plainly, from 1936 to 1939 I.F. Stone was a Soviet spy."

I read the article. They have a large section on "alleged espionage", presenting two views. Without any background knowledge about Stone, it looks to me like he was involved with the KGB.

Here's a crazy idea: Why don't you try editing the article? Try adding more documentation and the issues you feel they don't address. If you write it in an NPOV and balanced manner, you may have some success.

Of course, complaining about "Left-Liberal hagiography" is much easier and more fun! I'll leave the final choice up to you.
5.12.2009 11:51pm
AJK:


Here's a crazy idea: Why don't you try editing the article? Try adding more documentation and the issues you feel they don't address. If you write it in an NPOV and balanced manner, you may have some success.



Why go to wikipedia at all if I have to do all the research myself before I can trust what I see?
5.13.2009 12:05am
giovanni da procida (mail):

Why go to wikipedia at all if I have to do all the research myself before I can trust what I see?



If you don't think you can trust Wikipedia, don't go. AFAIK its use is not compulsory.
5.13.2009 12:08am
Ken Arromdee:
Why don't you try editing the article?

While in this particular case the article's probably okay, "why don't you just edit the article" is a generic response you see a lot from Wikipedians, and it's almost always nonsense. Gneerally, telling someone to edit the article instead of complaining about inaccuracies has several problems:

-- They may be complaining about a systematic problem, of which their example is one instance. Fixing it doesn't solve the systematic problem.
-- They may be complaining about a bad Wikipedia rule, either de jure or de facto, or a rule which Wikipedians refuse to use common sense when applying. (Technically this is a version of the previous one, but it deserves mentioning on its own.)
-- They may be personally involved and fall under conflict of interest rules. Remember when everyone was saying Siegenthaler should have edited the article himself?
-- If the problem involves a complaint that other people are controlling the article, they may not be able to fix the problem themselves without getting into an edit war.
-- They may be worried about violating some Wikipedia rule in the process. Wikipedia has so many rules that a newbie who edits solely because he wants to correct a mistake can easily mess up in all but the simplest of cases.

Generally, "fix the article yourself" is *really bad advice*.
5.13.2009 12:10am
Can't find a good name:
The link to Haynes v. Knopf is broken.
5.13.2009 12:17am
Daryl Herbert (www):
Unfortunately, "accountability" on the internet just means that the alleged privacy violator's privacy is put under siege.

Look at what happened to supporters of Prop 8. They were deemed anti-privacy, so their privacy was attacked by left-wing assailants.
5.13.2009 12:17am
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
1. Regarding the frequent response to "just edit the article!", it would take approximately 1000 people working full time for a year to correct all the articles in WP, assuming they could do 10 per day. And, after one of those full-timers moved on to the next article, someone else could come along and add incorrect information or remove correct information. And, the last articles each of the 1000 got to could have been spreading disinfo for up to a year.

So, saying "just edit the article!" isn't a viable idea.

2. WP's use isn't "compulsory", but the problem is that millions of people use it to make decisions, and those decisions affect everyone. For instance, millions of people have probably seen BHO's article and some of those made a voting decision on what it contains (and, more importantly, doesn't contain).

3. I really wish Daniel Brandt would show up; see the link for more about WP.
5.13.2009 12:18am
giovanni da procida (mail):

"why don't you just edit the article" is a generic response you see a lot from Wikipedians, and it's almost always nonsense.
Generally, "fix the article yourself" is *really bad advice*.

Was my advice about complaining any better ? ;-)

You make good points. Points one and two of your response are interlinked and probably among the biggest problems with wikipedia. Systemic problems are clearly beyond the scope of the individual user. Although a systematic political bias within wikipedia is one that could be addressed by more people of different viewpoints editing articles.

I think that points three and four are more rare, although definitely also good rejoinders. Conflict of interest certainly an issue to be mindful of and people should probably avoid their own pages. I may be completely wrong about this, but in my experience edit wars are relatively rare. There are certainly some irrational folks on wikipedia, but I think that there are enough rational people to be able to engage with them on all but the most controversial topics.

It is my experience that the Wikipedia rules are fairly straightforward, but I agree that many folks could be concerned about messing up.

I suppose that i was responding more to the tenor of this individual complaint than the substance of complaints about wikipedia in general. It seemed like there was an interesting topic laid out by the guest blogger, and the first response was off-topic and a copy of the kind of thing that has been seen in the previous two wikipedia threads.
5.13.2009 12:35am
ArthurKirkland:
My customary approach is to rely on the wisdom of Emil Faber (who informed us that "Knowledge Is Good"), and I acknowledge that others reasonably differ, but I salute the judgment and humanity that inclined you to try to spare a former young crime victim from the dredging of additional pain.
5.13.2009 12:38am
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Some thoughts:

First, I am not entirely sure that notable incidents will haunt folks for the rest of their lives. If you search by my name ("Chris Travers") you will find at least four different folks with my name on the internet. Most of the information relates to me, but it can be hard to sort through what is actually me or some other software engineer with the same name! Among other stuff you will find papers I wrote in college, newspaper articles (!) about papers I wrote in college (which I had no idea about until I did a search), vast numbers of public emails on technical subjects (not all of these are mine-- there is another "Chris Travers" who wrote some of them), etc.

In reality, the areas of my life I have CULTIVATED as public are public and the areas of my life I have cultivated as private are reasonably private. And areas that were public got some press, but are less important to me, are actually hard to find unless you already know the info anyway.

What this means is that privacy hasn't gone away so much as changed.
5.13.2009 12:39am
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Maybe it's just me, but if my name were splattered all over the Internet in connection with some horribly embarrassing story or event, I might just consider a legal name change. Isn't that a more efficient solution than hoping for the entire Internet to suddenly develop Maetzkian pangs of conscience?
5.13.2009 12:42am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
einhverfr,

You bring up another interesting point there. Googling potential employees is apparently now standard practice for many HR folks. How are they supposed to weed out stuff about people with the same name?

There are a few things that come up for Soronel Haetir that aren't me, but they are all almost immediately apparent. I doubt that would be true for someone with a more common name.

Dan Simon,

Except that the name change docs would likely come up :)
5.13.2009 12:52am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
einhverfr, I think the problem is that the nature of Wikipedia vastly amplifies the dissemination of that information. It's one thing if one has a common enough name, and any past details are buried in amongst 200,000 Google hits. But if the very first hit is the Wikipedia article, then it's a LOT harder to hide from.

And I think that is at the core of the problem raised by Matetsky. Because of the work of the founder and many many other people, Wikipedia has gained significant prominence. But almost any random jerk can take advantage of (and misuse) that prominence with little effort, and without having gone through the formative process those others have gone through, tempering their power with some sense of responsibility.

Clearly, Wikipedia tries to restrain the significant power it makes available to its users with the moderation system and the administrative structure, but those are (as we see from Matetsky's post) imperfect at best. Moreover, in general the people making those decisions bear no risk for making them; they suffer no consequences for their actions, except perhaps in the obscure realm of Wiki admins.
5.13.2009 12:52am
TruePath (mail) (www):
I actually think that the easy discovery of youthful indiscretions may actually be a very good thing.

Sure, right now it seems like it would be horrible if your coworkers found out about the time you were arrested for smoking weed in the park. However, if half your coworkers have topless pics from college spring break, arrest records for streaking, or other indiscretions easily searchable then it wouldn't be such a big deal if they discovered yours. The reason it's so bad now is that information singles you out and makes you look abnormal. It can't both be true that even a substantial minority of people would be burned by these revelations and that we will continue to view them as abnormal red flags on job applications.

Frankly, I think this could go a long way towards correcting many of our unpleasent public attitudes. If you think you don't know anyone who has done drug X, who writes perverted fan fic or who has made a dirty movie it's easy to caricaturize the people who do as no good deviants. However, if you realize that people you interact with daily have those kind of things in their past it's much harder to take such an extreme point of view.

Remember for most of human history everyone we met did know all about our past indiscretions. So if we managed back when we all lived in small towns I can't imagine it will be so bad in the future once we get past the transition period.
5.13.2009 1:03am
Ken Arromdee:
I think one problem is that protecting the subjects of articles really isn't part of Wikipedia's mandate. You can always rule that Wikipedia needs to do it anyway (and that's basically what happened), but most of the other rules don't support it and, if taken as written, actively work against it. And the system also heavily supports taking rules as written.
5.13.2009 1:05am
TruePath (mail) (www):
BTW why did you actually go and delete the article. Surely you could have it added to robots.txt or otherwise ask google and the other big search enginges not to index it. At the very worst you could replace the name with an image of the name.

In fact I think if you are clever you might be able to use the math typesetting capabilities in wikipedia to replace a word/name with an image thereof (just make sure it is using a weird enough tex function that it won't be converted into mathml or the like).
5.13.2009 1:06am
Daniel Brandt (mail) (www):
Mr. Matetsky is skirting the real issue when he discusses the BLP (biographies of living people) problem on Wikipedia. The real issue has to do with the fact that anyone who hides behind a screen name should not be allowed to edit BLP articles. The problem would vanish overnight if all BLP editors were required to use their real names instead of screen names.

Part of the reason Mr. Matetsky skirts this issue is that he has yet to publish his real name on Wikipedia, even though he's been an editor for three years, an administrator for more than two years, and an arbitrator for more than one year. He doesn't edit BLPs and he wouldn't be a problem if he did, because he's sensitive to the situation and is a responsible person. But he also continues to defend the right of any and all editors to hide behind a screen name. This means that he is still part of the problem, and not part of the solution.

Mr. Matetsky is aware that there are a huge number of editors on Wikipedia who are irresponsible. Maybe they are too young to know better, or perhaps they have a secret political agenda, or perhaps they think Wikipedia is similar to a role-playing video game, where the clever editor wins. In many cases, the subject of the BLP article is the victim, and is usually someone who never wanted anything to do with Wikipedia in the first place. This victim has no reasonable legal recourse. The Wikimedia Foundation disclaims any and all responsibility for Wikipedia's content, and some screen names are impossible to identify short of subpoena power. That's an extra layer of litigation that the victim has to contend with.

My three-year battle to get my bio deleted began when there was no BLP policy at all on Wikipedia. The situation is better today, but it's still a huge problem. And there are still copies of my bio on the web that were scraped automatically years ago by other sites, and which will exist for many years to come. They rarely rank well in the search engines, so it's not nearly as destructive as a Wikipedia bio, but they are still out there and can still be found if anyone is looking.

During those three years I learned that Wikipedia's internal mechanisms for redress are essentially worthless, because they are easily gamed by clever editors and especially by clever administrators. They way I got my bio deleted was by discovering the real names of certain administrators, and holding this information hostage unless and until they supported my efforts. It wasn't pretty, but it was the only thing that worked.
5.13.2009 1:31am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
I do have to wonder just how effective that disclaimer of liability would be when put to a test. I know there are safe harbors in the law for re-publishers but I have to wonder if wikimedia foundation actually qualifies given that they put out large amounts of ostensibly original prose.

The one thing I figure they actually have going for them is lack of resources to go after. For the size of operation they seem to operate on a very low budget.
5.13.2009 1:41am
U.Va. Grad:
Soronel Haetir:

Wikipedia Watch links to this Harvard Journal of Law &Technology Article about the Wikimedia Foundation's possible liability under § 230.

Although, since Wikimedia Watch characterizes the author as a "recent Harvard Law graduate" when the first footnote makes it quite clear that he went to Michigan for law school, you have to wonder just how seriously Wikipedia Watch's criticisms of Wikipedia's accuracy issues can be taken.
5.13.2009 1:52am
U.Va. Grad:
Wow. I just epically self-owned with the second part of my comment. I retract that accordingly.
5.13.2009 1:53am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
U.Va,

That article does a fine job proving the point that WP is an interactive computer service and a publisher, but it glosses over the third prong of the safe harbor in that the protection only extends to information from some other service.

When an article devotes so much space to demonstrating the obvious but then skips the only element of a test that is actually in question and tries to hand wave it away I would not be very confident in the conclusion.
5.13.2009 3:19am
JannaJ (mail):
I feel quite upset with that reports! The one thing I figure they actually have going for them is lack of resources to go after. For the size of operation they seem to operate on a very low budget. Well, how I wish that the new President of the US will be able to do some actions regarding with the present chaos. Nowadays, a lot of people are wondering about what April 2009 unemployment rate fluctuations were like. Well, the figures for April 2009 unemployment and April 2009 layoffs are in, from the ADP Employment Report. It isn't exactly happy news, in that about 491,000 people were laid off, but the good news (if there is any about that) is that it's far less than the number forecasted. That many more people can't get a payday loan if they wanted, but it's 50% less people than expected. It's about 200,000 people less than March, but it still means more people need debt consolidation since being added to the April 2009 unemployment rolls.
5.13.2009 3:30am
trorgessy (mail) (www):
Interested in Brunette celebritys? Right place for it! Brunette nice teen tit! http://shemaleas.com/
5.13.2009 4:20am
Frater Plotter:
"Fix the article" may not be perfect advice ... but it is always more effective than whining.

I would suggest, however, that those of you who think that Wikipedia is run by The Evil Liberal Elite, or The Evil Capitalist Elite, or The Evil Jews, or whatever -- you guys, please just keep whining.
5.13.2009 4:37am
Frater Plotter:
I do have to wonder just how effective that disclaimer of liability would be when put to a test. I know there are safe harbors in the law for re-publishers but I have to wonder if wikimedia foundation actually qualifies given that they put out large amounts of ostensibly original prose.
The text of Wikipedia articles is not written by the Wikimedia Foundation, nor is its copyright owned by the Wikimedia Foundation.

When you contribute to a Wikipedia article, you are not doing so as an agent or employee of the Foundation, nor are you transferring copyright to the Foundation. Rather, you are (under the Wikipedia terms of service) granting the Foundation (and the general public) a copyright license: permission to make your work available, modify it, and so on.

The Wikimedia Foundation makes available the work of contributors. It does not write that work. It is in the same position towards content as a blog hosting site like LiveJournal or Blogger: not a creator of original content, but a republisher of user-contributed content.
5.13.2009 4:46am
Arianaholi (mail) (www):
Your site displays incorrectly in Firefox, but content excellent! Thank you for your wise words:)
5.13.2009 5:32am
maiffemyFed (mail) (www):
Where's the check-in?
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signature: http://potet.ru
5.13.2009 7:15am
Desiderius:
Frater,

"I would suggest, however, that those of you who think that Wikipedia is run by The Evil Liberal Elite, or The Evil Capitalist Elite, or The Evil Jews, or whatever -- you guys, please just keep whining."

If it's whining, why continue? If it's not, why call it that? I don't get that.

It does all have the odor of dervishes appealing to the Marquess of Queensbury on the unsportingness of the Maxim, as they are mown down in their thousands.

But before you get too cocky, consider who were soon to be mown down in their millions by similar guns.
5.13.2009 7:48am
ALAPD:
I frequently use Wikipedia for a number of reasons (fact checking water-cooler debates, intro research before doing something serious, curiosity, etc) and this post and the first one give me some great insight into how I should weigh/evaluate the material I find on Wikipedia. I'm looking forward to reading the rest. Thanks.
5.13.2009 8:24am
Bill Harshaw (mail) (www):
Maybe a corollary to Warhol's 15-minutes of fame rule is the idea, with the Internet, one's 15 minutes are preserved forever, or at least as long as Google and WP live. Because WP relies on someone being motivated enough to update an entry, once the 15 minutes of fame are past it's unlikely for the WP entry to be changed. At least with Google, which is geological, the sediment of hits that piles up from a life lived online may bury or obscure the original 15 minutes.
5.13.2009 9:14am
Thehappysmith (mail):
I'm curious how Linda Sanchez' recent bill declaring felonious hostile speech on the internet--even if deemed unconstitutional--might affect the BLP issue on Wikipedia. Would love to see some discussion of that, instead of discussion of who's a left-wing nutjob and who's a right-wing wacko...
5.13.2009 9:21am
Cory J (mail):
TruePath,

I've thought about that too and I agree: Once the people who are mid 20s and younger start taking positions of power, these kinds of indiscretions won't matter as much. Sure, there will be more instances of them and I'm sure some of these old photos/videos/rants will be quite embarrassing, but just about everyone will have them, so they won't matter as much. Some of my friends have posted very stupid (IMO) photos of themselves, and I think employers would look unkindly on them, but if our peers were making the decision, I don't think they'd care as much.

It'll be interesting to see what Presidential and other hotly-contested elections are like in a few decades when the current crop of college kids who use Facebook are running. You think George Bush wouldn't have been tagged in a lot of party photos from his undergrad days? [I think that's one of the more interesting aspects of the privacy debates. I can easily choose not to put photos of myself up, but nothing stops other people from taking photos at parties and tagging me or writing about it. Even photos of someone standing in the crowd at a party that turns rowdy may be quite damaging.]



Sure, right now it seems like it would be horrible if your coworkers found out about the time you were arrested for smoking weed in the park. However, if half your coworkers have topless pics from college spring break, arrest records for streaking, or other indiscretions easily searchable then it wouldn't be such a big deal if they discovered yours. The reason it's so bad now is that information singles you out and makes you look abnormal. It can't both be true that even a substantial minority of people would be burned by these revelations and that we will continue to view them as abnormal red flags on job applications.
5.13.2009 9:54am
Moulton (mail) (www):
Regarding the issue of Section 230 immunity, there is also a discussion about it at Wikipedia Review. In particular, the "third prong" is identified as the one where Wikipedia is most vulnerable.
5.13.2009 9:56am
SeaDrive:
We are still in the early years of the internet age. It places stress on society and the terms are still being worked out, e.g. in discussions like this. While the focus here is on Wikipedia, the problem is bigger, and a Wikipedia-only solution is not going to keep all everybody's (or anybody's) secrets private.

One of the aspects of the newness is that we are still coming to terms with the quantities of data. We are staring to hear that YouTube, Flickr, etc. are starting to regret the "save all forever" promise. There will be a need for data to disappear, sooner or later. Policies will appear that retire items, perhaps when not viewed for a year. Perhaps they won't be lost to history, but stashed out of the view of common search.

TruePath is correct when he points out that it's not what you did that matters, but how it compares with what everyone else did. Note the comparative fuss that allegations/admissions of drug use or non-use have caused Clinton, Bush, &Obama.
5.13.2009 10:15am
Ken Arromdee:
"Fix the article" may not be perfect advice ... but it is always more effective than whining.

This is not true. Imagine that fixing the article changes an article, but whining has a 1% chance of being the tipping point that leads to a policy change that affects 500 articles. Whining would then be five times as efficient as fixing the article.

And sometimes fixing the article may not even work; for instance, if that leads to an edit war.

Also, fixing the article can be counterproductive. For instance, if the flaw with fixing the article is that it doesn't fix the systematic problem behind the article, it could be worse than doing nothing because it fixes the most blatant symptom of the problem, making it less likely someone else would notice the problem and fix the whole thing.

And if it's a BLP problem, you could be asking someone to fix an article when they have no knowledge whatsoever of Wikipedia procedures. It'ds entirely possible that whining may lead to a faster result than learning how to jump through all the hoops they need to to fix the article themselves.
5.13.2009 10:20am
Dan Weber (www):
Reponses to criticism of Wikipedia go something like this: the first is usually a paean to that pure democracy which is the project's noble fundament. If I don't like it, why don't I go edit it myself? To which I reply: because I don't have time to babysit the Internet. Hardly anyone does. If they do, it isn't exactly a compliment.
(courtesy Penny Arcade)
5.13.2009 10:38am
Arianaholi (mail) (www):
I really liked this post. Can I copy it to my site? Thank you in advance.
5.13.2009 10:40am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Boy, why did the spammers land so heavily in this thread? Is it because it talks about Wikipedia?
5.13.2009 10:44am
M. Gross (mail):
There's already a Wiki for archiving internet memes: Encyclopedia Dramatica.

Tell them to take their meme stories there, most don't meet Wikipedia's notability requirements.
5.13.2009 10:50am
Just Dropping By (mail):
When I read about people who decide out of sheer arrogance that they have the right to suppress information because they "know best," it simply encourages me to track down that information. The boy referred to in the post is Ben Ownby. His parents apparently do not share Mr. Matetsky's concerns given that they appeared on NBC's Today Show around the one year anniversary of his abduction to talk about the experience and how it has led them to become involved in helping other families dealing with missing/abducted children:

http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/22553875

The Ownbys have become involved with organizations that offer support to others whose children have been abducted.

“We just felt it was important for our benefit as well as somebody else’s that we get involved and just try to help people as much we can,” Doris Ownby said. “We wanted to give back what they had given to us. It’s unbelievable the number of children who are still missing and they don’t have the happy outcome that we had.”
5.13.2009 10:53am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
Frater Plotter,

I don't argue that wikipedia itself is run by anyone in particular. I argue instead that certain groups of pages have been hijacked to the benefit of a few specific individuals and that tresspassing against the wishes of those users in their domain is futile.
5.13.2009 11:00am
einhverfr (mail) (www):
PatHMV:

einhverfr, I think the problem is that the nature of Wikipedia vastly amplifies the dissemination of that information. It's one thing if one has a common enough name, and any past details are buried in amongst 200,000 Google hits. But if the very first hit is the Wikipedia article, then it's a LOT harder to hide from.


Well.... Whether or not it is at the top of the listing becomes an interesting issue. And I will admit it varies somewhat by industry.

Those of us who work in Free/Open Source software have very little to fear about vanishing privacy because our WORK LIFE is a matter of public record. Sorting out personal issues from that is far more difficult because if that is what you are looking for the signal to noise ratio is pretty small.

BTW, I do Google potential employees and subcontractors for the simple reason that I am looking for information about the person's work life. If they don't have much of a work life on record, then that is a strike against them. If they do, it gives me an opportunity to see how they solve problems. However, for most folks, there is a lot less on public record.

However, my point is that one can actually use this element against the privacy erosions by cultivating a body of works which are valuable enough to be linked to (and thus appear higher on the search engine sites) and thus reducing the chances that private information will be harmful.
5.13.2009 11:51am
einhverfr (mail) (www):

TruePath is correct when he points out that it's not what you did that matters, but how it compares with what everyone else did. Note the comparative fuss that allegations/admissions of drug use or non-use have caused Clinton, Bush, &Obama.


The difference being that Obama was up front and honest about his past (more severe) drug use than his predecessors were? After all, "I didn't inhale" is different from what Obama wrote about in his book.....
5.13.2009 12:00pm
geokstr (mail):

Soronel Haetir:

I don't argue that wikipedia itself is run by anyone in particular. I argue instead that certain groups of pages have been hijacked...

This is most certainly true of the potentially economic-system-destroying earth-changing (or not) subject of global whatever-they-are-calling-it-this-week.

Here is an article that summarizes it well:
Wikipropaganda On Global Warming

In order to check the accuracy of the general claims in it, I skimmed five main Wiki pages on the subject looking for mentions of any "controversy": Climate Change, Global Warming, Scientific Opinion on Climate Change, Global Warming Controversy, Climate Change Deniers.

From the first three pages, you might never even pick up that there are actually lots of reputable scientists who disagree.

The fourth one might have as well have been renamed "The Alleged Global Warming Controversy Being Generated by Shills for Capitalist Roaders". It is devoted to refuting any claims of the opponents. In a section called "Funding for partisans", it nearly comes right out and accuses any scientist who disagrees of scientific fraud because of (alleged) ties to Exxon, and then pooh-poohs any possibility that grant money could actually influence supporters, who are being unfairly criticized by the aforementioned shills for the greedy energy companies. And of course the obligatory section on how BusHitler tried to suppress and destroy the science behind the issue is called "Political pressure on scientists".

And the last page is a direct attack on everyone else, equating them with holocaust deniers and other fringe kooks.

Interestingly, the article cited above makes reference to a specific Wikipedia administrator, William Connolley, as the force behind the purification of this topic on Wikipedia. In fact, he even shows up in a very strong statement on the (Alleged) Controversy page:
"...Roger A. Pielke contends that the IPCC distorted the evidence by not including scientific results that questioned anthropogenic global warming.[30] These criticisms have been described as "failed" by William Connolley."

So here we have an administrator with a very strong known bias editting pages where he is cited as having somehow "proved" the critics are liars.
5.13.2009 12:12pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
einhverfr, that may work in industries like yours. But many people (indeed, I suspect most) work in industries where public attention regarding their work efforts is a bad thing. Yes, a salesman of the year award showing up on line may be a good thing in most instances, but a factory worker doesn't make the news for work-related purposes unless they do something very bad, most of the time. Some Wall Street analysts seek fame and fortune by publishing their analysis in an academic fashion, seeking recognition. Others try to make money by keeping their secrets close to the vest, like a favorite unsung fishing hole. Most folks have very little opportunity to have their name associated with anything in a public fashion; the boss speaks in public for the company, not the secretary or the middle-manager.
5.13.2009 12:20pm
Losantiville:
The only solution I see is to make sure your child has as common a name as possible. The more common the name, the harder to search.
5.13.2009 12:33pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
geokstr,

Global _____ and Conneli is perhaps the prime example of the phenomena, although my understanding is that he has plenty of help in that pursuit.
5.13.2009 12:38pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
PatHMV:

If you participate on a public email list regarding any of your hobbies, this becomes a moot issue very quickly.
5.13.2009 12:44pm
Closet Libertarian (www):
Some people have suggested that if new wiki editors makes a change it can actually lead to that change being harder to make. Can you clarify if that is true. In general, how do the different levels of editors interact? Some articles do seem biased. Look at the Scholarly comments section on the Heller case, every one says the case was wrong or extreme. How about some commentary saying the court threw M16s under the bus and Jefferson would be ashamed of the conservatives. That would properly balance Shaman.

I do use Wikipedia frequently, I just wish the reliability was a bit higher and the references were better (more frequent and higher quality). I did edit two articles and my edits were rejected, maybe you have inspired me to try again.
5.13.2009 3:04pm
Roger Schlafly (www):
The problem would vanish overnight if all BLP editors were required to use their real names instead of screen names.
I agree. I prefer to edit WP under my real name, but I find that my edits are frequently reverted by anonymous editors who claim that I have some improper motive. When I submit the same edits under a screen name, I have no problem. So WP encourages anonymous editing.
5.13.2009 3:47pm
Patrick from OZ (mail):

The problem would vanish overnight if all BLP editors were required to use their real names instead of screen names.

This is a joke, right?
1) How are you to identify real names?? Please remember that the internet is a bit bigger than one country and that it seems a bit of a stretch to require contributors to have a credit card.
2) Do you really think that would fix the problem even if did work??
5.13.2009 4:03pm
Free Radical:
Soronel: "Googling potential employees is apparently now standard practice for many HR folks. How are they supposed to weed out stuff about people with the same name?"

What I find scary about that isn't Google, Wikipedia, or The Next Big Thing™, but that the searches and interpretations are being done by 'HR folk'- who generally do not score highly in my subjective assessment of 'judgment.'
5.13.2009 7:05pm
Andrew Hyman (mail) (www):
NYB, good to see you here.

BLPs and all other Wikipedia articles are subject to guidelines and policies regarding their content. But at the same time, Wikipedians are invited to "ignore all rules" whenever they feel that's appopriate. And not even the Arbitration Committee has any authority to arbitrate content disputes. What a strange, strange arrangement. Good luck with it! :-)
5.13.2009 7:10pm
Andrew Hyman (mail) (www):
Here's a question for you, Brad.

Should Wikipedia require a consensus to delete a BLP, or should it instead require a consensus to keep a BLP?

It seems to me that a consensus should be required to keep. That would make it much easier to remove questionable crud like the BLP of the 13-year-old you discussed in your post.

BLP policy says:

The burden of evidence for any edit on Wikipedia rests with the person who adds or restores material, and this is especially true for material regarding living persons. Therefore, an editor should be able to demonstrate that such material complies with all Wikipedia content policies and guidelines.


For some reason that I do not understand, this policy does not apply to adding or restoring an entire article, right? It is only currently being applied to edits within an article, but not to the whole entire article. Isn't this a huge oversight? Has it been discussed at Wikipedia, and if so where?
5.13.2009 7:57pm
geokstr (mail):
I just went to Wikipedia to do a little research on another post and came across this at the top of the page:

The neutrality of this article is disputed. Please see the discussion on the talk page. Please do not remove this message until the dispute is resolved. (May 2009)

Yet despite the intense controversy surrounding climate change, not one of the five main pages I cited in an earlier post had this disclaimer, not even the one that essentially called "deniers" Nazis and fruit loops.

I find this hard to believe given that many people have documented trying to make relatively mild edits to those pages and watching the edits disappear in a matter of hours. This means that obviously administrators and others have automated notifications of any attempts to edit their pet pages.
5.13.2009 9:27pm
John Moore (mail) (www):

Although a systematic political bias within wikipedia is one that could be addressed by more people of different viewpoints editing articles.

The problem with this is that political points of view correlate with factors impacting the likelihood of being an editor.

I spent some time correcting an article on Wikipedia, and reached a satisfactory conclusion. It took a whole lot of work, though. This biases the process towards people with time on their hands or very strong motives, which is hardly conducive towards objectivity or balance.

The Global Warming bias of WP is well known and appears to be unassailable. It would be very interesting to find out how many editors are actually funded by interest groups. Since community organizing and other lefty techniques rely a lot on stealth and propaganda, it would be surprising not to find folks funded to keep WP pointed "in the proper direction."

Businesses have less interest, unless they are specifically named, at which point their PR or legal folks may get involved.

Utopianism and extremism are thus favored.
5.13.2009 9:58pm
geokstr (mail):

PatHMV:
Some Wall Street analysts seek fame and fortune by publishing their analysis in an academic fashion, seeking recognition.

This also has its upside for others in the self-promotional world we live in. Where would Paris Hilton be right now besides an obscure rich kid drugged out on coke if every time you googled "Hilton" to find a hotel room the first 10,000 hits would be travel related sites instead of Paris doing her version of the Lewinsky? Or her moronic twin brother Perez for that matter?

Entertainers and wannabes of all kinds thrive on google searches.
5.14.2009 9:12am
Gregory Kohs (mail) (www):
Mr. Matetsky pointed out that any encyclopedia should be expected to have articles about the U.S. senators. Coincidentally, I led a volunteer research team in an investigation of one calendar quarter's worth of edit history on each of the 100 Wikipedia articles about the senators of the United States.

What we found was troubling.

The study limited its scope to edits that were blatantly wrong, defamatory, or untrue -- we did not attempt to document more nuanced challenges within the article narratives. While most vandalized edits were brief in duration and clearly juvenile in content, a substantial portion of edits were plainly intended to be hurtful and defamatory against the Senators -- and they lasted for not just minutes, but hours, days, even weeks at a time.

Using a page traffic tool, the team also attempted to interpolate the number of “page views” that each Senator’s article likely witnessed during the damaged edit.

In all, the median duration of a damaged edit was 6 minutes, but the mean duration was 1,440 minutes (exactly 24 hours). These 100 articles were viewed approximately 12.8 million times in the fourth quarter of 2007. Over 378,000 of those views could be considered “damaged”, yielding a 2.96% rate of damaged views. There were about 13.2 million article-minutes during the quarter, and over 901,000 of those article-minutes were in a damaged state -- 6.80%.

* For over 72 hours, the Wikipedia article about Senator John McCain of Arizona said that he was "born in Florida in the then American-controlled Panama Canal Zone". The page was viewed about 93,758 times in this condition before it was corrected.

* For nearly 11 hours, the Wikipedia article about McCain said that he "is also know to have sucked a few cocks in his life as well". The page was viewed about 14,115 times in this condition before it was corrected.

* For more than 75 days, the Wikipedia article about Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon said that "political pandering [has] been cited as possible reasons for his unusual positions". The page was viewed about 10,029 times in this condition before it was corrected.

* For more than 46 days, the Wikipedia article about Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington said that she "was voted most attractive United States Senator, among current and former members". The page was viewed about 7,806 times in this condition before it was corrected.

* For over 135 hours, the Wikipedia article about Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska said that he "attended Redondo Union High School, participating in kinky sex adventures.". The page was viewed about 3,132 times in this condition before it was corrected.

* For over 70 hours, the Wikipedia article about Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said that she "is the only member of the Texas Super Justice League capable of feeling human emotions.". The page was viewed about 677 times in this condition before it was corrected.

* For over 56 hours, the Wikipedia article about Senator Harry Reid of Nevada said that he was "married to his right hand". The page was viewed about 1,383 times in this condition before it was corrected.

* For nearly 11 hours, the Wikipedia article about Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut described him as "a hideous, coffee-drinking Jew". The page was viewed about 446 times in this condition before it was corrected.

But, when Jimmy Wales appeared one morning before Senator Lieberman in a sub-committee presentation, Wales had taken the precaution of "protecting" (locking) Lieberman's article, so that nothing embarrassing might arise during Wales' testimony. After Jimbo's moment in the Capitol spotlight, he unlocked the article, and the vandals quickly returned.

The thing that troubles me is that the English Wikipedia has had at its disposal a technical upgrade to the software, called "Flagged Revisions", which would have cut back these malicious and incorrect edits by perhaps 90%-95%. But, the "community" has refused to implement this improvement. Perhaps Mr. Matetsky can explore some of the reasons for this cultural reluctance to improve the content of Wikipedia.

(Also, I must say that I have been very disappointed that the mainstream media never picked up this story about our study of the senator articles, as it yielded an incredibly rich public database of content.)
5.14.2009 9:13am
geokstr (mail):

John Moore:

Although a systematic political bias within wikipedia is one that could be addressed by more people of different viewpoints editing articles.

The problem with this is that political points of view correlate with factors impacting the likelihood of being an editor.

This is the same reason that conservatives/Republicans have such a hard time in the political process. Look at how easy it is to transform your trenchant observation into all the key occupations:

The problem with this is that political points of view correlate with factors impacting the likelihood of being an editor teacher, reporter, entertainer, professor, bureaucrat, politician, community organizer, union leader.

These are the occupations that have been shaping opinions and perceptions, turning the population marginally more leftist every generation since the 1950's, while those with conservative mindsets tended to go into productive careers/occupations that politically influence nobody.
5.14.2009 9:26am
John Moore (www):
geokstr

Absolutely correct, and scary.
5.14.2009 5:01pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
I'm guessing that that Mr. Matetsky's Asimov allusion is to his story The Dead Past, about the negative consequences of inventing a "time camera" that can see into any point in the recent past.

Mr. Matetsky may not be aware of I See You by Damon Knight, which was written as a response. Knight's short story (he referred to it as a "compressed novel" because it addressed a large theme in a small space) suggested quasi-utopian effects if such a device was universally available.

And there's the key: as TruePath noted, it wouldn't be so awful if everyone's past was equally revealed. But some people are exposed and others are not. That extreme inequality is, I think damaging.
5.14.2009 11:41pm

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