Public Nuisance

Random commentary and senseless acts of blogging.

The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Monday, February 06, 2006
 
Two recent stories detail apparent attempts by House staff members to polish their bosses' profiles in Wikipedia. Particular attention was paid to the entry on local zero Richard Pombo.

Staffers at the U.S. House of Representatives have repeatedly spent work hours tampering with the biographies of Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, and dozens of other lawmakers in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, according to Wikipedia's founder.

On at least seven occasions between Oct. 5 and Jan. 26, someone using a Capitol Hill computer anonymously logged on to the popular reader-driven Web site and sanitized Pombo's biography.

Attributed references that connected Pombo to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff or to fund-raising controversies disappeared from the Web site, which describes itself as the "free encyclopedia that anyone can edit."

Other information was added or deleted to present the congressman in a more favorable light, according to a survey of the changes.

All of the comments examined by The Daily Review can be traced to office computers belonging to the internal computer network of the U.S. Congress....

Someone else using a congressional computer made changes to the entry on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that described the San Francisco Democrat unfavorably.

A sentence describing Pelosi as representing her party's liberal wing was altered to say she is part of its "extreme" wing. Another edit stated that she "villifies" the same companies she raises money from.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said his widely read Internet resource relies on everybody who uses it to write, edit and monitor the accuracy of its articles. And so it is not surprising, he said, that politicians or their staffers or interns make so many contributions.

But he said some congressional workers "vandalized" the encyclopedia by adding libelous statements about their political opponents or anonymously removing unfavorable but verifiable information about the politicians they support....

Wales said he hopes the knowledge that they are being watched by Wikipedia's many readers keeps legislative staffers in check in the future.

"It can be perfectly appropriate for people to enter the public dialogue," Wales said. "The real question is, you know, are people behaving in a mature, thoughtful manner?"


Aside from the interesting political angles, this seems another indicator that wikis simply can't succeed without using some form of trusted user structure. It's a substantial accomplishment for wikipedia that it has become important enough to be worth freeping, but the ease of doing it shows the weakness of the system.

Few quotes you read this year will be as naive as Mr Wales's wishful thinking that "the knowledge that they are being watched by Wikipedia's many readers [will keep] legislative staffers in check in the future". Rather obviously, the lesson taken away from this by the guilty parties will be not, "respect the integrity of Wikipedia", but "next time, use less tracable accounts".


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