Wikipedia will set you free, if it’s true

An international dispute over privacy puts Wikipedia on the defensive.

Jake Parsley

Consider the following: I was reading David BrooksâÄô column on The New York TimesâÄô Web site yesterday when I came across a reference to the ancient Chinese custom of foot binding. Being relatively ignorant (but curious), I typed âÄúbound feetâÄù into Google, and the top result was a Wikipedia entry titled âÄúFoot binding.âÄù Seconds later I was looking at a 3,500-word exposition on the history, procedure and depictions in popular culture of the Chinese tradition of foot binding complete with pictures, footnotes and external site links. Amazing. The night before, I was up late working on a school assignment and listening to the epic hip-hop album Liquid Swords by the legendary Wu-Tang Clan member GZA. I was curious about some of the guest rappers on the album, so I typed âÄúLiquid SwordsâÄù into Google, and within seconds I was looking at a comprehensive, track-by-track breakdown of the album, complete with guest spots and a list of all the samples used on the album. Of course, Wikipedia extends far beyond rap records and horrific social customs. A quick look through my browser history shows that I visited Wikipedia entries on the 2008 U.S. Senate election in Minnesota, the post-Soviet nation of Turkmenistan and the American author Augusten Burroughs all within the past week. Never has ignorance been so easily banished. According to the massive Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia itself, the site currently has more than 14 million articles in 262 languages. As the Wikipedia entry makes abundantly clear, not everyone is thrilled with the siteâÄôs user-generated information model. WikipediaâÄôs reliability, accuracy and susceptibility to vandalism combine to make it a criticism magnet, especially in academic circles. What Wikipedia provides in ease-of-access it lacks in credibility, some say. âÄúAlthough Wikipedia promises transparency and, to a large extent, has very open and transparent processes, there are serious issues with the credibility of information provided or edited by unaccountable anonymous users,âÄù wrote University of Northern Iowa professors Adele Santana and Donna Wood in a May 2009 article in the journal Ethics and Information Technology. Many of these credibility concerns are centered around Wikipedia users entering false information into the siteâÄôs entries, an occurrence highlighted by an Aug. 26 entry on PC WorldâÄôs blog, âÄúThe 15 Biggest Wikipedia Blunders.âÄù According to past editions of Wikipedia entries, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair worships Adolf Hitler, TV host Conan OâÄôBrien assaults sea turtles while canoeing and David Beckham was a Chinese goalkeeper in the 18th century. Of course, those entries were corrected, but the fact remains that the site has propagated patently false information on more than one occasion. But what concerns me about Wikipedia isnâÄôt so much the false information being added into the siteâÄôs database; itâÄôs the constant threat that true information is being removed. According to a Nov. 13 story in The New York Times, Wolfgang Werlé and Manfred Lauber, two Germans convicted of killing an actor in 1990, have sued WikipediaâÄôs parent company, the Wikimedia Foundation, demanding that they remove all mention of the killers from its Web sites. The strategy has already worked in Germany, where every mention of the killers has been erased from the German version of the site. Under German privacy law, courts allow the suppression of a criminalâÄôs name in news accounts once he has served his sentence. âÄúThey should be able to go on and be re-socialized and lead a life without being publicly stigmatizedâÄù for their crime, said Alexander Stopp, the German killersâÄô attorney. âÄúA criminal has a right to privacy, too, and a right to be left alone.âÄù But the Germans havenâÄôt stopped at the borders of their own country. They now seek the expungement of their names from all English-language versions of Wikipedia as well. So far, Wikipedia has refused, as a quick search of the victimâÄôs name, Walter Sedlmayr, reveals. But Wikipedia doesnâÄôt have an unblemished track record when it comes to sticking up for historical fact. When Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter David Rohde was kidnapped by the Taliban in November 2008, a widespread media blackout took place, with news media choosing not to report on the incident, citing RohdeâÄôs safety (for information on RohdeâÄôs kidnapping, do a Wikipedia search). Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales became personally involved and until Rohde escaped on June 19, assigned staff to make sure that any reference to the kidnapping be immediately removed. This was not an instance of some rogue Web user changing information based on a personal vendetta; this was an administrative decision handed down from WikipediaâÄôs command center to remove information that the organization knew to be true. Now, just to be clear, I still love Wikipedia. I stayed up pretty late writing this column, so later on today I will probably be on Wikipedia looking up whatever court cases I was supposed to read for my copyrights class. Who knows? Later in the day when IâÄôm avoiding my homework I might be back on the site reading about Bigfoot, Billy the Kid or Bim Skala Bim. And when I visit Wikipedia, I want the truth. I want to know whether foot binding still goes on in modern China. I want to know if that really was a Stevie Wonder sample I heard on that GZA album. I want to know if an American reporter is being held hostage in a foreign country, and I want to know the names of the men who were convicted of murdering Walter Sedlmayr in his bedroom with a hammer 19 years ago. Jake Parsley welcomes comments at [email protected]