Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Some Closure on a Wikipedia Scandal

On 12/2, I told the story of John Seigenthaler, the 78-year-old man who discovered that a prankster had written a false biography about him and submitted it to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia.

On 11/29, Mr. Seigenthaler wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today. His article attacked Wikipedia on several fronts: (1) He called the encyclopedia "a flawed and irresponsible research tool"; (2) He was angry that it took from 5/26 to 10/5 before Wikipedia erased the reference which "depicted me as a suspected assassin"; and (3) He was frustrated by his inability to uncover the person who had defamed him.

Although he had the Internet Protocol (IP) address for the prankster and traced it to a customer at BellSouth Internet, he was informed that federal privacy laws protect the identity of a communications company's customers. Short of a subpoena, BellSouth Internet would not give up the name.

On Sunday, (12/11), the New York Times printed a story unmasking the writer of the false biographical entry. Daniel Brandt, a Texas book indexer, took up Mr. Seigenthaler's cause and set out to find the prankster. He tracked the IP address to a delivery company in Nashville where Mr. Seigenthaler lives.

It turns out that the operations manager of the delivery company, a 38-year-old man named Brian Chase, had written the entry as a gag to surprise a co-worker who knew of the Seigenthaler family. Mr. Chase later explained that he did not believe Wikipedia was a legitimate encyclopedia. When he realized the commotion he had caused, Mr. Chase wrote a letter of apology to Mr. Seigenthaler and hand-delivered it to his office. He also resigned his job at the delivery company. Mr. Seigenthaler urged the company not to accept Mr. Chase's resignation.

One final note on this story: While Mr. Seigenthaler declined to sue Mr. Chase after receiving the apology, he expressed surprise that he had no legal recourse against Wikipedia.

CNET News agrees with that assessment. In a story on 12/7, they said: "Thanks to Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which became law in 1996, Wikipedia is most likely safe from legal liability for libel, regardless of how long an inaccurate article stays on the site. That's because it is a service provider as opposed to a publisher such as Salon.com or CNN.com." CNET News also quoted Roger Myers, a San Francisco attorney: "One of the reasons Congress passed the (CDA) was to encourage service providers and other (sic) who make their space on the Internet available to do monitoring without assuming liability. . . Congress was very specific about this."

As I explained in a follow-up blog on 12/5, Jimmy Wales--the founder of Wikipedia--has since decided that he will no longer permit unregistered users to post new entries to the encyclopedia. In theory, this will make people think twice before posting false or malicious data. However, I suspect this is not the last we will be hearing about Wikipedia pranks. With all the exposure this story and the Adam Curry story (see my 12/5 blog) garnered, there will probably be college students and other hackers who will try their hands at inserting false stories. My guess is that Wikipedia is going to be forced to install more safeguards to prevent hacking.

I am very glad Mr. Seigenthaler finally got closure on this issue and will be able to put it behind him.

1 comment:

Yasmine Phoenix said...

Good, such ability to post any information about a person, and not be held responsible is wrong. Hopefully, Wikipedia is a fad and will go away.