Wikipedia Editor Threatened With Lawsuit For Participating In Discussion Leading To Deletion Of Entry

from the skin-in-the-game dept

After weathering earlier attacks on its reliability, Wikipedia is now an essential feature of our online and cultural landscapes. Indeed, it’s hard now to imagine a world where you can’t quickly check up some fact or other by going online to Wikipedia and typing in a few keywords. But that centrality brings with it its own problems, as a post from Benjamin Mako Hill about legal threats he received thanks to his work as a Wikipedia editor makes clear.

You can read the long and involved tale on his site, but the facts are basically these. A Berlin-based organization called the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD) is unhappy because an entry about it had been deleted from Wikipedia. Hill explains why that happened:

Although the Wikipedia article was long and detailed, it sent off some internal Wikipedian-alarm-bells for me. The page read, to me, like an advertisement or something written by the organization being described; it simply did not read — to me — like an encyclopedia article written by a neutral third-party.

I looked through the history of the article and found that the article had been created by a user called Icd_berlin who had made no other substantive edits to the encyclopedia. Upon further examination, I found that almost all other significant content contributions were from a series of anonymous editors with IP addresses associated with Berlin. I also found that a couple edits had removed criticism when it had been added to the article. The criticism was removed by an anonymous editor from Berlin.

After discussions among some of Wikipedia’s editors, the article was first proposed for deletion, and then duly deleted — but not before Hill’s own Wikipedia page had been edited to accuse him of slander and defamation. Things went quiet for a while, and then another Wikipedia page about ICD appeared:

Several months later a new article was created — again, by an anonymous user with no other edit history. Although people tend to look closely at previously deleted new pages, this page was created under a different name: “The Institute of Cultural Diplomacy” and was not noticed.

That was problematic, for the following reason:

Deleted Wikipedia articles are only supposed to be recreated after they go through a process called deletion review. Because the article was recreated out of this process, I nominated it for what is called speedy deletion under a policy specifically dealing with recreated articles. It was deleted again. Once again, things were quiet.

But not for long. On 25 February of this year, yet another article about ICD appeared on Wikipedia, once more “out of process”, and by a user with almost no previous edit history. The next day, Hill received the following email from Mark Donfried, who is described on ICD’s Web site as “Executive Director and Founder of the institute for Cultural Diplomacy”:

Please note that the ICD is completely in favor of fostering open dialogue and discussions, even critical ones, however some of your activities are raising serious questions about the motives behind your actions and some even seem to be motives of sabotage, since they resulted in ICD not having any Wikipedia page at all.

We are deeply concerned regarding these actions of yours, which are causing us considerable damages. As the person who initiated these actions with Wikipedia and member of the board of Wikipedia, we would therefore request your answer regarding our questions below within the next 10 days (by March 6th). If we do not receive your response we will unfortunately have to consider taking further legal actions with these regards against you and other anonymous editors.

These events indicate how important it is becoming to have a Wikipedia entry — preferably a favorable one. Indeed, it’s getting to the point where some people think that they actually have a right to one. Although that’s a wonderful sign of Wikipedia’s power and importance, it also means that it will find itself increasingly under pressure from those who are unhappy at not having an entry, or because of the things the entry says. Maintaining objectivity and a neutral point of view was always hard, but is bound to get harder in the future.

Moreover, it seems likely that Hill finds himself on the receiving end of legal threats because he uses his own name on Wikipedia, rather than operating anonymously as many others do. ICD’s current actions almost certainly mean that fewer people will be willing to take that risk, and will instead opt to carry out their work under the cloak of anonymity, or may not want to get involved at all. That last point — the potential chilling effect — is the most worrying, as Hill explains:

If I can be scared off by threats like these, anybody can. After all, I have friends at the Wikimedia Foundation, a position at Harvard Law School, and am close friends with many of the world’s greatest lawyer-experts on both wikis and cyberlaw. And even I am intimidated into not improving the encyclopedia.

I am concerned by what I believe is the more common case — where those with skin in the game will fight harder and longer than a random Wikipedian. The fact that it’s usually not me on the end of the threat gives me lots of reasons to worry about Wikipedia at a time when its importance and readership continues to grow as its editor-base remains stagnant.

We may come to look back on today’s Wikipedia as the project’s golden age, before those “with skin in the game” started their assault in earnest, and before Wikipedia editors increasingly gave up trying to ward them off for fear of legal reprisals.

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Comments on “Wikipedia Editor Threatened With Lawsuit For Participating In Discussion Leading To Deletion Of Entry”

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out_of_the_blue says:

Lesson: commercial interests ruin everything public.

I’m none too pleased with the editorial policies of Wikipedia itself. — Michael Rivero claims that they wouldn’t let HIM be an authority about himself on his own wiki page! — But beyond that, the potential for slanting, or as bad, omitting, info is worrisome. Do I have any major examples? No, but as noted above, it’s now past the open and honest stage, and it too is a commercial interest and will exercise the noted power as for own profit, not public good.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Lesson: commercial interests ruin everything public.

ICD can have a Wikipedia page. It has comply with Wikipedia policies. First, ICD must be noteworthy enough to merit an article. Then there are policies on how the article is written. It cannot be an advertisement.

Deleting the article was in compliance with Wikipedia’s policies. Recreating the article was in circumvention of those policies — and we all know how you feel about circumvention of the rights of creators — such as the creators of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia’s policies are designed to foster the creation of an encyclopedia. Not create advertisements.

If you or ICD does not like or wish to comply with Wikipedia policies, you are free to create your own encyclopedia. Nobody is stopping you. Just set up a server and get started. Isn’t the internet wonderful?

Mario Gut says:

Re: Re: Lesson: commercial interests ruin everything public.

Sorry, but I have checked out the ICD institute website – no commercial interest, it seems respected and aknowledged by government officials, Universities, with highly respected speakers – former presidents ambassadors etc. of all kinds, states and political directions – there is absolute NO reason to start this pretty arrogant discussion – with all the ridiculous stuff that?s mentioned in wikipedia, it ist not understandable, that this “Institute of cultural diplomacy” becomes subject to quasi “ex cathedra” judgement by? well by whom? Some self lifted juror who thinks he knows – what? Sorry again, I have nothing to do with this Institute, but behaviour like this is part of the reason, why Wikipedia becomes less important –

kitsune361 (profile) says:

Re: Lesson: commercial interests ruin everything public.

As a general rule you should not be able to directly write about yourself for the encyclopedia. It’s hard to not have a point of view on the subject of yourself.

That’s where Wikipedia’s rule about editing your own page (or an organization editing it’s own page) comes from. Of course this doesn’t stop you from having someone related to you do the edit of your Wikipedia page. This happens more often than you think. People get friends to whitewash their entries all the time, and if you happen to know an admin or have protection from on high, the sky is the limit.

I can kind of agree w/ ootb’s point here, the editorial polices on Wikipedia aren’t exactly stellar, aren’t always enforced equally; some are just more equal than others. And they do have a commercial interest, just like any organization that exists on donations, you can’t piss off your whales.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Lesson: commercial interests ruin everything public.

But beyond that, the potential for slanting,
or as bad, omitting, info is worrisome.

Worrisome, perhaps, but it’s a private web site and no one has a right to force them to include anything they don’t want to include on it. Wiki is paying the bills and they can delete anything they want to delete.

Ben says:

Re: Re:

Well, I’m not a lawyer, edited just one Wikipedia article myself and have only read this about the case, but based on the information in this article I’d think Wikipedia could win in court. (Of course, the threat was not directed at Wikipedia, but an editor.)
The evidence is circumstancial (anonymous editors probably based in Berlin doesn’t mean it was ICD), but it appears the ICD didn’t play by Wikipedia’s rules. As it is not a right to have a Wikipedia article, and certainly not a Wikipedia “brochure”, on what basis should a judge decide ICD’s page should be restored?
I read that a website owner is responsible for moderating comment threads if spam is to be fenced off. Wikipedia’s moderation rules are pretty clear about not having advertisements for articles.

So I don’t fear that NPOV is illegal – at least not before a judge rules that adhering to Wikipedia’s rules is defamation.

Anonymous Coward says:

no different to what happens every day. if you see something or read something that isn’t liked, regardless of whether true or not, just threaten to sue and what you want to happen will happen, again, whether true or not. yet another stupid way of dealing with things, thanks to laws brought in by Congress that puts the onus on the defendant, not the accuser.

Tom (profile) says:

There's such a thing as too open

I love Wikipedia, but this kind of situation is one of the things I hate about WP’s design. The amazing part is that it hasn’t changed in the time since I first started digging in to the editorial process.

I’ve long been a proponent of some sort of enforced user validation and “karma” system at Wikipedia… Ideally, only people with a track record of being reliable editors would be able to edit high profile articles, and random people would not be able to create WP pages until they’ve actually proven they know how the system works.

In this case, it appears that ICD thinks that Wikipedia is some sort of free web hosting service or some sort of free directory service, rather than being an encyclopedia. The difference is huge: Would ICD expect to see an entry about themselves in The World Book Encyclopedia?

If this went to court, it would be a a loss for both parties. ICD would not win, but the problem is that these lawsuits can drag on for years, and you’ve got to pay for your lawyer out of pocket.

So nobody wins and life goes on.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

One doesn’t get a Wikipedia article for merely existing. There remains a notability requirement, and the article will mostly focus on that notability.

If the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy isn’t notable for anything else, their Wikipedia article is going to mostly be about how they contested the Wikipedia paradigm by threats of litigation.

Classy, ICD. So classy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

i feel like its mostly so it doesn’t devolve into an entire mess. server space and bandwidth are definitely factors, but even if they weren’t, it keeps the # of articles down to a manageable amount. they don’t have an infinite amount of editors to review everybody’s own wiki that they now have to create and keep an eye on to make sure the bully down the street doesn’t modify it to say he had sex with your mother.

tqk says:

This is the stupidest story I've seen in a while.

A schmoozefest non-profit threatens a volunteer editor of a free on-line encyclopedia for diligently following said encyclopedia’s policies? Are they suggesting this is an example of cultural diplomacy? I don’t think barratry and bullying qualify as diplomacy, cultural or otherwise.

I see ICD’s wikipedia page comes up in search results, so wikipedia’s acquiesced to the bullying, sadly. I hope the Streisand Effect slaps them silly for a long time coming.

gab4moi (profile) says:


sooo… this guy with the goatee and ponytail, that looks like a wrestling manager, is threatening Wikipedia because they keep deleting his entries about his, from all intents and purposes, as evidenced by the website, organisation that seems to spend a lot of time… ummm… well, actually, umm… talking?

“as the person… we would…” makes one suspect that as the reader we would question the conversational competence of him… err, them… err, whatever…

Rich Rostrom says:

Bullying Wikipedia

Davod Bruce McMahan is a hedge fund multi-billionaire. Despite his prominence as one of the world’s richest people, he has no Wikipedia article. He demanded and got its removal, by threatening not legal action but mass vandalism by a swarm of hired anonymous editors.

Why did he do that? Because he wants no public attention, due to the controversy over his incestuous affair with his adult daughter. (Yes, it really happened.)

The harm done in this case is fairly minimal; McMahan is not really that notable, and he demanded only silence, not lies or plaudits about anything really important.

But the case does demonstrate how vulnerable Wikipedia really is.

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