Most of us would be quite flattered to find an entry about us on the Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia where anybody can create or edit an entry. Not so for John Seigenthaler. His Wikipedia bio said:
John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960’s. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.
In a USA Today editorial Seigenthaler begins by quoting the false bio and then writes:
I have no idea whose sick mind conceived the false, malicious “biography” that appeared under my name for 132 days on Wikipedia, the popular, online, free encyclopedia whose authors are unknown and virtually untraceable. . . .
At age 78, I thought I was beyond surprise or hurt at anything negative said about me. I was wrong. One sentence in the biography was true. I was Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant in the early 1960s. I also was his pallbearer. It was mind-boggling when my son, John Seigenthaler, journalist with NBC News, phoned later to say he found the same scurrilous text on Reference.com and Answers.com.
Seigenthaler explains how he tried to track down the person who posted the information:
I phoned Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder and asked, “Do you … have any way to know who wrote that?”
“No, we don’t,” he said. Representatives of the other two websites said their computers are programmed to copy data verbatim from Wikipedia, never checking whether it is false or factual.
He then tried to locate the defamer’s identity by contacting his or her ISP:
Naturally, I want to unmask my “biographer.” And, I am interested in letting many people know that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool.
But searching cyberspace for the identity of people who post spurious information can be frustrating. I found on Wikipedia the registered IP (Internet Protocol) number of my “biographer”- 65-81-97-208. I traced it to a customer of BellSouth Internet. That company advertises a phone number to report “Abuse Issues.” An electronic voice said all complaints must be e-mailed. My two e-mails were answered by identical form letters, advising me that the company would conduct an investigation but might not tell me the results. It was signed “Abuse Team.”
Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, told me that BellSouth would not be helpful. “We have trouble with people posting abusive things over and over and over,” he said. “We block their IP numbers, and they sneak in another way. So we contact the service providers, and they are not very responsive.”
After three weeks, hearing nothing further about the Abuse Team investigation, I phoned BellSouth’s Atlanta corporate headquarters, which led to conversations between my lawyer and BellSouth’s counsel. My only remote chance of getting the name, I learned, was to file a “John or Jane Doe” lawsuit against my “biographer.” Major communications Internet companies are bound by federal privacy laws that protect the identity of their customers, even those who defame online. Only if a lawsuit resulted in a court subpoena would BellSouth give up the name.
Eventually the information was taken down from Wikipedia:
My “biography” was posted May 26. On May 29, one of Wales’ volunteers “edited” it only by correcting the misspelling of the word “early.” For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his website’s history Oct. 5. The falsehoods remained on Answers.com and Reference.com for three more weeks.
I certainly am sympathetic to Seigenthaler’s plight, but his essay demonstrates how he attempted to take the wrong approach. First, the minute he found the false information on Wikipedia, he could have corrected it himself or had a friend do it. However, I don’t know what process is available on Reference.com or Answers.com for making corrections. Second, if he wanted to sue the author of the entry for defamation, he could have done so by first filing a John Doe lawsuit in court. Courts provide special protection for anonymous speech, but that protection isn’t absolute. For example, if Seigenthaler can establish a case sufficient enough to withstand a summary judgment motion, he will be able to unmask his defamer.
Originally posted at Concurring Opinions
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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.