Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Class action lawsuit against wikipedia?

Update: not at the moment, no.

A group calling itself "" is trying to start a class action suit against wikipedia.

The site has the same listed address as QuakeAID, which appears to be a fake charitable organization that seems to have run a scam following the south asian tsunami (and had a subsequnet run-in with wikipedia, when an article questioned the organization's credibility). (I'm not linking to because it's running google ads -- in lieu of that, a metafilter thread on the topic with a huge range of well-considered opinions.)

As you've probably guessed, I think the proposed lawsuit (if it's not just a bid for google ad revenue, or an attempt to muddy the waters surrounding QuakeAID's qustionable practices and bad wikipedia PR) is so misguided as to verge on the insane. Individual editors should be held responsible if they libel someone, not wikimedia as a whole.

It would be tragic (perhaps even in the literal Greek fashion) if wikipedia's open model couldn't coexist with the U.S.'s legal system. Wikipedia's case is strong at the moment -- but we'll see what happens in the 2006 and 2008 election seasons. If wikipedia ceases to be publically editable, that would end the grand experiment and make it an ordinary (and frustratingly static) encyclopedia.

As an open-source project, of course, it couldn't be wiped out completely -- there are too many copies and backups floating around (public and private). But if the organization is fragmented or driven underground, editing it will impose a greater cost (in effort and perhaps risk) and the balance of power will shift towards the anonymous bots and vandals.

It's more likely that wikimedia will take steps to protect itself. Here are a couple things it could do:

  • Prevent anonymous edits -- not just edits by unregistered users, but edits by all users with a persona not tied to a real-life person.
    • Honest people sometimes rely on anonymity for protection (especially in third world countries).
    • Online ID systems are immature right now. Among other problems, they usually impose burdens so great that they'd destroy wikipedia's biggest advantage (its huge potential userbase). For example, requiring a credit card to sign up -- only as identity verification, not to institute a charge -- would exclude not only the overwhelming majority of non-americans but also a sizable minority of americans (including this broke blogger).

  • Stop calling Wikipedia an encyclopedia. Stop calling users "editors". Make sure no member of the wikimedia board ever edits an article.
    This sounds a bit strange, but there's a quirk in the U.S. legal system regarding online forums: if a forum is moderated, even slightly, the administrators can be held liable for what's posted; if not, they can't.
    • Thinking of the project as encyclopedic encourages good edits.
    • How much of wikipedia's administrative structure would have to be dismantled? Admins have useful powers, like quick edit reversion -- would those powers have to be removed or made universally available?

Legal persecution seems unlikely right now, but if it ever comes down to it, I'll be marching down the national mall with a mesh LAN, handing out wikipedia DVD freezes.

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