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 Wikipedia?

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 site.

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 article 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 said.

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.