12.12.2005Some rumblings over at The Bellman about the lawsuit brought against Wikipedia. Saftey Neal quoted a News.com article with a bunch of analysts discussing the impossibility of a libel lawsuit against Wikipedia.
From CNet News.com: Is Wikipedia safe from libel liability?
Thanks to section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which became law in 1996, Wikipedia is most likely safe from legal liability for libel, regardless of how long an inaccurate article stays on the site. That's because it is a service provider as opposed to a publisher such as Salon.com or CNN.com.
"I think that there's no liability, period," said Jennifer Granick, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University Law School. "Section 230 gives you immunity for this."
Upon closer inspection of the CDA we find the relevant passages:
(2) Civil liability
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of -
(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or
(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph
The argument, I take it, is that Wikipedia is a service, and doesn't provide content. In the interest of journalistic integrity, here's the relevant definition of terms according to the CDA:
(2) Interactive computer service
The term "interactive computer service" means any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server, including specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or educational institutions.
(3) Information content provider
The term "information content provider" means any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service.
Thus we hit my philosophical dilemma. It seems, according to the above definitions, that Wikipedia best fits in the category of "Interactive computer service", and is thus immunse from libel charges. This implies that Wikipedia is not responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation of the content displayed on its pages.
For the most part this is true: the content is contributed by the Wiki community, the users of the service, who are also in charge of editing and maintaining the site generally. And aside from instances of direct plagarism on Wiki's site, the users are directly responsible for the words that appear in the articles.
But does that absolve Wikipedia of their responsibility as an organizing system? Setting the legal issue aside, the philosophical ramifications of this assumption run deep. Surely the content is only useful given the organizing structure of the service, which also enables the community contribution model. Anyone who has had a beer with me knows that I want to claim that Wikipedia, as a computational system, is in some sense responsible for the epistemic quality of its pages, independent of the users of the system. Because the system has a method of evaluating the contributions of its users in terms of relevance and accuracy, there is a sense in which its articles are a product not just of the collaboration of its users but also of the system itself. Wikipedia is one of my core examples of machine participation in human epistemic activities.
The legal status in this case serves to undermine my point, and sets a precedent for undermining machine participation across the board. I should note that by saying Wikipedia is responsible, I mean that in the most literal sense: not the board members, not the founder, not the mods of the system, but the system itself is responsible. Should it behave in a way we deem unacceptable, it should undergo 'punishment' in the form of alteration and correction. If Wikipedia is viewed as merely a service to enable human collaboration, but is not seen as itself having a hand in creating and developing its content, then the Wikipedia system becomes immune to corrective measures: it exists outside our normative systems. It merely is, but shouldn't be one way or the other.
I don't know how to settle this dilemma. I'm not sure there is a way to settle it. I find the lawsuits rather short-sighted and close-minded, but the problem is systemic, and I think ultimately based in a deep social ignorance of the structure and function of the internet. This ignorance is obvious in the CDA's own definition of the internet, which is vague to the point of vacuity:
The term "Internet" means the international computer network of both Federal and non-Federal interoperable packet switched data networks.