Saturday, November 29, 2008

Is it safe to edit in Wikipedia?

I normally don't write about Wikipedia, but of course I used to write more about it and so I still get search hits for the Wikipedia-related content in my blog.  A recent search that did hit was "Is it safe to edit in a wikipedia".  The simple answer is "probably, but you can't be sure".

I'm going to assume that the searcher was interested in the English Wikipedia.  There are lots of other Wikipedias, very few of which are read by anyone anyway and so editing one of them is of virtually no consequence whatsoever.  I seem to recall that some months ago one of the lesser-known Wikipedias was completely subverted by a gaming clan and used by them as a message board for quite some time until someone noticed and cleaned up the mess they made.  Obviously, someone who tried that on one of the major projects wouldn't last long.

But back to the English Wikipedia.  It is not entirely safe to edit Wikipedia, although exactly how unsafe depends mainly on what you edit, and where you live.  If you should live in a country, such as Thailand, in which lese majeste is a crime, and you should happen to edit Wikipedia so as to speak ill of the King, you might find yourself wanted by the authorities as a result.  The same would be true if you were to edit Wikipedia so as to forward holocaust denial; this could make you subject to arrest in countries, such as Austria, where holocaust denial is a crime.  A way in which this could be unexpectedly problematic is if you should make edits which are legal where you live, but which offend the law of some other country which you then later travel to.  Of course, you can avoid this risk by not editing topics in manners that are illegal in places in which you are likely to travel to. 

There's also the risk that you'll edit a topic in a way that offends a wealthy or powerful person, who will then seek to sue you for defamation as a result.  This could happen even if you make an innocuous edit to an article which contains defamatory content elsewhere, because legally when you hit "save" you're taking responsibility for the entire text of the article, not just the part you changed, and so if six sections down the article says that Jack Doe is a child-molester you are on the hook if Jack decides to go after you, even though you didn't think to check for that.  I don't think anyone has actually been sued in this way yet, but it's a matter of time before it happens.  And there have been lawsuits over Wikipedia content, although none that have gone all the way to trial as far as I know.

Finally, there's the risk of being stalked.  If you reveal any personal information along the way as you edit Wikipedia, there's the chance that one of the handful of people who hang about Wikipedia looking for targets will latch on to you and stalk you.  This is more likely if you edit one of the topics that these people monitor; unfortunately, often these people stake out topics that one wouldn't expect to be "risky" (they're often ones with personal connections to them).  If you should offend their inscrutable sensitivities, they may seek to identify your full name, residence, place of business, or other personal information and then stalk or harass you for the "offense" of making "inappropriate" edits to "their" articles.

Unfortunately, Wikipedia is not very open about the identities of the handful of people who are known to have stalked or harassed editors, or what actions tend to set such people off.  The Wikipedia community has refused calls to warn editors of the risks of editing, so quite a few people have been caught badly unawares as a result.

You may also be harassed on the site itself, but that's not really a safety issue; the worst these people will typically do to you is annoy you, piss you off, and perhaps if you're especially unlucky ban you from the site.  If you make the mistake of editing under your real name, you may find that your reputation will be slightly damaged as Wikipedia will gleefully publish all sorts of defamatory content in perpetuity about its editors and former editors, so if you're concerned about this admittedly minor problem, you might want to refrain from editing under your real name.  A good idea anyway, for reasons given above.

All in all, there's a small but not entirely neglible risk of real harm from editing Wikipedia, and people considering doing so really should weigh the benefits (which, due to Wikipedia's rather messed up community, are sadly quite low) against the risks before deciding to participate.  In any case, I would encourage those considering editing Wikipedia to do so pseudanonymously, to refrain from revealing any personal information on the site, and to keep their "Wikipedia" existence as separate from their other online activities, and offline identity, as possible. 

For more on the risks and problems of Wikipedia, see the Wikipedia Review discussion site.