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Wikipedia and Anonymity

The Washington Post has an article today about the recent instances of employees of various politicians editing Wikipedia entries:

This is what passes for an extreme makeover in Washington: A summer intern for seven-term Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) altered the congressman’s profile on the Wikipedia Web site to remove an old promise that he would limit his service to four terms.

Someone doctored Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) profile on the site to list his age as 180. (He is 88.) An erroneous entry for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) claimed that he “was voted the most annoying senator by his peers in Congress.”

Last week, Wikipedia temporarily blocked certain Capitol Hill Web addresses from altering any entries in the otherwise wide-open forum. Wikipedia is a vast, growing information database written and maintained solely by volunteers. In December, the database received 4.7 million edits from viewers, of which a relatively small number — “a couple of thousand,” according to founder Jimmy Wales — constituted vandalism. . . .

When the Wikipedia entry for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) noted that he had criticized the president, for example, someone modified it to say that Reid had “rightfully” criticized the president. . . .

A popular change in recent weeks has been deleting mentions of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) from politicians’ profiles. Politically motivated edits aren’t just coming from Capitol Hill; some comments are being traced back to other parts of political Washington, including the Justice Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Navy and Marines.

I continue to wonder why Wikipedia still accepts anonymous edits. I am generally a fan of anonymous speech, but perhaps anonymity is contributing more costs than benefits to Wikipedia. For one, the anonymity on Wikipedia is often a mirage, as people can frequently be tracked down via their IP addresses. Second, the value of anonymity depends upon context. Anonymity is valuable in encouraging people to express unpopular messages. But Wikipedia isn’t designed as a forum for the free expression of opinions — it is an encyclopedia. There are plenty of other places in cyberspace where people can express their views — and where anonymity is very important. But I do not readily see the importance of anonymity to the Wikipedia project. Perhaps there are significant benefits I am missing, and if so, I hope readers will point them out.

UPDATE: Geoffrey Manne over at Truth on the Market has a post on this issue that’s definitely worth reading.

Related Post:

Wikipedia Irony: Jimmy Wales Edits His Own Entry

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.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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