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.

A Disinformation Age?

Those of us who are fans of Silent Witness had a pretty traumatic beginning to the week. This week’s show, which broadcasts its two-hour drama in two hour-long parts, one on Monday and one on Tuesday, included some truly traumatic stuff: those of us who watched on Monday night saw one of the three main characters, Dr Harry Cunningham, seemingly brutally executed, doused with petrol and then set on fire. It was very realistic – so much that someone naive like me was totally convinced, and even began to mourn poor Harry, my favourite character.

What has this got to do with the subject of this blog, and why have I called it ‘the disinformation age’? Well, being a bit of a geek, my laptop was sitting on my coffee table as I watched the programme, and as the titles rolled at the end of the show, I found myself immediately looking on the web to try to find out what would happen next – being naive, it still hadn’t occurred to me that Harry wasn’t actually dead. I was wondering whether they were going to replace him, or whether this was going to be the end of the show, or something else dramatic. I couldn’t find much directly, so I checked on the fount of all wisdom, Wikipedia. There wasn’t much there, but there was a list of the main characters, and how long they had been in the show. Of the three main actors, William Gaminara was listed as being in the show ‘2002-present’, Emilia Fox as ‘2004-present’, and Tom Ward, who plays Harry, was listed as ‘2002-2011’. That last fact confirmed, it seemed, that Harry was dead, gone from the show….

Of course the BBC had done the usual kind of tricks to hide the fact that Harry wasn’t actually dead – he didn’t appear in the trailer for the second part, and the actor’s name was conspicuous by its absence from the opening titles, so it was a solid shock when he did reappear, some time into Tuesday’s episodes – and added to the fact that the previous episode had been full of flashbacks and dream sequences, it took some time to realise what was actually going on. That, however, is just ordinary broadcasting, and nothing that out of the ordinary. At the end of the episode, rejoicing at Harry’s return, I went back to Wikipedia – and already the page had mysteriously changed, listing Tom Ward as ‘2002-present’….

So what was going on? Why do I call it the ‘disinformation age’? Well, of course I don’t know who edited the Wikipedia page – but if it was anyone connected to the BBC, I’m impressed. They had thought through how to really convince people that the character was dead, had understood what people like me were likely to do, and set out to create a perfect illusion – to supply the disinformation needed to complete that illusion. On me, it worked – though I know very well I’m naive in a lot of ways, and actually like to be convinced by this kind of thing – but there is a somewhat more sinister side to this. If illusions like this can be created for artistic reasons, aren’t they equally likely to be created for other, less palatable purposes? And then what do we trust? ‘Official’ information? ‘Trusted’ sources? A combination of these? Could we be moving to an age where as much effort is put into the creation of false information as is put into the presentation of real information? A disinformation age?

One thing’s for sure – I’ll be even less trusting than I was before….. and that, in itself, may not be such a good thing. Mind you, I thought the week’s Silent Witness was great!