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.