There are reasons that the Encyclopedia Britannica has been around for 237 years. One of them, obviously, is that its editors do not allow anyone to post anything and claim it’s authoritative. An example of that would be the Wikipedia.
It’s easy to see why the Wikipedia had become a darling among Internet users. It’s well-designed, free and comprehensive. It also taps into the notion — a dubious one, in my estimation — that the “wisdom of the crowd” is superior to that of professional editors. (When did the “madness of the mob” become the “wisdom of the crowd,” anyway? When they got computers?)
Right now the Wikipedia is under siege as the result of two scandals. The better-known involves former Robert Kennedy aide John Siegenthaler, who wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today last week about how he’d been falsely cast as a conspirator in both Kennedy assassinations — and that this horrifying error was not removed for months.
But there’s more. It seems that Adam Curry, the former MTV veejay who helped launch podcasting, has been caught messing around with the Wikipedia entry on that subject, possibly to aggrandize his own role. Curry tells CNET’s News.com that his motives were pure, and whines that he’s now been cast as “the asshole of the week.”
Back to Siegenthaler. According to this News.com piece, the Wikipedia may have some responsibility for the slime job, but it’s probably not liable. The reason is that a provision of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 exempts Internet service providers from legal liability for anything posted on their sites.
As News.com notes, publishers — even exclusively online publishers such as Salon — may be successfully sued for libel by those who are able to demonstrate that they were defamed with false information, and that the publisher acted with some degree of fault. But ISPs were given a get-out-of-court card in the 1996 law on the theory that it would be impossible to monitor the thousands, even millions, of posts from their users.
News.com quotes Kurt Opsahl, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as saying that the guiding case in this area is Zeran v. America Online, 1997 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (not the Third Circuit, as News.com claims). Kenneth Zeran was the victim of a malicious AOL subscriber who posted messages in which, claiming to be Zeran, he offered T-shirts for sale that mocked victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. The court ruled that the 1996 law clearly exempted AOL from any liability.
Now, I don’t want to go toe to toe with a lawyer. Logically, though, the Wikipedia strikes me as being more of a publishing venture like Salon than an ISP like America Online or EarthLink. The Wikipedia’s model of allowing anyone to contribute content doesn’t strike me as somehow magically transforming it into an ISP.
But those are questions for lawyers and judges to decide. Either way, the Wikipedia’s honeymoon is over.