Sunday, April 6, 2008

More on Anonymity

John Seigenthaler Sr. has described Wikipedia as John Siegenthaler Sr. an early
victim of bad biographical data.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Recall that I've spoken about anonymity before ... I've also talked about biographies and notability, twice before.

I made a rather loud statement of no longer being in favor of anonymity at the Biographies of Living Persons policy discussion page, as part of discussion on a proposal to limit editing on all such articles using semi protection. This was one of a number of ideas that have been advanced recently to try to deal with the perceived growing problem in this area.

Kim Bruning asked why I felt that a fundamental principle ("anyone can edit") should perhaps change to one in which only those willing to reveal their real name (verified as well as Amazon verifies real names, that is, not a perfect scheme, but not trivial to fake) would be allowed to edit at all. Clearly it goes against the early spirit. And I'm not happy about the idea, to be sure.

Simply put, the reason is that Wikipedia, and the Wikimedia Foundation have become too big. As the projects become more and more important, higher and higher ranked, more and more turned to, the stakes for accuracy are higher than ever before, with no end to this growth in significance in sight. The project participants, and the projects, have a greater responsibility than when this was a toy site.

Merely wishing to do no harm is insufficient. Merely saying that section 230 provides protection because the projects are "not publishers" is insufficient.

Sooner or later, someone with a biography that is seriously damaging (and make no mistake, with 250,000 odd biographies out there, there are sure to be some that are) will be mad enough and well off enough to sue. Don Murphy certainly threatens to. And moreover, with the recent success at securing large donations (a very good thing, make no mistake) the WMF is now a more attractive target.

So what's to be done? More than is being done, I say.

Just as with trademark law, where the holder must show reasonable care in defending against infringment, just as with trespass law, where the owner of a property hosting an "attractive nuisance" must show reasonable care in preventing entry, the projects must show reasonable care at preventing malicious editing of biographies. Tightening of the BLP policy, making OTRS more effective, hiring paid staff, whatever it takes.

But more importantly, the model of anonymous editing, or pseudonymous editing, means that the lawsuit cannot be laid off onto the individual editor that did the bad edit, despite statements that under GFDL the individual contributors are responsible. Server logs and IP addresses are insufficient ties of responsibility. Too easily evaded, too easily used for other things, so deliberately not retained indefinitely anyway.

So... it pains me to say it, but I think the only answer is real names. Real names allow the reasonable care defense, and allow transfer of liability. That has two positive effects, one that it protects the foundation, somewhat, but a bigger positive effect? It makes people actually take responsibility for what they write.

What do you think? Is the project too big for anonymity? Or is there another way out?


GerardM said...

The fact that there is nobody to sue is not a problem. There are mechanisms in place to be heard. When a bad article is identified, there are many mechanisms to deal with them.

I find it rather cool that there is nobody to sue. It is not a right, it is a power play.

Scarian said...

If you removed anonymous editing from Wikipedia completely it would certainly solve a lot of vandalism problems. But I guess that's a less important quandary than any potential BLP related litigation.

If you proposed it officially, it'd have a lot of opposition. I'm sure there have been discussions before about removing anonymous editing which go against the principle: "The encyclopedia anyone can edit" - But I don't believe I was around to witness those arguments.

I'd be for removing the ability of IP's to edit, but not so much real names.

Lar said...

GerardM: "The fact that there is nobody to sue is not a problem"... actually, I fear it is a problem, not a feature. The legal culture in the US has become "sue whoever you can, and make sure you include the deep pockets parties". WMF previously was poor, and in the US being poor is a pretty good (practical) legal defense. Now that the WMF has deep pockets,

it may well be in for more lawsuits. I'd hope not but thats the way things are in the US, like it or not. And the WMF is in the US, like it or not. (that could be changed, I suppose)

Scarian: It may not be a possible change, but if it's never raised, never discussed, it definitely isn't possible, rather than just maybe.

From a "legal liability of the WMF" standpoint pseudonymous editors and anonymous ones are no different, really. Pseudonymous editors have more reputation to be damaged by bad edits, but not much more, one can always throw away a pseudonym and start over.

private musings said...

on a philosophical level, I'd say that I now support the notion that every living person is only allowed one editing account, named however they wish.

On a pragmatic level, on first glance the amazon system seems to relate to credit card info, and requiring such might reduce access fairly considerably.

Certainly, the consequences of such a cultural shift are likely to be unpredictable, none of which of course goes to the necessity of better systems in place for biographies.

It's my understanding (but I'm no scholar!) that a traditional encyclopedia model generally tends towards the uncontroversial - another common sense approach to 'legal defence' - just don't say anything that anyone would want to sue you over! - so hows about restricting the editing / creating of biographies to identified editors?

Of course the idea that it's only biographies which are problematic may be somewhat flawed too.. but I think that's all I can bite off in this post!

Lar said...

Just as a note, I'm not saying *use* the Amazon system. I'm saying use something that is about that reliable/accurate... no system can be perfectly unspoofable, I'm thinking that system is approximately the level of surety needed.

pfctdayelise said...

Good post. It's a tough question and this is a strong argument. However I wonder whether "allow[ing] transfer of liability" really does "[make] people actually take responsibility for what they write."

Allowing transfer of liability is perhaps desirable, but ultimately don't we want a community-enforced norm of "do no harm" and extra care taken in BLPs? I am not sure the threat of transferred liability would actually help create a sense of personal responsibility.

Moulton said...

Protecting WMF from legal risk is certainly a good pragmatic reason for migrating toward a more professional, accountable, and responsible policy on BLPs.

But an enterprise as prominent as Wikipedia also needs an ethical policy that takes a proactive approach above and beyond the minimum standard needed to escape legal consequences.

After all, who would respect an enterprise that just manages to stay on the breezy side of the law?

Somey said...

The threat of transferred liability is already there, but even if it were enforced under a real-name policy, it wouldn't stop minors who have an adversarial relationship with their parents; it wouldn't stop people who have absolutely nothing to lose; it wouldn't stop people with real-world fake identities; and most importantly, it wouldn't stop people who know that what they're posting about someone is true, but can't source it. Wikipedia will become (and probably has become) just as much a public nuisance for spilling nasty secrets about people that are true as it will for spilling nasty secrets that are untrue.

Under the current control structure, WP needs a prophylactic and preventative solution in addition to an enforced cultural shift. Flagged revisions will help, but only in cases of obvious vandalism... Semi-protection would work, but the Kim Brunings of the world probably won't allow that. And as for the culture, the problem now is that Wikipedians think it's their job to reveal everything they can about people, simply in the name of being informative. It really only applies to a handful of BLP's, but for that handful, it has become a culture of one-upmanship, attention-grabbing, and competing over who gets to be the first to add whatever bit of trivia happens to come along, properly sourced or not. How do you change that? I have no idea - in fact, I doubt there's any way to change it at all.

An Opt-Out/No-Original-Bios policy would solve the problem on both ends by taking away the revenge incentive. Wikipedia would almost immediately cease to be a reliable revenge platform against anyone without a published biography, and people with that motive (at least as applies to BLP articles) would simply go elsewhere, preferably to privately-held domains where they belong. Unfortunately, the same people for whom that's the primary motive for being a Wikipedian are often those who are best positioned to prevent such a policy from ever being adopted.

Random832 said...

Re: Somey "Flagged revisions will help, but only in cases of obvious vandalism..." - That depends on who you allow to approve a revision. If it's limited (for BLPs) to people who are willing to thoroughly check over the whole article (or, at least, all edits since the last approved version) before approving - and who have real-name accountability, it may be something that can actually be effective.

Charles Martin said...

Don Murphy is a good example of why the requirement of real names would not work.

When he couldn't get the article about him deleted, Murphy started whitewashing it and otherwise stirring up trouble on the site (hypocritically using an alias himself: ColScott), so an admin blocked him. Murphy responded by issuing an open call to the fans on his web site to find out who this admin was, who he worked for, etc. and this information was used to contact the admin's employer and harass his family. Murphy has continued to do that with other editors who stand in his way, even when their actions are innocent: he falsely claims they've been attacking him or his wife, and issues a stalking call on Even people using pseudonyms are afraid to take him on.

Take away anonymity, and people like Murphy will be able to stalk their opponents all the more easily.

Lar said...

Charles: I agree Don Murphy's methods are problematic (to put it mildly). But I'm thinking that there are some folks who would not be intimidated. "Editors willing to make difficult edits" is after all a list that exists. Not every subject can be edited by just anyone. Murphy has, by his actions, put himself into the category of those subjects that can only be edited by those who are hardasses.