The blackout of Italian Wikipedia from October 4–6 requires us to reflect—neither with haste nor prejudice—upon the meaning and role of a free online encyclopedia. The reason for the blackout was Article 29 of the controversial Wiretapping Bill in which all websites, without distinction, would be required to publish a correction of any content that a person deems detrimental to his/her image within 48 hours.
Italian Wikipedia was immediately rendered inaccessible to users and in place of the search entry, a statement appeared deeming unacceptable the requirement to publish corrections without verifying the reliability of the claim. "With this announcement," the statement declared, "we want to warn our readers against the risks arising from leaving to the arbitrary will of any party to enforce the alleged protection of its image and its reputation." The infamous article of law was later amended to require this kind of correction only from registered online newspapers, but the decree has not yet been approved definitively and Italian Wikipedia continues to caution users about the project's risk of survival.
Founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger (who left soon thereafter to start a similar project, Citizendium, where there are stricter constraints on free user participation), the encyclopedia has been the subject of controversy regarding content reliability since its birth. During its ten-year existence, it has implemented various strategies for improving its scrutiny and verification procedures in order to render its content more accurate and objective. It must therefore be acknowledged that the community of Wikipedia authors has made major efforts in terms of self-criticism and progressive improvement on this front.
The use of the Wiki technology platform lies at the base of the project (wiki is the Hawaiian word that means "fast", but which some say is an acronym for "What I Know Is," the synthetic slogan referring to knowledge created through the collaboration of a number of different subjects). It allows anyone to modify existing entries and, at least initially, anyone could create new ones. There have been accidents, even serious ones, resulting from the improper use of the tool. The best known dates to 2005 and concerned John Seigenthaler—a journalist and associate of Bobby Kennedy—whose Wikipedia biography reported for 132 days, from May 29 to October 5 of that same year, the false information that he might have played a role in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. Two other sites (reference.com and answers.com) reported the same news.
The USA Today reporter wrote a bitter commentary about the incident, highlighting the risks of complete deregulation of information circulating on the Internet. Like feathers in a pillow, once the pillowcase is torn, they spread everywhere and can never be retrieved; this is also true of false rumors that are circulated irresponsibly. The author closed his indictment with this image which he found to be particularly apt for describing Wikipedia.
Things have changed since then. There is greater control regarding the publication of new entries: to create a new one, the user must register while previously it was possible to maintain anonymity. However, it is still possible to take action on content without being identified. Consequently, the system is highly vulnerable to acts of vandalism but its strength lies in reciprocal, "horizontal" control of the site's content, which is usually corrected promptly. But when it isn't, what happens to the scattered feathers? Italian Wikipedia's piqued reaction to the external imposition of a rigid instrument (the correction) that is not adaptable to the site's guidelines has very deep roots.
To understand them, one must look back to 1996 when a furious debate—closely resembling the public defense of Wikipedia—was unleashed in the United States regarding the responsibilities of those who publish online content. The debate was triggered by the approval of the Communications Decency Act, part of the Telecommunications Act, which sought to regulate the online circulation of pornographic material, among other things. On that occasion, John Perry Barlow, former Grateful Dead lyricist and member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation active since the birth of the Internet in the protection of the rights of web users, wrote the famous "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace." "Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live." In this world, Barlow continued, it is possible to express any opinion freely without prejudice, and information is free to circulate far away from arbitrary taxes and bureaucracy. Laws that apply to the world of matter cannot be applied because there is no matter in the virtual world, but only the freedom of the human mind to create and produce without limitations.
In 1996, Wikipedia had not even been imagined and the World Wide Web had just begun to stir. The Internet was still limited to a small circle of intellectuals, scholars, researchers and journalists; nothing comparable to today's widespread dissemination. In fact, practices existed within the network that were often in direct conflict with what was happening outside. It was common to obtain information, friendly advice and help from unknown individuals who were perceived to be very strongly bonded. Much of the spirit of those early years would come together in the Wikipedia project. If Barlow's argument had some credibility then (but try telling Seigenthaler that behind the bits there are no real bodies that live and suffer) does it still make sense today to consider the Internet a kind of free zone where laws that are different from the physical world apply?
Wikipedia's answer appeals to the project's absolute specificity, which is held accountable only to its own internal rules, tested and proven over the years. Underlying these rules is the problematic concept of neutrality, or the "Neutral Point of View" (NPOV) as Jimmy Wales himself refers to it, an indisputable rule from which it is impossible to deviate. It is obvious that a correction published directly by an interested party can never be neutral. To achieve neutral status, an entry must provide verifiable information from reliable and authoritative sources, and when there are differing opinions, they should be reported without siding with either, but providing a picture of the question that is as comprehensive as possible. An entry is considered neutral when it is stable over time.
Some time ago in a public meeting, Wales was asked the question, "How can you be neutral on such issues as Hitler and the Nazis?" The answer was that the problem does not exist because those who believe that Hitler was a good person are only a small minority which can safely be ignored. But if, in this case, the reasoning is flawless, the same cannot be said of other opinions held by other minorities. So then, are we sure that the number of people sharing a belief is a valid and sufficient criterion for determining reliability? Isn't one eye-witness account perhaps enough to challenge one hundred hearsay reports? We do not want to oversimplify here. But to remind ourselves just how problematic the concept of the truthfulness of the facts is, we might recall Akira Kurosawa's famous parable, Rashomon, in which the witnesses of the same event recount totally different versions.
It is undeniable that the use and revision of Wikipedia invites continuous verification and exercise of accuracy regarding what is being written, in a passionate search for increasing adherence to fact and without indulging in simple schematic considerations having no feedback. If the site's immediate reaction had the merit of eliminating an article of law which would have imposed excessively rigid rules that would have been, in fact, very difficult to observe in practice, the problem still exists. The boundary between the web's virtual world and the real one is increasingly blurred, almost nonexistent. Hiding behind hypothetical neutrality cannot exempt us from dialogue with the people who are offended by what has been written. Inside or outside the Internet.
Stefania Garassini lives in Milan. She is a journalist, expert in new media