[Ira Matetsky, guest-blogging, May 14, 2009 at 4:56pm] Trackbacks
Wikipedia and the Biography Problem, part 2:

(Please read part 1 from last night first; I’m just picking up where I left off.)

Another proposal that would certainly reduce vandalism of Wikipedia articles would be to eliminate editing by unregistered users, either throughout Wikipedia or at least on BLPs. Presently, “anyone can edit” extends even to users who haven’t registered an account. In wiki parlance, unregistered users are referred to as “IP” editors, because in the article contribution histories, the IP number of the computer from which they edited is displayed instead of their username. This form of “anonymous editing” should not be confused with a different sort of anonymity, which allows users to register under pseudonyms without providing their real names.

The main value of allowing IP editing is that it gives brand-new users the ability to try out “anyone can edit” for themselves, without taking the time and trouble to register. Many new users make their first edits as IPs, often after spotting a typo in an article or noting that some information is missing, and there is a fear that if registration were required to edit, some proportion of first-timers wouldn’t bother, and therefore would never develop the habit of contributing and become “Wikipedians.” For example, this is precisely how I got started in editing, as I mentioned the other night.

While IPs contribute many good-faith edits and some become regular contributors, IP editors are also responsible for much of the drive-by vandalism — often, but by no means always, committed by bored schoolchildren — that afflicts many pages (and gives other editors the opportunity to earn credentials as “vandalism fighters”). The ratio between valid and vandalistic edits by IPs is sufficiently low that from time to time there is discussion of requiring registration to edit. A significant step in that direction was taken in 2006, when users were required to register before creating a new page (as opposed to editing an old one).

An intermediate step would be to disallow IP editing just on BLPs. Administrators have the ability to “semiprotect” any page of Wikipedia. A semiprotected page cannot be edited by IPs or by newly registered editors. (A “full protected” page cannot be edited by anyone, except for administrators under very specific guidelines.) Pages are semiprotected usually when they are being vandalized by IPs, typically for short periods by sometimes for a longer term or indefinitely. (For example, [[George W. Bush]] or [[Hillary Clinton]] could probably never be unprotected without being overrun, but those are unusual cases.)

It has been proposed that either all BLPs be permanently semiprotected, or at least that they be liberally semiprotected at a lower threshold of vandalism or at the subjects’ requests. This would certainly reduce the amount of vandalism and defamation from non-registered IPs. (An objection is that it would also eliminate the ability of an unregistered editor, perhaps the article subject himself or herself, to fix vandalism or remove defamation. I don’t know how often this happens.)

The most recently proposed approach for reducing BLP violations and other types of bad edits is called “flagged revisions.” The idea of giving this approach at least a trial was supported by a majority of English Wikipedia editors who participated in a recent poll, and it has already been implemented on the German Wikipedia. There are various somewhat different proposals for how this could be done, either on all articles, or on BLP articles, or some subset of them. In general terms, flagged revisions means that anyone can still edit an article — but the edit does not become visible to readers until another editor has reviewed and approved it. It introduces some level of quality control; it also, some say, represents a step away from “anyone can edit.”

This procedure itself raises some questions of implementation. Some are mechanical, such as, what happens when User:B edits the same sentence that User:A has just edited, but before the edit has been flagged? Others are more substantive, such as who gets to be an edit-flagger, and what standards do they use in flagging? If a flagger sees that someone wants to edit Jones’s biography by adding “Jones is a jerk!” then he or she will disapprove the edit — but that’s not really the type of edit that, if a few people see it before it gets reverted, will really damage Jones’s reputation (though it will damage Wikipedia’s). The more subtle defamations may never be recognized by a reviewer who is intelligent and dedicated but unfamiliar with Jones’s life and work — and so they will still make it into the articles — only now they would come with an “approved by an official revision flagger” seal of approval.

The English Wikipedia is struggling with whether to take a step toward flagged revisions. Proponents suggest that it's a long overdue necessary step to address an obvious fault with the site; opponents suggest it would be the death-knell of the "anyone can edit" philosophy that attracts people to contribute. A threshold issue is there is no clear governance process on the English Wikipedia for issues like this, so no one even knows just how the decision will be made. (I'll talk more about governance in a day or two.)

Incidentally, because the issue has come up in the comments, there have been relatively few lawsuits brought by individuals claiming to have been defamed on Wikipedia. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no successful defamation suits against the Wikimedia Foundation, which is the not-for-profit foundation (formerly headquartered in Florida and currently in California) that owns the hardware on which Wikipedia’s and its sister projects’ data reside and the Wikipedia trademark.

In very general terms, the Foundation’s position has been that because it does not create or control the specific contents of any particular page, it is shielded from liability for defamatary content contributed by any user pursuant to Section 230 of the Communications Act (47 U.S.C. § 230(c)), which provides that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

I know of no reported cases applying Section 230 to a claim against the Wikimedia Foundation. There is one unreported case, Bauer v. Glatzer in the Superior Court of New Jersey, which upheld the Foundation’s immunity. A leading case discussing Section 230 more generally is cf. Barrett v. Rosenthal, 40 Cal. 4th 33, 146 P.3d 510, 51 Cal. Rptr. 3d 55 (2006), while an interesting law review article analyzing the application of Section 230 to Wikipedia is Ken S. Myers, Wikimmunity: Fitting the Communications Decency Act to Wikipedia, 20 Harv. J. L. & Tech. 162 (2006).

I wish very much that I were ending this post with a brilliant solution to problematic content regarding living persons on Wikipedia, but I don’t have one, even after having thought about this matter from lots of angles for close to three years. One of the reasons I asked Eugene if I could post here was to see what the readers here — legally and technically savvy, but without a vested interest in how the issue is addressed — might have to say about these issues. I'll move on to other topics in the next few days, but I'll continue reading the comments here. I'll do my best to respond to some of them before my blogging stint here is up.