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Convicted murderer sues Wikipedia under privacy law

A German man convicted of murdering an actor sues online encyclopedia under privacy law he claims prevents his name being mentioned in connection with the murder.

Here's the story. Or at least most of it.

Some 19 years ago, a man in Germany, together with his half brother, reportedly murdered an actor named Walter Sedlmayr. The man was convicted and served 15 years in jail.

Now he is free. And, according to Wired, he has exercised that freedom by instructing lawyers, the elegantly named firm of Stopp and Stopp, to sue Wikipedia.

The lawsuit claims that German privacy law, designed to help criminals re-integrate into society, prevents the man being named in association with Walter Sedlmayr's murder.

Wired quotes Jennifer Granick from the Electronic Frontier Foundation as saying that the lawyers are not only demanding that publications change whatever they write now, but that online archives must endure revision, too.

In writing to Wikipedia, the lawyers offered a very interesting approach: "As your article deals with a local German public figure (such as the actor Walter Sedlmayr), we expect you are aware that you have to comply with applicable German law."

Well, gosh, perhaps not everyone realizes when they mention, say, Boris Becker or that interesting actress who was in the first of the Bourne movies, that one is subject to German law when one does so. quotes the Electronic Frontier Foundation as adding: "At stake is the integrity of history itself. If all publications have to abide by the censorship laws of any and every jurisdiction just because they are accessible over the global Internet, then we will not be able to believe what we read, whether about Falun Gong (censored by China), the Thai king (censored under lèse majesté) or German murders."

CC Schoschie/Flickr

You might be wondering why I have not mentioned this German murderer's name. You see, as I write, I am reminded that the world seems to revel in the persona of murderers. In some slightly twisted way, they become figures of fascination.

I have a strange suspicion that the more the name of Walter Sedlmayr's murderer is mentioned, the more famous he will become. And the more famous he will become, the more money he might be able to make from the fame he claims not to desire.

So I am conducting a fame-reduction experiment. Moreover, I know that everyone who chooses to discover his name can do so in a myriad of ways.

I wonder how many people tried to access information about this man who murdered the German actor Walter Sedlmayr and how many people have done so in recent days.

I also wonder how Wikipedia will choose to respond to this interesting and rather revisionist-minded lawsuit. At the time of writing, the full names of both murderers are still there in the Wikipedia entry for Walter Sedlmayr.

However, the Wikipedia Administrators' noticeboard has a spirited discussion about all aspects of the case.

The solution proposed by a poster called Zara 1709 on the noticeboard is to "remove the full name from the article and the article talk page, but leave in the edit history of the article and the talk page. We would even have some sources that mention the full names in the reference, simply because they provide other, relevant information, too."

The precedent for this is the so-called Star Wars kid case, in which a 14-year-old Canadian boy waved around a golf-ball retriever like a lightsaber and then endured painful taunts, leading to an equally painful lawsuit.

Zara1709 noted that: "It is quite important to point out that, on Wikipedia, regard for people's privacy applies to criminals and former criminals, too."

However, another poster, Baseball Bugs, dissented: "There is no justification whatsoever for censoring the names of the killers. The notability argument is bogus, there is no privacy or BLP issue, and the 'doing harm' argument is crystal-ball and thus is irrelevant. And some anonymous German judge has no jurisdiction over Wikipedia."

In reading all this, I am left with the words that were often drubbed into me by teachers: "History is written by the winners."

So if this German request succeeds, might some consider that the winner is Wolfgang Wehrle, the man who, with his half brother Manfred Lauber, murdered Walter Sedlmayr 19 years ago? Dash it, I couldn't help myself. I hope I'm not causing undue work for some future editor.