John Siegenthaler Sr. an early
victim of bad biographical data.
Image from Wikimedia CommonsRecall 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?
Sunday, April 6, 2008
John Siegenthaler Sr. an early