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Effects of Wikipedia's Growth and Influence on BLP Subjects and the Accessibility of Information

From Wikimania

Effects of Wikipedia's Growth and Influence on BLP Subjects and the Accessibility of Information

Presenter Ira Brad Matetsky (English Wikipedia)
Themes ContentCommunities
About the presenter
Ira Brad Matetsky (User:Newyorkbrad) has edited the English Wikipedia since 2006, has been an administrator since February 2007, and has served as a member of the English Wikipedia Arbitration Committee since January 2008. Outside Wikipedia, he is a litigation attorney with more than 20 years of experience, who lives and works in New York City.

The extraordinary growth of Wikimedia projects in general and Wikipedia in particular have profoundly influenced the ways in which researchers of all types, both serious and casual, seek out and gain access to information. Whether this is a positive or negative development depends on one's views on a variety of issues, including the quality of Wikipedia content, the extent to which Wikipedia adheres to appropriate norms of behavior, and the extent to which one believes that information about "notable" (but not profoundly notable) persons should be widely disseminated. In this regard, Wikipedia is but one part, albeit an increasingly important part, of the Internet as a whole.

A major aspect of the development of the Internet is the widespread public dissemination of information that, while it was not necessarily secret or concealed in the past, was not readily accessible to the general public. In general, the information explosion's making more rather than less available about an enormous wealth of topics and information is a most desirable outcome. However, there are many instances in which this may not be the case. By far more than any communication medium previously devised, the Internet has the ability to disseminate information about living persons and institutions that they, often for very legitimate reasons, may wish not to have widely known. The ease of editing Wikipedia lends to the use of our site as a vehicle for spreading such information -- in some instances out of editors' legitimate desire to add encyclopedic content to articles, but in many other instances, for far less laudible goals. Moreover, in all too many instances the content of "BLP" articles has crossed the line from merely disputed content to outright disinformation and defamation.

The devastating impact that misuse of Wikipedia can have on the lives of article subject was, I believe, not envisioned when the project was founded eight years ago. No one could have imagined that it would become necessary to create the OTRS quality queue (in effect, the article subjects' complaint department), staffed with several dozen volunteers, in order to address the concerns of those we write about. Yet over the past several years, the English Wikipedia's "biographies of living persons" policy in effect since 2006 as well as a series of En-WP Arbitration Committee decisions and the comments of hundreds of users including Jimbo Wales, all acknowledge the need for increasingly high standards as applied to our BLP content. Some would go even further: there are those who have claimed that Wikipedia, with its free editing model and no subject-matter limitations beyond our own notability guidelines, poses an intolerable threat to article subjects' well-being and reputations in its current form and that the world might be better off if the project did not exist. Those voicing this extreme view are not limited to Wikipedia's more rabid critics, but have come to include a few En-WP administrators with the greatest experience and dedication in dealing with these issues.

Wikipedia's development as an enormous and ever-growing free-content encyclopedia is an amazing thing, and for the most part I think our participation in it is something we should all be proud of, even as we balance it against making sure that we are not doing meaningful and unnecessary harm to our article subjects. Unfortunately, there appear to be no ready and immediate solutions to all BLP issues. Changes to editing procedures, such as semiprotection of BLPs or flagged revisions, would reduce the amount of defamation but there are those who are say that they would have unfortunate side-effects. Stronger solutions are perceived by many in the community, rightly or wrongly, as potentially compromising our core values of completeness and NPOV.

In my talk, I will discuss several specific instances of BLP disputes during my time on Wikipedia (including some I have been involved in as an administrator and an arbitrator) as concrete examples of the problems and dilemmas facing us as we seek to improve our standards in this area. These examples will be examined from the separate but sometimes overlapping perspectives of Wikipedia policy and consensus, ethical imperatives, and legal requirements. Among other things, I will draw on input I have received from giving an earlier version of this talk at a New York meet-up as well as an comments on an upcoming series of posts I will be making within the next few weeks on a well-known blog, not affiliated with Wikipedia but attacting many commenters with interests in these types of issues.

Language English