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Commercial & Business Litigation

Wikipedia Dispute Resolution

By Thomas C. Goodhue – November 3, 2011

In 2005, an anonymous computer user posted on Wikipedia what he claimed was a biographical sketch of a former assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The sketch suggested that the former assistant—who has since become a prominent journalist—was directly involved in the assassinations of both John F. and RobertKennedy. The article was a shocking hoax. See John Seigenthaler, “A False Wikipedia ‘Biography,’” U.S.A. Today, Nov. 29, 2005, at 11A. Only after the former aide appealed to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was the article completely removed from the website.

As common sense suggests and this incident confirms, there are clear dangers inherent in Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a web-based encyclopedia written and edited by hundreds of thousands of largely anonymous volunteers. Katharine Q. Seelye, “Rewriting History: Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar,” N.Y. Times, Dec. 4, 2005, at 41. On Wikipedia, anyone can register as a user by merely providing a password and user name. See Wikipedia: About, Wikipedia (May 20, 2011, 10:30:30 p.m.). Once registered, a user is free to submit new articles on topics or to edit articles written by others. Using this system, Wikipedia claims to have collected more than  17 million articles in more than 270 languages.

Inevitably, perhaps, Wikipedia users will sometimes publish inappropriate material like the biographical sketch of the former Kennedy aide. Once published, such material has the potential to reach a very large audience. According to one study, in September 2010, Wikipedia was the sixth-most-visited website in the world, ranking it ahead of such popular websites as Twitter, Craigslist, and LinkedIn. Lee Barney, “Fund Firms Get Hip to Social Media Beat,” Money Mgmt. Executive, March 7, 2001, at 1.

Recognizing its potential misuse, Wikimedia, the nonprofit foundation that operates Wikipedia, has implemented a number of policies and procedures to help users combat the publication of inappropriate material. While most of these procedures are open only to Wikipedia users, anyone can register as a user by visiting the Wikipedia registration page and providing a user name and password. See Log In/Create Account, Wikipedia.

Three procedures may be of particular interest to lawyers: “suppression,” through which Wikipedia deletes from its articles defamatory passages, copyrighted information, or sensitive and confidential information; “blocking,” through which problem users, including users who post defamatory material or copyrighted information, are prevented from editing Wikipedia articles; and Wikipedia arbitration, an arbitration process conducted on and through Wikipedia, through which users may be sanctioned for less serious violations of Wikipedia policy, such as posting one-sided articles.

When defamatory or other inappropriate information is posted to Wikipedia, the quickest way to remove it from the main page of the article is by simply deleting it. To delete a passage, one needs only to register as a Wikipedia user by creating an account. Then he or she can simply click on the edit page, select the text, and press the delete key. See Help Reverting, Wikipedia.

Merely deleting information from an article is a temporary and incomplete fix, however. Once the information is deleted, anyone can repost it. Moreover, even if information has been deleted from the article’s front page, it has not been removed from Wikipedia entirely. See Wikipedia: Oversight, Wikipedia. By clicking on the “View history” tab in the right corner of the page, anyone can see the edit history of the document, including all the information that has been deleted from the page. See, e.g., Revision History of American Bar Association.

By having information “suppressed,” however, one can expunge it from Wikipedia entirely so that no record of it exists. Wikipedia: Oversight, Wikipedia. Anyone, regardless of whether he or she is a Wikipedia user, can request suppression by sending an email to oversight-en-wp@wikipedia.org. The complainant only needs to provide the full URL for the article containing the improper conduct, a brief description of what needs removed, and an explanation of why it needs to be removed. The decision as to whether to suppress information is made by one of a group of highly skilled volunteer users appointed by Wikipedia, called “oversighters.” Wikipedia considers suppression to be an extraordinary remedy. Accordingly, only certain types of material are eligible for suppression, including defamatory material, personal identifiers or other highly personal information, copyrighted information, and “highly sensitive and potentially harmful non-public information.” Wikipedia: Requests for Oversight, Wikipedia.

While suppression remedies the most serious content violations, Wikipedia’s blocking policy is directed at users who post inappropriate materials such as copyrighted materials, defamatory attacks, and personal identifiers. Wikipedia Blocking Policy, Wikipedia. Under the policy, Wikipedia may prevent problem users from editing articles by blocking user accounts, IP addresses, and entire ranges of IP addresses for any period of time or indefinitely. Accordingly, the policy is well-suited to preventing a Wikipedia user or users from harassing an individual across multiple Wikipedia articles.

Only Wikipedia users can request a block, but the process is very straightforward. A user must simply go to the Administrators’ Noticeboard for Incidents, click on “edit,” and enter a description of the user’s behavior. Administrators’ Noticeboard for Incidents, Wikipedia. Generally, a request to block a user is resolved within only a few days and, in many cases, in less than 24 hours. See, e.g., Proposed Ban or Block of BenJack07, Wikipedia (implementing a block within 24 hours of receiving the request).

Wikipedia’s blocking and suppression policies address only the most flagrant abuses by Wikipedia users. Wikipedia has also adopted a variety of other policies governing user conduct such as requiring articles to be viewpoint neutral. See Wikipedia: Arbitration/Index/Principles, Wikipedia (identifying Wikipedia policies). Wikipedia users can seek to remedy violations of these secondary policies through Wikipedia’s arbitration process.

Wikipedia arbitration can be a valuable tool for businesses and organizations seeking to protect their online reputations. Some users may carry out personal vendettas by posting biased comments about an organization on the organization’s Wikipedia article. Removing those comments may only be a temporary fix; a motivated user is likely to repost the comments and an “edit war” may result, in which a comment is continuously removed and then reposted. Wikipedia: Requests for Oversight, Wikipedia.

Unless the comments are defamatory, they will likely not be subject to Wikipedia’s Suppression policy. Biased comments do, however, violate Wikipedia’s neutrality policy, and problem users who post such comments may be prevented from doing so through Wikipedia arbitration. See Wikipedia: Requests for Arbitration/Chuck F, Wikipedia (banning a Wikipedia user and all IP addresses he used for a one-month period due to biased editing).

Wikipedia arbitration is a straightforward process. Like most arbitration, it consists of a request for arbitration, a response, and an opportunity for both the claimant and respondent to submit evidence. Wikipedia: Arbitration/Guide to Arbitration, Wikipedia. There is no oral hearing; the entire process takes place through a Wikipedia page devoted to the case. The parties remain anonymous and are identified only by their usernames. A decision in the arbitration is rendered by the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee, a group of highly experienced Wikipedia users who need not have any legal training. The entire arbitration process generally takes less than two months and, in some cases, less than two weeks.

To initiate arbitration, a user must submit a request for arbitration through Wikipedia’s Request for Arbitration page. Wikipedia: Arbitration/Requests, Wikipedia. The request must be 500 words or less. Wikipedia suggests that the request also be supported with a “diff,” a black-lined page that shows the changes an editor has made to a Wikipedia entry. This helps to pinpoint the particular edits that are in dispute. Once a request for arbitration is submitted, the Respondent may post a response, although it is not required.

After a party submits a request for arbitration, the Arbitration Committee decides whether to accept the arbitration. If the committee accepts the case, the next step is for the parties to submit evidence and proposed findings of fact. Each arbitration has its own “evidence” and “workshop” pages. The evidence page typically contains descriptions of the conduct at issue, as well as diffs illustrating the behavior. In contrast, the workshop page hosts proposed findings of fact and suggested remedies, which can be drafted by the parties or other Wikipedia users arbitrators. Wikipedia has a wealth of resources from past Wikipedia arbitrations online, including evidence and workshop pages as well as rulings from previous arbitrations. See Wikipedia: Arbitration/Index/Cases, Wikipedia.

After considering the evidence, the Arbitration Committee will reach a decision. If the Arbitration Committee finds for the complainant, it can invoke several possible remedies. Such remedies commonly include banning users from editing certain articles or banning them from editing any articles related to particular topics. See Wikipedia: Arbitration/Active Sanctions, Wikipedia. Users may be banned either indefinitely or for a specific period of time, such as a year. To enforce these remedies, Wikipedia may block computers at certain IP addresses from editing Wikipedia.

In sum, Wikipedia remains a dangerous tool that can be misused to harm a business, an organization, or an individual. Fortunately, Wikipedia has implemented procedures that address its potential for misuse. These procedures, which are free and easy to use, may be of use to lawyers asked to remedy the publication of defamatory, copyrighted, sensitive, or biased material on Wikipedia.

Keywords: litigation, commercial, business, Wikipedia, defamation, suppression, arbitration

Thomas C. Goodhue is an associate with Hunton & Williams in Washington, D.C.

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