The South China Morning Post has a front page article today - which I can't link to because it's only available to paying subscribers - headlined "Golfer sues over Wikipedia entry." It is a compilation from several sources including the Associated Press. One version of the AP story is on PGA.com, titled Zoeller sues to identify the author of a disputed entry on Wikipedia.
The basic story: Apparently in December somebody posted untrue information on golfer Fuzzy Zoeller's Wikipedia entry, alleging drug use. Zoeller is now suing a law firm whose computer appears to have been used by somebody to post that information. Good luck tracking down the physical person who posted the offending information via an IP address belonging to a computer belonging to that firm....
None of the reports about this story answer a few questions I have:
1. How long was the libelous information on the front of the Zoeller wikipedia page before it was taken off?
2. When Zoeller or one of his minions discovered what had happened, did they try to correct his page? (After all anybody can edit wikipedia without even creating a username.)
3. Apparently this information was picked up by some other websites but nobody specifies what they were. What kinds of sites were they? Sites belonging to news organizations? Chatrooms? Blogs?
Does anybody out there know the answers? If so please post them in my comments section.
One other interesting thing: the news stories all mention that the offending information was removed from Zoeller's Wikipedia page. Here some stuff they didn't mention: Normally when something gets removed from Wikipedia it can still be found in the page's history section which documents all changes ever made to it. However according to the discussion page for the Zoeller entry, the offending material has been removed by administrators even from the history page. If you scroll down that discussion page you'll see that one wikipedian has responded to somebody's question about whether it was correct to do so: "It makes no sense to make these revision available. Maintaining them would be asking for Wikipedia to be sued. The libel text can be viewed in the lawsuit."
From that discussion page you can see that Wikipedians continue to watch the page closely. My favorite remark: "Heh someone beat me to removing the pe--s joke in the version you reverted to :-)" [p-word was changed by me so as not to trigger filters on people's work computers and such]
Cass Sunstein, author of the excellent book Infotopia, has an essay titled A Brave New Wikiworld in today's Washington Post. He describes Wikipedia as the small beginning of a new technology-driven reality in which the dispersed masses aggregate and shape human knowledge - not just elite editors and journalists. He argues that this is similar to how markets, comprised of small choices made by many millions of people, dictate prices:
Wikipedia's entries are not exactly prices, but they do aggregate the widely dispersed information of countless volunteer writers and editors. In this respect, Wikipedia is merely one of many experiments in aggregating knowledge and creativity, that have been made possible by new technologies.
The good and bad of Wikipedia is not dissimilar to the good and bad of stock prices: "No less than stock prices, prediction markets may be subject to manipulation." He also believes "we're seeing the tip of a very large iceberg." Might it be instructive to look at how markets evolved from the early days of capitalism to get a sense of how to prevent abuses in the new and emerging "market of information" that Wikipedia represents?
As it so happens, my class has just been learning about wikis and Wikipedia. (In addition to the obligatory assignment to edit a Wikipedia entry themselves, and observe the relevant "history" and "talk" pages, readings include the recent New Yorker piece on Wikipedia, a NYT story about how courts use Wikipedia, and Andy Carvin's recent post about Middlebury College's ban on the use of Wikipedia as a source in papers. I also showed them Steve Colbert's recent hilarious comedy routine on "Wikilobbying." ) This ongoing case will be great fodder for student blogs and student-led discussions about their assignment and the readings this coming week.
(Disclosure: I am on the Advisory Board of the Wikimedia Foundation.)