Week in review: Wikipedia's woes

The anyone-can-contribute encyclopedia comes under fire for inaccuracies, raising ethical and legal questions.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
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
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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."

Worm worries
The wonderful world of worms has some new twists, but are most of us concerned? Apparently not.

A new outbreak of Sober may be coming, security experts have warned, even as e-mail systems worldwide work to get rid of the last infestation of the mass-mailing worm. The next attack is hard-coded in the version of Sober that hit the Net on Nov. 22, said iDefense, part of VeriSign.

Infected machines are set to download instructions and potentially mail out a new wave of Sober e-mails on Jan. 5. That leaves Internet users with less than a month to shore up their defenses against Sober, which was the most prolific worm in 2005.

The possible outbreak could be stopped, said Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at Finnish antivirus company F-Secure. The worm is set to download instructions from a number of sites hosted on the systems of free Web space providers. These are located mostly in Germany and Austria, he said.

On a related front, a new worm that targets users of America Online's Instant Messenger is believed to be the first that actually chats with the intended victim to dupe the target into activating a malicious payload, IM security vendor IMlogic warned.

The worm arrives in instant messages that state: "lol thats cool"

and includes a URL to a malicious file. When unsuspecting users have responded, perhaps asking if the attachment contained a virus, the worm has replied: "lol no its not its a virus," IMlogic said.

The malicious file disables security software, installs a backdoor and tweaks system files, the company said. Then it starts sending itself to contacts on the victim's buddy list. The worm is programmed so that the infected user cannot see the messages that are being sent out by the worm.

So are most of us taking these threats seriously? Nope.

A survey of home PC users found 81 percent lack at least one of three critical types of security, though the number of consumers using firewalls and updated antivirus software is improving, according to a report by AOL and the National Cyber Security Alliance. The vast majority of consumers surveyed were found to lack at least one of three types of critical security: a firewall, updated antivirus software or anti-spyware protection.

Of this group, 56 percent had no antivirus software or had not updated it within a week, while 44 percent did not have a firewall properly configured, according to the report. Meanwhile, 38 percent of survey respondents lacked spyware protection.

Out of tune
What would the music industry be without a little controversy?

Just when you thought Sony BMG Music Entertainment had put its security problems behind it, the record label announced that it had found, and fixed, a new risk associated with some of its CDs. The vulnerability could let malicious programmers gain control of computers that have run the software, which is typically installed automatically when a disc is put in a computer's CD drive.

A few days later, Sony BMG announced it was replacing that patch after Princeton University researchers found a security flaw in the update. Ed Felten, a Princeton computer science professor, wrote in his blog that the patch itself could open computers to attack by hackers.

Sony executives said they are working closely with security professionals to address the issues identified by Felten and will have a new patch available soon.

The issue affects a different set of CDs than the ones involved in the copy-protection gaffe that led Sony to recall 4.7 million CDs last month and that has triggered several lawsuits against the record label.

And just like Sony, if at first you don't succeed...RealNetworks Chief Executive Rob Glaser told a packed hotel ballroom that Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs' refusal to make the iPod compatible with music services other than Apple's iTunes was "pigheadedness." Glaser also said that Apple's unwillingness to cooperate with other online music vendors promotes piracy of copyright materials and will eventually draw the wrath of consumers.

"We think Apple Computer, and Steve personally, are making a mistake by making the software proprietary," Glaser said, noting that RealNetworks will continue catering to users of Macintosh computers. "There's no reason we should penalize Apple customers for Steve's pigheadeness."

Meanwhile, the online music wars took another turn Down Under when Sharman Networks cut off Australians' access to the Web site from which the file-swapping software Kazaa can be downloaded. The shutdown was undertaken to comply with orders from Australia's Federal Court. While people with an Australian IP address who have already downloaded Kazaa can continue to use it, Sharman is warning them not to do so.

However, Stephen Peach, chief executive of the Australian Record Industry Association, criticized the effort. "Sharman has thumbed its nose at the court. They were given a chance to do the right thing and they've ruined it," Peach said in a statement.

Also of note
A frenzy of last-minute negotiations over the Patriot Act, conducted behind closed doors as a Dec. 31 expiration date nears, is yielding a four-year renewal of the law with no major reforms...However, Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who led the Senate's negotiations when the original law was drafted in 2001, said he will not support a renewal unless it includes substantial reforms...The federal government is not making enough progress in protecting critical infrastructures such as communications networks and the Internet, said former members of the commission that investigated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001...Exploit code for the latest version of open-source browser Firefox was published, potentially putting users at risk of a denial-of-service attack...NBC Universal is the latest network to tap into Apple's iTunes, offering up nearly a dozen of its TV shows for download onto iPods and PCs.