Complaints Over Wikipedia Accountability With Bios

Daniel Brandt’s been upset over the accuracy and presence of a page about him
at Wikipedia, and now John Seigenthaler, the former assistant to US Attorney
General Robert Kennedy, is upset as well over his Wikipedia biography, venting
his frustration in a USA Today article.

A false Wikipedia ‘biography’
has Seigenthaler sounding out his complaint,
the 78 year old declaring that only one sentence in his bio was true. He managed
to get Wikipedia to remove the material he objected to removed, though with
Wikipedia’s community editing system, I don’t see anything that prevents that
from coming back.

It’s also somewhat confusing that if only one sentence was accurate — and
the objectionable material was removed — why is there still a fairly lengthy
bio on him at

Overall, the concerns are still well taken. There’s no guarantee of accuracy
at Wikipedia, though that’s true of any publication. The difference is that
Seigenthaler illustrates how difficult it was for him to know who should be
accountable. That’s not the case with more traditional reference resources.

Moving on to Brandt, he also
raised the
difficulty in a post at Google Blogoscoped of knowing who was responsible over
creation and changes to his own
bio. Lots of
comments followed his
article. This Google Blogoscoped
post from
the end of October outlines Brandt’s original objection.

Brandt — most known for creating the
Google Watch
protest site — outlines his concerns about Wikipedia more
directly at his new Wikipedia Watch

But the above situations illustrate the real concerns people might have over
the accuracy of what’s said about them and the inability to get accountability
when needed. Brandt, unlike Seigenthaler, questions whether there is a privacy
violation in having a bio at all or with some of the material in it:

The privacy issues interest me even more than the libel issue.
Unfortunately, the laws on privacy are less clear, and discussions on privacy
will not be as focused. In Florida, where Wikipedia is located, there is an
invasion of privacy statute that might apply in this case, even assuming that
everything in the article is true. At issue would be the public disclosure of
truthful private information that a reasonable person would find
objectionable. Would a reasonable person find Wikipedia’s mention of facts
about my 1960s activism objectionable? Not at the moment, hopefully, and yet
it wouldn’t take much for this situation to change. Another act of terrorism
on U.S. soil, followed by a stronger version of the U.S. Patriot Act, and
"reasonable" people might feel that I should, once again, be watched by the
FBI, CIA, and local police the way I was in the 1960s. Does Wikipedia consider
issues such as this? Of course not ? information wants to be free, and nothing
must stand in its way.

Brandt in particular is probably on weaker ground here. He’s been widely
cited on Google issues in many popular press articles. He is a public figure.

Brandt’s also had no problem declaring that others have no rights to privacy
based on whatever criteria he determines, as I covered in my

about his nomination of Google for a Big Brother award:

I found it ironic that Brandt’s site, which champions privacy, named the
actual engineer who formerly worked for the NSA. Did Brandt see any privacy
issues in doing that? No.

"Do you know of others at Google with security clearances? If so, send me
their names and I’ll be sure to mention them as well," Brandt said, noting
that the engineer’s resume had been on the web for years. "Agents of powerful,
secret organizations have no right to privacy, in my opinion. I’ve been in
favor of naming CIA officers for 30 years now. The NSA is no different," he

So a privacy violation? Not in my book. But I have a huge, huge degree of
sympathy over the lack of accountability and control concerns that he and
Seigenthaler complain about. That’s likely to be a problem that will grow for
Wikipedia, unless they come up with some controls.

Gary’s still planning either a podcast or a written interview with Wikipedia
founder Jimmy Wales, as he’s written
before, so
expect some comment from him on the situation to come in the blog.

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