Wikipedia and the Right to be Forgotten…

…or why Jimmy Wales might want to support a right to delete.

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One of the more strident critics of the Google Spain ruling by the ECJ, bringing into action at least a form of the much derided ‘right to be forgotten’, has been Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia. He has spoken and written about it in highly critical terms, calling it ‘one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings that I’ve ever seen’ and, since Wikipedia itself started receiving notifications, ‘completely insane’. His statements, amplified by the obliging British press, were followed by his appointment to Google’s advisory committee on implementation of the court’s ruling. He has so far stood firmly by Google’s side, and against the ECJ – and yet, if looked at from the perspective of ‘openness’, there are arguments that he should shift his position. The so-called right to be forgotten – in some forms at least – is far from incompatible with the principles of openness that underpin Wikipedia. Indeed, it can be argued to be supportive of those principles – or even necessary to produce more openness in the way the internet operates for most ordinary people.

Wikipedia and ‘openness’

Wikipedia is viewed by many as the epitome of the new(ish) idea of ‘openness’ (e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/aug/10/wikipedia-isnt-perfect-model-channel-4-government) . Crowdsourcing information, allowing edits by anyone. Words like ‘participatory’, ‘collaborative’, even ‘democratic’ are used to describe it – indeed, it’s often used as an example of what those terms mean. These are words that are almost always used positively: participation, collaboration and democracy are seen as fundamentally ‘good’ things. Specifically, they’re seen as good things in relation to the internet: the fight for an ‘open’ and ‘free’ internet, a fight which the Wikimedia Foundation often seems to see itself at the forefront of, is a fight for the sort of internet built around participation, collaboration and openness.

But what does that mean in practice? Take a look at Wikipedia. As a teacher of university students, I often discuss the use of Wikipedia for research. In the old days, universities frowned on the use of Wikipedia – and we generally still disapprove of its use as a primary source (a citation of a Wikipedia page will raise both eyebrows and hackles in any university teacher) – but now it is usually seen as something very useful. You can get a broad brush view of a subject from reading the Wikipedia page – and you can find links to better, more reliable information about the subject. You don’t cite the Wikipedia page, but you can find sources that you can cite by looking at the Wikipedia page.

This all comes from both the strength and the weakness of Wikipedia. It is generally reliable – because crowdsourcing works, and because people with an intimate knowledge of all the various subjects contribute to it – but it is also, and just as importantly, ever-changing. It changes as events develop – new information appears, new views come in and, crucially, errors are corrected, biases revealed and changes made. Inaccurate and out of date information – and irrelevant information – is corrected or deleted from Wikipedia pages.

Deletion of information…

Let me repeat that.

Inaccurate, out of date and irrelevant information is corrected or deleted from Wikipedia pages.

That’s the strength of Wikipedia. Indeed, it is a key virtue of digital publishing – it is dynamic, not static. When errors creep in – whether by accident, by error, by biased editing, by malice (and cases of falsification of Wikipedia pages are well known, as are the strong and consistent critiques of both Wales and Wikipedia) the openness of the Wikipedia platform means that those errors, those biases, and so forth are open to being corrected. Information is deleted. That’s what makes Wikipedia great – and also what shapes the way we use it. We know Wikipedia isn’t set in stone, and that at any particular moment it may include errors or misunderstandings. We know that, so we don’t treat it with undue reverence. We check what we see against other sources. We look for alternative views and compare them to what we see on Wikipedia. We sometimes even help to edit Wikipedia. We treat Wikipedia as ‘organic’, growing and changing all the time.

Treating the internet as ‘organic’

Isn’t it appropriate – and desirable – to treat the whole internet in the same, open way? As organic, growing and changing all the time? Why should other material in the free floating internet be treated as inviolable; privileged by virtue of their form, if we are happy to see it otherwise with Wikipedia? In many ways we know that this is how the internet really is anyway – we know that when we look at a page we need to consider who created it, what sort of people they are, what biases they might have and so on. We know that new material is appearing all the time – every blog post, every newspaper article, every uploaded photo – and we should also understand that other material is being deleted or edited every day. Old, irrelevant or inaccurate information disappears every day. That’s part of the process – life and death are part of the same cycle.

What the internet isn’t, is a perfect archive of truth, set in stone as a record of perfect accuracy. To evoke otherwise, as Wales and the Wikimedia foundation have done, is simply false. It isn’t Asimov’s vision (deliberately misleading) of an Encyclopaedia Galactica in his seminal ‘Foundation’ books, designed to preserve and maintain humanity’s store of knowledge against barbarians and the decline of civilisation. It’s much closer to the reality of Wikipedia. Somewhere were things are being deleted all the time. Somewhere where routes to things are being corrected all the time. Somewhere that should be treated with respect but not reverence.

The right to delete – or the right to be forgotten

That’s where a right to delete – and yes, sometimes, a right to be forgotten fits in. It’s not such a big deal, really – things get deleted and forgotten all the time on the internet. Eric Schmidt and Jimmy Wales’ things, too. The right to be forgotten is just one of many mechanisms through which such deletions might take place. Almost completely overlooked in the media coverage, and the runaway notion that this is a ‘right for the rich and famous’ is the fact that already people with resources and knowledge use ‘reputation management’ services to hunt down and remove uncomplimentary things about them. Already ‘rights holders’ use copyright law to have things that breach their rights removed from the net – and routes to them removed, obscured or deleted. Already companies choose to cleanse old websites, to rebrand themselves and so forth. The right to be forgotten – both in its ‘Google Spain’ form and in a purer deletion of data form – would be just one of many tools through which the internet changes form. That constant changing should be understood and celebrated – and refined not fought and feared. It’s part of what makes the internet so great.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that it shouldn’t be treated critically. It should, very much so. It doesn’t mean that the Google Spain ruling is without fault – it isn’t, and the way that Google has implemented it to date has highlighted many of those faults. And yes, it’s a tool that could well be misused – most tools are, but we don’t outlaw kitchen knives because they could be used to stab people. For ordinary people, in extraordinary circumstances, it could be a real boon. Ordinary people need to be given a chance to contribute, to participate, to be part of that great community that so many of us hope the internet can become. Of course we need to find a way to make it work better. We need to set out more appropriate rules and good, solid guidelines as to how it should be operated – and to reduce the possibility of its misuse. We need all of this, both to help Google and to keep the internet open….

…because that’s the bottom line. Having ways to delete information isn’t the enemy of the internet of the people, so much as an enemy of the big players of the internet. In terms of the ordinary people, it’s very much the internet’s friend. Wikipedia demonstrates the need to have deletion and correction as well as addition as part of its toolkit. Jimmy Wales knows this, I suspect, though I’m not sure he’s applied this knowledge to the internet as a whole. He may not like the way that this particular tool has been developed – for judges and courts are often seen as the enemies of openness, and from an America perspective, European judges and courts may be the worst of all. Nobody wants to be told what to do – and often they’re quite right to resist what they’re told to do.

However, an excessive faith in the ‘record’ of the internet, and an excessive reverence for the way that the internet (and Google in particular) currently works are also enemies of real openness. We need to be open to changes – and yes, even changes in all of these.

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This blog post was inspired in part by reading Nathaniel Tkacz’s work on Openness.

9 thoughts on “Wikipedia and the Right to be Forgotten…

  1. I agree with you – and I share the view that the internet as a whole, as well as my own site in particular, is a work in progress like Wikipedia itself – but I’m not sure Jimmy Wales would. He might point to the fact that Wikipedia preserves all earlier versions, together with editorial discussion. These are what help identify rogue corrections. In the same way, it is open to Google to re-index content that subsequently ought to be unforgotten – assuming it remains on the indexed site.
    As for Google, its documented manipulation of the ordering of results ought to set rather more alarm bells ringing about censorship than the removal of occasional entries (far fewer than takedowns for copyright etc).

    • Jimmy Wales has many different things to consider – but though he preserves earlier versions and editorial discussions, he doesn’t make them open to all people, just to those at the higher levels. For ordinary people, they remain hidden. Since I posted the piece, I’ve had a number of interesting comments and questions on the subject – I think the discussion has a long way to go.

  2. An interesting but fundamentally flawed argument. Deletion under the ‘right to be forgotten’ is not ‘organic’ in the same way as deletion of irrelevant or old matter on Wikipedia, because it is the subject of the information who is removing it for his or her own reasons, rather than removal being the cumulative result of the decisions of many disinterested editors. It is as inorganic as, say, Tony Blair editing his own Wikipedia page to remove some uncomfortable fact, and no one else being permitted to restore it.

    • I’m not sure it’s as fundamentally flawed as all that.

      Firstly, it’s not that anyone can ‘remove’ information directly – but that they can request that a link be removed. The decision on removal is initially up to Google, not the person making the request, and then, if the person doesn’t like the decision, but to the relevant DPA. The DPA should at least theoretically be ‘disinterested’ (though more on that below), and if Google is as much in favour of freedom of speech as they say they are, they should be if anything biased against deletion.

      Secondly, the idea that Wikipedia editors are genuinely ‘disinterested’ is idealistic at best, and may indeed be disingenuous. Everyone has their biases, their beliefs, their views – and if you’ve read some of the discussions that go on when a decision whether or not to delete something happens, you can see that. Indeed, those views are often the reason that the idea that an article be deleted comes up in the first place. Further, there are occasions when the decisions aren’t made after great and collaborative discussions, but using the Wikipedia ‘Speedy Deletion’ process, which can under certain circumstances allow administrators to bypass the usual discussions.

      Finally, and most importantly, I don’t think this is the key point. The key point is that the idea that deletion should be possible is one that is positive for the internet – and we shouldn’t be scared to acknowledge it. The Google Spain decision is clumsy and flawed, but at least attempts to deal with that issue.

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