Posted by Ira Matetsky, guest-blogging:
Wikipedia, the Internet, and Diminished Privacy:

   This is the second in my series of guestblog posts about the online
   encyclopedia Wikipedia, how it is organized and governed, and some
   aspects of its impact. My thanks to everyone who has commented on my
   post from yesterday. Later in the week I�ll have a post or two
   specifically focused on people�s comments, so please keep them coming.

   As I mentioned yesterday and was picked up in the comments, one of the
   sources of Wikipedia�s popularity and influence is the fact that pages
   in it rank so highly on Google and other search engines. Where the
   Wikipedia page is an accurate, well-written, well-sourced article on
   the topic it covers, that is fine. On the other hand, some articles
   are better than others. And even if a page did once contain brilliant
   prose, it could have been changed for the worse by anyone, before a
   given reader finds it and reads it.

   The shortest way of expressing this is that Wikipedia�s primary
   weakness precisely corresponds to its greatest strength. The best
   feature of the site is that anyone can edit (virtually) anything
   contained on it. The worst feature of the site is that anyone can edit
   virtually anything contained on it.

   The ability of anyone to edit raises especially serious issues where
   an article concerns a specific living person. As long as an individual
   is �notable� by Wikipedia standards (with notability defined partly by
   a series of guidelines and partly subjectively), any registered editor
   is free to create a Wikipedia page about him or her, and anyone else
   is then free to edit that page.

   In the first instance, this makes sense. Articles about human beings
   and their achievements are part of the core content of an
   encyclopedia. One could hardly imagine a general-purpose encyclopedia
   without articles about all of the U.S. Senators, or major-league
   baseball players, or astronauts, or Metropolitan Opera singers, or any
   of myriad other categories of prominent people. (Perhaps even law
   professors with dozens of publications and prominent blogs.) So there
   are several hundred thousand of these articles, known in Wikipedia
   parlance as �BLPs� -- �Biographies of Living Persons.�

   Consistent with the whole Wikipedia model of open collaborative
   editing, there is virtually no control over who is writing or editing
   these articles. Sometimes, the author is a knowledgeable
   subject-matter expert familiar with subject and his or her work. Other
   times, he or she is a good-faith contributor drawing and summarizing
   information from published, reliable sources. On the other hand, a BLP
   could also have been created or recently edited by its subject�s worst
   enemy, his most bitter professional rival, her leading political
   opponent, or just a �vandal� out to make mischief.

   Many Wikipedians have come to realize that the negative effects of
   false or misleading articles about living people can seriously damage
   the subjects of the articles. This is an area where many of the
   critics of Wikipedia have made very valid points.

   There are two basic problems. One is the potential that an editor will
   insert inaccurate, misleading, and in some cases overtly defamatory or
   malicious content in an article. I�ll discuss that aspect of the
   problem and how it might be addressed tomorrow.

   But there is another equally serious problem inherent in Wikipedia
   articles about some living people -- except that it is not a Wikipedia
   problem per se, but an Internet-wide one. That is the problem of how
   easy it is, in the era of near-universal Internet access and
   instantaneous search engines, to inflict devastating and nearly
   irreversable damage to people�s privacy. I�ll give a couple of
   specific examples.

   In January 2007, a 13-year-old boy whom I will call John (I refuse to
   further disseminate his name) was kidnapped from his family and
   mistreated in a horrifying way over a period of 4 days before being
   rescued. Although the names of minors who are victims of this type of
   crime are often kept out of the news, in this instance John was a
   missing child, which rightfully led to intensive publicity both in
   print and online as the authorities searched for him. Since John was
   rescued, there has been extensive press coverage of how he was found,
   of the trial of the kidnapper, and to a lesser extent, of his and his
   family�s efforts to resume normal life. Much of that publicity also
   has included John�s full name; there seems to have been no particular
   attempt made to put the genie back in the bottle.

   In the spring of 2007, someone decided that the case had been the
   subject of enough mainstream press coverage that it was notable and
   warranted a Wikipedia article. Reading that article made me miserable:
   not just because of what had happened, but also because I knew that
   behind the article was a teenage boy who must be dealing, in his own
   way, with the memories of what happened to him. I knew that as his
   life charts its course, and that as he lives it, when he applies to
   college or for a job or meets people, people will type his name into
   Google �- and since to the best of my knowledge he is in other
   respects unexceptionable, the main thing anyone looking him up will
   learn is the fact and the details of what happened for 4 days when he
   was 13.

   I decided, as a Wikipedia administrator equipped with a "delete"
   button, that Wikipedia did not need to contain this article. After a
   long discussion on the �deletion review� page, my deletion of John�s
   article was upheld. Later that summer, policy was clarified to make it
   clear that in deciding whether to keep or delete a page, it is
   legitimate to take the effect of the page on its subject into account,
   at least to some degree.

   But in spite of the deletion, John�s name still turns up on Wikipedia
   -- it appears in our article about the criminal who abducted him,
   despite my and others' having argued for removing it. Moreover, and
   equally important, a Google search turns up not just a few but
   thousands of other hits with the same content. This is by no means
   just a Wikipedia issue, though of course that does not absolve
   Wikipedians of our obligation to handle this type of content

   We face the Internet-wide question whether there is anything we can do
   to avoid effectively making a collective decision that this horrific
   incident is the key piece of information that should be available
   about John�s life. Except that there is no real decision to be made,
   because there is nothing to be done. In John's case, as I wrote on the
   deletion review, we have collectively added violation by the crowd to
   violation by the crime.

   Another constant source of these issues is coverage of �Internet
   memes� -- videos or pieces of information that catch public attention,
   often in a humorous way, but in the process often are humiliating to
   their subjects. For example, I once arranged to deletion an article
   discussing an otherwise unknown person who sold his used laptop
   computer. When the computer didn't work properly, the purchaser took
   revenge by releasing embarrassing personal information and files from
   the computer onto the Internet. The resulting publicity, it was
   reported, had basically ruined this person's life. The people involved
   were identified on Wikipedia by name and location. To say the least, I
   thought we could remain a complete and worthwhile encyclopedia without
   further publicizing this matter. I nominated the article for deletion
   and got it deleted. The process took a month. (Today I might be more
   confident and just speedy-delete it myself.)

   Another article we eventually decided we could live without discussed
   a young woman, also identified by name and city, who has been mocked
   for her poor judgment in having been overly detailed about how guests
   should behave at her 21st birthday party. For the rest of her life, if
   someone types her name into Google, they will find publicity about
   this supposedly grievous error she made, which may overshadow the
   coverage of anything else that she ever does or accomplishes.
   Wikipedia did not need to, and no longer does, discuss this episode;
   it never should have.

   More examples come up every day. For those who follow such things:
   Should we include the �Star Wars Kid��s full name? What, if anything,
   should we write about �Boxxy� or �Chris Chan� or �Brian P.�? Do we
   mention, and how much weight do we give to, the difficult times in
   people�s lives, especially where the person�s notability is borderline
   to begin with?

   I do my best to advocate that Wikipedia not include content that will
   obviously hurt the subject of an article and does not enhance the
   encyclopedia we are writing. (I haven't done as much of this as I
   would like, given my ArbCom duties, but writing this essay has
   reminded me once again to place a priority on this work.) But even
   where a deletion or a redaction sticks, I don't delude myself any more
   that I've actually helped the subject of the article very much, where
   the news coverage of their situations on fifty or five thousand other
   websites spreading the same gossip and showing the same disrespect for
   privacy and dignity are still out there. Wikipedia is a critically
   high-profile website, and I don't denegrate for one minute the
   importance of improving things on our site. But there are plenty of
   times I read something despicable on another website and wish I could
   delete it and block the person who wrote it. Only on-wiki can I even

   Even developments in the spread of online information that seem
   unambiguously positive turn out to have more complex overtones when
   one thinks through the privacy ramifications. For example, complete
   free online searching of the complete back contents of The New York
   Times has recently become available. That's a home run for increasing
   the flow of information to the world, right, and great news?

   Well, yes, it certainly makes research easier in a number of ways, as
   opposed to screening the old microfilms as one used to have to do, and
   for purposes of my research for both sourcing Wikipedia articles and
   my everyday legal research article-writing, I like it very much. And
   yet ... anyone who ever committed a youthful indiscretion that
   happened to make page C17 of the paper on a slow news day, will now be
   defined by that as one of the top results for his or her name, for the
   rest of his or her life. And multiply by dozens of other newspapers,
   and every other type of medium and website, and on and on and on. (The
   increasingly free public online access to court pleadings is another
   example whose ramifications are still being thought through.)

   Incidentally, it is unlikely that many of the people affected by these
   damaging (but non-defamatory) types of unwanted publicity will have
   much chance for legal redress, at least in the United States. (And
   bringing a suit to redress this type of harm may be useless anyway;
   its main effect may be to further magnify the very publicity one is
   complaining about.) For readers wishing to explore the legal issues
   created by unwanted publicity and the question of whether media
   disclosure of facts that someone would prefer to conceal can ever give
   rise to a tort claim, the best place to start is probably Judge
   Posner�s opinion in Haynes v. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 8 F.3d 1222 (7th
   Cir. 1993), available at [1] It
   thoroughly surveys the competing policy arguments, the precedents, and
   the constitutional considerations. If anyone knows of a comparably
   thorough discussion brought up to date for the Information Age, please
   tell us in the comments.

   Isaac Asimov famously predicted fifty years ago that emerging
   technology would come at the cost of vanished privacy, though he
   didn't get the exact form of the technology right. Fifty-odd years
   later, much of his prediction has come true, and I only hope that the
   website I help administer can avoid being a central part of the
   problem. In a way, we all live in the goldfish bowl now. It is not
   always a pleasant place to be.


   1. file://localhost/var/www/powerblogs/volokh/posts/1242179591.html

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