Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopaedia, is planning radical changes in the way it allows anyone to edit content, after several entries falsely reporting the death of well-known persons left it red-faced.
Wikipedia's co-founder Jimmy Wales has proposed a controversial new system under which any changes to pages about living people would have to be approved by one of the site's editors or trusted users before they could be read by the general public.
Premature news of Senator Ted Kennedy's demise appeared on the day of President Obama's inauguration, along with a similar report about the supposed death of the longest serving senator, Robert Byrd. They are just the latest incidents in a long and rich history of vandalism since the 2001 launch of Wikipedia.
To date, Wikipedia has allowed almost anybody to make changes to most of its 2.7 million entries. Until an American journalist was falsely linked in 2005 to the JFK assassination, you didn't even have to be registered to make changes. But the false death notices of two of America's most prominent politicians has lead co-founder Jimmy Wales to propose cross-checking of all future amendments by site users.
It is a possibility that has caused furore among Wikipedians as the new system would be radical step back from the "wiki" philosophy that anyone can make changes to the entries on Wikipedia.
Senator Kennedy was taken ill during a lunch in the Capitol for Barack Obama and members of Congress. However, before hospital sources confirmed he was OK, a false entry appeared on Wikipedia. It read, "Kennedy suffered a seizure at a luncheon following the Barack Obama Presidential inauguration on January 20, 2009. He was removed in a wheelchair, and died shortly after." The error was quickly spotted and amended.
Wikipedia has a system of protecting pages that are subject to vandalism by blocking all edits except those by trusted Wikipedia editors. But the system of "flagged revisions" proposed by Wales would mean that once edits to biographies of living people were made, they would not go "live" to be seen by readers until checked.
In his blog, Wales said the "nonsense" of the false reports would have been "100 per cent prevented by flagged revision" and said he wanted the changes to be implemented as soon as possible.
"It [the error] could also have been prevented by protection or semi-protection, but this is a prime example of why we don't want to protect or semi-protect articles - this was a breaking news story and we want people to be able to participate (so protection is out) and even to participate in good faith for the first time ever (so semi-protection is out)," he wrote.
However, this posting caused a storm of comments, with many editors saying the proposal was against the spirit of Wikipedia and would introduce long delays to the editing process.
One user posted, "It is not in the interests of the community to trample on the views of large and passionate minority who wish to maintain the principle that all editors have an equal right to edit and equal responsibility for what they produce. It cannot be in anyone's interests for this to go ahead and doing so will show contempt for a whole layer of people who have devoted their time and energy in good faith, believing that what WP told them: 'this is an encyclopaedia that anyone can edit,' was true."
But a Wikipedia administrator countered, "In the vast majority of cases, a Wikipedia article on an individual will be the very highest-ranking search engine result when a search is conducted on the name of that person. This affects the lives of the people we write about on a daily basis.
"To suggest that Wikipedia does not have profound obligations to do its best to keep these articles free of defamatory, gossipy and privacy-invading material is to suggest that we are without obligation to consider the real-world impacts of our actions and the work we are doing."
Another user posted, "Enabling Flagged Revisions will undoubtedly create backlogs that we will be unable to manage."
A system of flagged revisions for all entries has been used by the German Wikipedia site for almost a year. However critics say that the process is labour intensive. Wales accepted that there was an approval delay of three weeks for German Wikipedia entries, which was "unacceptable". He pointed out that the system he was proposing was only for biographies of living people.
Wales has now offered a compromise, asking those who were opposed to the changes to make "an alternative proposal within the next 7 days, to be voted upon for the next 14 days after that".
Inevitably, the open editing system makes Wikipedia open to malicious vandalism as well as subtle manipulation. Puerile abuse is common, as when Tony Blair was briefly given the middle-name "Whoop-de-doo", while one vandal erased the entire entry for Harry Potter, replacing it with the brutal plot spoiler: "Snape is the half-blood prince and kills Dumbledore."
Others have had their own self-serving reasons. Online scanning software that tracks computer IP addresses gathered convincing evidence in 2007 that the staff of Australian premier John Howard had been altering damaging entries. The software also suggested that a CIA official altered comments about the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Venerable Britannica takes leaf from Wiki book: Encyclopedia Britannica has unveiled what could possibly be the biggest revolution in its 241 years' history as it plans to take on Wikipedia on its own turf and allow external contributors to shape its online content.
The new features have already been rolled out on Britannica's website and allow registered users to make corrections and add new sections, although unlike Wikipedia, Britannica's own editors and staff ultimately approving any changes.
Users will have to register first with their real names and addresses before being given editing rights, a move that is similar to Google Knol's editing requirements. Readers will also be able to view the list of all people who have contributed to an article.
In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald last week, Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopedia Britannica, said that edits would be evaluated and implemented within 20 minutes, although they might have to reassess their turnover cycle depending on user feedback.
Cauz also criticised Google for pushing Wikipedia near the top for any generic search engine result pages, adding, "If I were the CEO of Google or one of the founders of Google I would be very [unhappy] that the best search engine in the world continues to provide as a first link, Wikipedia."
Britannica faces Google's own Knol and Wikipedia as well as a number of newcomers like Answers.com which try to organise, rather than create, knowledge.