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There's no Wikipedia entry for 'moral responsibility'
Seigenthaler libeller unmasked - thought it was a joke site
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On Monday, in one of his now-weekly appearances on cable news defending the latest Wikipedia scandal, the project's figurehead Jimmy 'Jimbo' Wales expressed his desire to find the anonymous internet user who had libeled John Seigenthaler.
Seigenthaler, a former Robert Kennedy aide and newspaper editor wrote about his anguish a fortnight ago, describing how an edit to his Wikipedia biography implicated in him in the Kennedy assassination, and claimed he'd lived in Russia for twelve years. Both claims were false, and lay uncorrected for months.
For CNN viewers, and for NPR listeners again the following day, Wales repeated his wish to unmask the perp, but could only offer some hand-wringing excuse about the difficulty of finding anonymous users, and the complexity of serving internet service providers with subpoenas. However, we now learn that the libeler wasn't very hard to find, and has now stepped forward to confess to making the edit with an apology.
Brian Chase, a 38 year old employee of Rush Delivery in Seigenthaler's home town of Nashville, Tennessee, admitted to making the edit and has apologized to Seigenthaler. The reason he gave to the New York Times was most revealing.
Chase thought Wikipedia was a joke site and he made the edit to amuse a colleague. From which we conclude that the spoof site Uncyclopedia, which consists entirely of fictional entries, is doing far better than expected, and that Wikipedia has a long way to go to rid itself of the image that it's a massive, multiplayer shoot-em-up game, or MMORPG.
Chase has lost his job, and Seigenthaler joined the pleas to reinstate him.
But the unusual aspect of this - and this is an irony on a par with Sony using 'DVD' Jon Johansen's anti-DRM code in its DRM CD software - is what compelled Chase to step forward. The libeller was outed not by Wikipedia guardians, by a prominent critic of the site who has been earned himself a lifetime Wikipedia ban - researcher Daniel Brandt.
Chase left a fingerprint behind, in the form of an IP address, and Brandt discovered that the machine was active, traced it to Nashville, and discovered it was hosting a web server. The web server revealed the name of a company: 'Rush Delivery'. Brandt fired off a fax to Rush Delivery in Nashville and confirmed the connection.
Perhaps he'll be unbanned now, although we doubt it. But Brandt, who recounts his story in detail (grep for "whodunnit") says his discovery was extremely fortunate, and he's correct in many ways. Wikipedia has made it more difficult for such detective work to be performed in the future, as the site now requires a 30 second log-in procedure to create an unvalidated user id, behind which libellers can shield their identity.
That Wales couldn't fufil his expressed desire to unmask the perpetrator sounds less a case of "too hard to do" than one of "can't be bothered, mate".
So we come to the question of responsibility. We've promised to deal with the ethics of Wikipedia before, and it's no longer possible to ignore the elephant in the room, so we must.