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.