FT: ‘Tolerate Some Libel for the Greater Good’

    December 15, 2005

There has been much written in recent weeks concerning the character assassination of John Seigenthaler over his biography in Wikipedia, prompting much discussion over the trustworthiness of an open information resource like Wikipedia which anybody can edit.

The character assassin was outed and Wikipedia is now implementing tighter controls over who can edit material.

The Financial Times has a report that includes a recap of the Siegenthaler affair, and looks at it from the libel point of view. The FT says that under the laws of the internet, Wikipedia cannot be held liable for any mistakes, even defamatory ones, because it is merely hosting other people’s speech which, the FT says, gives it immunity under the 1996 Communications Decency Act in the US.

Individual contributors are liable for what they say online, says the FT, but internet privacy laws make it hard to connect the address of the computer used to post the entry with the name and address of the real human being who typed it.

And the FT says this:

[…] But there is no easy solution to the problem highlighted by the Seigenthaler episode. On one level, it is a welcome reminder that no one should rely on Wikipedia without double-checking its facts through another source. That is easy enough to do, says Wikipedia’s chief legal officer, Jean-Baptiste Soufron. “Just Google it!” he says. And stung by the criticism, the Wiki itself is looking for ways to improve accuracy, including an online rating system that will be tested in the new year.

Politicians may be tempted to react to the incident with stricter regulation – especially if their own biographies are mutilated during next year’s elections, says Mr Seigenthaler. But there are great risks in doing so, says Mr Soufron: without immunity “there would be no Wikipedia – but there would also be no chat rooms, no internet at all”. Professor Ezor [director of the Institute for Business, Law and Technology at Touro Law Centre, New York State] agrees: “Every blogger who allows people to comment would also be at risk.”

The defamed deserve redress – but not at the cost of crippling the interactive potential of the internet. It is worth tolerating a little bit of libel, for the greater good.
The bold text is my emphasis.

My question is simply – what price freedom of speech? The FT has a thought-provoking report and a controversial idea, sure to create continuing debate.

Financial Times | Allow libel to slip through the net (paid sub)

Neville Hobson is the author of the popular NevilleHobson.com blog which focuses on business communication and technology.

Neville is currentlly the VP of New Marketing at Crayon. Visit Neville Hobson’s blog: NevilleHobson.com.