Wikipedia Hits a Wall

A former assistant to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy joins the list of those who has a beef with the popular online, open-source encyclopedia known as Wikipedia.

John Seigenthaler joins Google Watch protest site creator Daniel Brandt in his claims that their bios on Wikipedia are not accurate. USA Today published an op-ed by Seigenthaler on November 29 calling a Wikipedia entry alleging that he was involved in the Kennedy murders a “character assassination.”

Seigenthaler is also upset about other, more benign inaccuracies in his Wikipedia bio, and maintained that only one sentence in the entire entry was true: he was Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant in the early 1960s. Seigenthaler’s son John Jr., a journalist with NBC News, phoned his father later to tell him he found the same information on and

“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,” Seigenthaler wrote in his USA Today editorial. “At age 78, I thought I was beyond surprise or hurt at anything negative said about me. I was wrong.”

Wikipedia Responds

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, told TechNewsWorld he is just as upset as Seigenthaler. Seigenthaler’s erroneous bio was removed immediately, but Seigenthaler wants to let the world know that Wikipedia is a “flawed and irresponsible search tool” because there is a lack of accountability for posters.

“We feel victimized by people who post these horrible things,” Wales said. “If the same text was posted on a message board, it probably would have gone largely unnoticed. This is a rare incident because we do police things so carefully.”

What is Wales’ definition of “carefully?” He said Wikipedia has hundreds of volunteers who scan the site continuously. Still, Wales said the Seigenthaler incident acts as a call for greater self-examination to determine how this type of incident could be prevented in the future.

“There’s a tension between our commitment to the freedom of speech and wonderfulness of the Internet as a communications tool coupled with problems arising because not everyone out there is being good,” Wales said. “Figuring out how we balance these kinds of issues as a society is an interesting challenge to be sure.”

Raising Privacy Issues

Meanwhile, Brandt is also up in arms over his Wikipedia bio. He has been posting to Google Blogoscoped about accountability and privacy issues. Brandt is not claiming to have been libeled, but is interested in learning who he would sue if he wanted to sue.

“If there is a clear case of libel, I don’t believe a court would decide that no one is responsible,” Brandt wrote. “If Wikimedia Foundation, and the specific editors and administrators who either inserted the libelous information, or failed to delete it, are all not responsible for the libel, then that would make the libel something akin to an act of God.”

Unlike the Seigenthaler incident, Wales views Brandt as a notable public figure who just doesn’t want to have his bio on Wikipedia. Wikipedia temporarily removed the page after Brandt claimed it was a violation of his privacy. It was later restored, however.

“I find that to be such a perplexing claim that I don’t even know how to respond to it. I am actually very surprised that he is getting any attention at all,” Wales said. “If you look at his Wikipedia Watch Web site, it’s quite strange. He claims we have secret police.”

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