Saturday, November 3, 2007

Defame with impunity on Wikipedia

I agree that information should be free and free-flowing. Wikipedia was built around those principles, and around community-generated content. Unfortunately the community, or more correctly the public at large, is not as responsible as Wikipedia had expected.

Now A French judge has dismissed a defamation and privacy case against Wikipedia after ruling that the free online encyclopedia was not responsible for information introduced onto its Web site, according to this report from Reuters.

Moreover, Web site hosts are not legally bound to monitor or investigate the origin of the information they store, the Judge Emmanuel Binoche said after the online encyclopedia was sued by three French nationals over a Wikipedia article that said they were gay activists, according to the report.

Laws vary from country to country, but the overall tendency seems to be to exempt owners of community edited web-sites and social networking sites from liability for pornography or slander or other such nefarious content.

This ultra-liberal attitude when it comes to content crimes on the Internet leaves me wondering – where does that leave the individual ?

Before the arrival of online community edited news and opinion sites, the main source of potential defamation were public speeches and the newspapers, and in both cases liability for defamation is quite clear. Both the person defaming, as well as the forum which published the defamatory remarks are liable in varying degrees.

Issues of liability aside, because of the viral nature of the online medium, there is no stopping a false rumor before it starts.

Once a story is up on the net, it gets picked up by blogs, other sites, and even online newspapers. Some of them may quote the allegation, and hope to reduce liability by linking to the site from where they picked up the allegation. The upshot is that the slander is all over the place, before you can even say “ cease and desist”. By the time you have been able to identify and send a notice to the site that started it, your reputation is raked fore and aft.

In this context, the need for community edited sites and social networking sites to monitor content, and block content found objectionable is a must. Their liability should in fact be increased to make sure they acquit this responsibility. To be sure Internet companies will throw up their hands, and tell us their sites are so popular that the volume of content is more than they can filter properly.

That is a nice argument – but it is cold comfort to me if someone goes on Facebook or Wikipedia and describes me as a rapist. Sure, I can go after Facebook and Wikipedia, ask them to remove the objectionable material, identify the person who described me as a rapist, and sue him in court. But it may be all too late - the allegation is already all over the Internet.

Google has often used the analogy of the telephone to argue that the Internet service provider should be only as liable as a telephone services provider, who is not liable if a murder is plotted over the telephone. The times have changed. Two people talking on the phone, and calling me a pedophile are just two people. That is the extent of the damage. But if these two people put it out on their Orkut scrapbook or on Wikipedia, that number could jump to millions of people.

Related articles:

Internet reflects, nay amplifies social problems
Google says don’t shoot the messenger

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