“I’m Going to Sue the Internet”

    December 13, 2005

About eight or nine years ago, I was brought into a midwest financial institution to, among other things, speak with the executive team about the Internet.

My goal was to help them understand the Net’s importance to business. Among other things, I showed them some unfavorable Usenet newsgroup posts about the company. The CEO was aghast. Seeing the CEO’s reaction, the general counsel stood up and said, “Don’t worry, sir. I’m going to sue the Internet.”

If you believe thinking like the top lawyer’s clueless threat has given way to higher levels of enlightenment, you probably haven’t seen the class action suit leveled against Wikipedia. The supporters of the suit have put out a call for individuals and organizations to join the suit if they have been the victim of inaccurate postings on the open-source encyclopedia:

WikipediaClassAction.org is currently gathering complaints from the entire Internet community, including individuals, corporations, partnerships, etc., who believe that they have been defamed and or who have been or are the subject of anonymous and malicious postings to the popular online encyclopedia WikiPedia.

Alternatively, if you are aware of postings on Wikipedia that are either untrue and or potentially libellous to another, please contact them and make them aware of the offending content and this website so that they may file a complaint with our group.

The suit is troubling on a number of levels. If successful, it would have a significant chilling effect on open-source initiatives of any kind. But even more noteworthy is the mentality that underlies the suit: that somebody must be accountable for everything. Dana Blankenhorn has it exactly write in a commentary on ZDNet:

Wikipedia is about open source information, knowledge that is held in common. The “scandal” involving John Seigenthaler gave him far more satisfaction than he would have gotten if he had been lied about in, say, The New York Times. The lie was taken down. Wikipedia apologized, The take-down got more publicity than the original lie. The liar was found and lost his job.

I find it particularly interesting that the author of the Seigenthaler piece didn’t realize the Wikipedia was anything more than a satire and entered the false information as a joke aimed at a colleague. How many others who stumble on Wikipedia don’t have a clue what it is? When giving talks, I mention Wikipedia when introducing the subject of wikis; at least half the people in the room have never heard of it. And these are nearly always professional communicators.

Blankenhorn offers some remedies to the Wikipedia situation. People who use it should do what journalists do: Verify information with a second source. And Wikipedia should get a business model providing some resources to hire editors to police the site. (Of course, this means somebody actually would be accountable, subjecting Wikipedia to even more legal action.)

In any case, I hope the class action suit slips into the oblivion it deserves as the courts recognize the nature of open source material.

Speaking of courts, I also hope the $17.5 million lawsuit filed by Agence Press against Google finds its way into history’s dustbin. The idea that a search engine is violating copyright is ludicrous. Without search, the Web becomes an all-but-useless curiosity. I suppose the French press agency would prefer its content not be found. If the company is so worried about copyright violation, it could always remove its content from the press or take any one of a number of very simple actions to keep its content from being indexed by search bots. But the ridiculous suit has not kept the European Publishers Council from declaring war on search engines, with top dog Francisco Pinto Balsemao commenting in Brussels last week that publishers cannot continue to allow search engines to profit from their content:

It is fascinating to see how these companies help themselves’ to copyright-protected material, build up their own business models around what they have collected, and parasitically, earn advertising revenue off the back of other people’s content. This is unlikely to be sustainable for publishers in the longer term.”

With brain-dead thinking like this, it’s no wonder newspapers are in trouble.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.