This week in wikis

After two scandals in one week, Wikipedia's founder changes the rules concerning who can contribute to the collaborative encyclopedia.

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Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Steven Musil
2 min read
Wikipedia, the anyone-can-contribute online encyclopedia, has come under fire for recent inaccuracies, raising ethical and legal questions.

After two scandals in one week, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales changed the rules concerning who can contribute to the collaborative encyclopedia.

The scandals: First, a former administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy lambasted Wikipedia for an article that suggested he may have been involved in the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy. Then, a flurry of attention came when podcasting pioneer and former MTV VJ Adam Curry was accused of anonymously editing out references to other people's seminal podcasting work in an article about the hot digital medium.

To critics of Wikipedia--which, in a spin on the open-source model, lets anyone create and edit entries--the news was further proof that the service has no accountability and no place in the world of serious information gathering.

Despite the inaccuracy of the Wikipedia entry on the Kennedy assassinations, it's unlikely that there is much of a court case against Wikipedia, according to legal experts interviewed by CNET News.com.

Thanks to section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act, which became law in 1996, Wikipedia is most likely safe from legal liability for libel, regardless of how long an inaccurate article stays on the site. That's because it is a service provider as opposed to a publisher such as Salon.com or CNN.com.

Of course, Wikipedia's standing has yet to be tested in a courtroom. Until then, no one can say for certain that the site--which hosts 853,630 articles in English and in excess of a million more in dozens of other languages, and which has grown from 16,061 registered users in October 2004 to 45,351 at the end of October 2005--isn't liable for material that appears on the site.

Regardless of what the courts decide to do--if anything--confidence in the online resource may be waning. In response to accuracy concerns, The New York Times has banned reporters from using Wikipedia as a research resource, according to a posting on Poynter Online.

Opinions among CNET News.com readers appeared to be split, with some saying they don't trust Wikipedia at all to others who equated the value of the information with advice requested from a friend. Michael Berumen wrote in News.com's TalkBack forum that the service was "rife with error. Amateur editors vary widely in talent and knowledge, but mediocrity nearly always prevails at Wikipedia by the very nature of the open editing process, where consensus of opinion is valued over knowledge about the subject matter."

Other readers were a bit more sympatheic. "In a perfect world, users would ensure that every article would evolve into highly accurate content," wrote Earl Benser. "But, this is not a perfect world, and any evolution toward accuracy is more accidental than deliberate."