Friday, December 09, 2005

fools gold

Whether he knows it or not, prominent journalist John Seigenthaler has just advanced the cause of online journalism tenfold. How? He complained about Wikipedia.

Wikipedia's page on Seigenthaler was full of innacuracies. Significantly, one comment suggested he was involved in the Kennedy assasinations, making the piece defamatory. Online fools should suffer a similar fate to their print cousins, and, perhaps smelling a suit, Wikiedia founder Jimmy Wales withdrew the article and introduced a registration system for those who wish to publish articles.

What are the implications of all this? Wales says the number of new articles on his site will reduce. He will also be able to track posters. Editing will, however, remain anonomous (it is a wiki after all). Will the move improve the quality of Wikipedia's journalism though? This is, after all, what the fuss is about.

The answer is, essentially, no. It will merely slow it down. The only thing a registration system will do is make those who wish to deliberately post libellous articles on Wikipedia think twice.

But what is the ultimate outcome? If a Wikipedia user posts something which is libellous, can the poster be held financially accountable? I assumed there would be a clause within the registration that warns prospective users against posting dubious information - maybe even offers a crash course in media law.

I never trust to assumptions. So I found out. During registration, nothing informed me that I would be liable if I published libellous information. Fair enough. Mr Wales is quite obviously prepared to protect the users of his website by making Wikipedia responsible for everything published in it. Just like in print: where the publication is sued, not the journalist.

Unfortunately, this isn't quite true. Here's a quote from their disclaimer:

"None of the authors, contributors, sponsors, administrators, sysops, or anyone else connected with Wikipedia in any way whatsoever can be responsible for the appearance of any inaccurate or libelous information or for your use of the information contained in or linked from these web pages."

Interesting eh? So, basically, if something on Wikipedia is libellous, then Wikipedia is not repsonsible. But wait? If users aren't responsible, and wikipedia isn't responsible, then who is?

The improbable answer is, funnily enough, no-one. Seigenthaler, being the dogged investigative hack he is, persued his biographer with a determination not seen since the days of The Terminator. I'll let the man himself tell you the result:

"Federal law also protects online corporations — BellSouth, AOL, MCI Wikipedia, etc. — from libel lawsuits. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, specifically states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker." That legalese means that, unlike print and broadcast companies, online service providers cannot be sued for disseminating defamatory attacks on citizens posted by others."

In short, defamation doesn't exist online. This is a rediculous situation. Imagine how farcical it would be to see a similar disclaimer to the one found on Wikipedia's website appear on the front page of the Daily Mail.

It does, however, beg a curious question: why did Wales remove the entry? He has the support of the Communications Decency Act and a nice, big, bold disclaimer to bat away any suit that might be lobbed his way.

This cannot continue. Online journalism cannot complain about professional rejection from print and broadcast media when it seems to be exempt from basic media law. How can online journalism convince the public that it's stories are factually correct when, by law, they don't have to be?

Seigenthaler's view, expressed in his excellent USA Today piece recounting his fight for justice, is that shared by many in the media today:

"When I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils of "gossip." She held a feather pillow and said, "If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I could never get them back in the pillow. That's how it is when you spread mean things about people.

For me, that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia."

Seigenthaler will be blissfully unaware, but he just might have forced Wikipedia, and online journalism, out of the virtual world and into the real.

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