A free, but fair, Web
December 16, 2005
THE VENERABLE NEWSMAN John Seigenthaler had it about right when he
explained last weekend why he decided not to take legal action against
a rogue Internet user who had posted defamatory -- and false -- claims
about him in the popular open-source research tool, Wikipedia. "I
still believe in free expression," Seigenthaler said. "What I want is
Seigenthaler has been badly maligned by charges added to the Wikipedia
entry about him, saying that he "was thought to have been directly
involved" in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. The
78-year-old former editor of the Nashville Tennessean, who has won
numerous awards for courage in publishing, was a pallbearer at RFK's
On Friday the man who posted the addendum, Brian Chase, confessed --
once he realized his identity was about to be unveiled by a
cyber-sleuth -- claiming it all was a prank. Seigenthaler's response
was more principled than Chase had any right to expect, sticking to
his First Amendment principles but calling on Wikipedia to do a better
job policing its own content.
The incident touched off the always-simmering debate over the limits,
if any, of material posted on the Web. Champions of a freewheeling
Internet often claim that it is self-correcting, since hundreds of
'editors', or readers, visit websites and will catch errors. But the
slander against Seigenthaler sat on the Wikipedia site for four
Other supporters say the Web is more transparent than other anonymous
sources, because postings can be traced -- with enough diligence or
with a subpoena. The very fact that an Internet watchdog was able to
track Chase's electronic fingerprints to his workplace shows the
system is working, they claim. But Wikipedia seems to thrive on
drive-by postings; its guidelines offer hints for how users can shield
their identities, including avoiding company computers.
Wikipedia, a non-profit, all-volunteer effort, is a phenomenal
success, with millions of listings in 82 languages. But its idealistic
mission to be a 'global digital commons' is easily undercut by sloppy
or unscrupulous contributors. Given its immense reach, a disclaimer
notice and caveat emptor don't seem good enough.
One step in the right direction is Wikipedia's decision to require all
of its contributors to register with the site. Another would be to
give better play to 'editors' who are willing to sign their work.
Rather than holding Wikipedia or other sites liable for the actions of
the unruly masses, which could chill the vigorous, free exchange the
Internet should be, websites need to find ways to be more
accountable. Even the global village needs to police its town common.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company, originally Boston Globe.
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