Is anonymity for Wikipedia contributors desirable?

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By Lionel Scheepmans

Wikipedia is a free on-line encyclopedia and the 7th site in term of Internet traffic[1] used nowadays as reference in newspapers[2] or even in certain context in academic work[3]. The site is maintained by the Wikimedia foundation as a web host which is not responsible for the edits or contributions of the editors[4]. The foundation only complies with U.S. law about protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material[5]. More than this, Wikimedia Foundation's privacy policy page informs that : "Because we believe that you shouldn’t have to provide personal information to participate in the free knowledge movement, you may: Read, edit, or use any Wikimedia site without registering an account. Register for an account without providing an email address or real name."[6]

All IP addresses are stored on Wikipedia servers when users establish a connection. These IP addresses can be viewed by all Internet users in the history pages once editions are made by unregistered users. When a user account is created, their IP address is replaced by a user name. The IP addresses of the registered user is exclusively visible to a few people mandated by the Wikimedia Foundation (CheckUser) during a period of 30 days. In specific legal cases, IP addresses of registered editors could be transmitted from the Wikimedia Foundation to authorities[7]. With an IP address and its precise time of use, a mandated authority for legal instance can oblige Internet providers to give contractual information about clients using an IP address at a specific time. By the fact, account creation on Wikipedia increases the anonymity for the rest of the Internet as long as a pseudonym can be used for account creation. Some time false identity can be developed through a user account[8], but finally user accounts make easier the control of activity specifically when the contributor use a dynamic IP address.

Regarding to these previous informations, arise critic about the fact than "Wikipedia has the appearance, but not the reality, of responsible, transparent information production" (Santana; Wood 2009). But theses authors ignores than the encyclopedic project is full of editing rules. One of them for example doesn't allow original research[9] and beyond this rule guidelines exist which theoretically oblige editors to refer every edit to a trusty secondary source like books, peer review journals, official newspapers, or other sources from official or recognized institutions[10]. That means, in other words, that Wikipedia contributors theoretically don't create information, but just transfer it into the encyclopedia providing sources in reference sections, notes or bibliography. In practice, however, a simple observation of various random Wikipedia articles shows that some non sourced editions aren't deleted by the community or some of them just wait regular source with a specific indication as "[citation needed]". In conclusion of these previous observations, we can conclude that reliability of Wikipedia is not so much a question of anonymity than governance and respect of editorial rules.

On another side, anonymity on Wikipedia brings some advantages and gives positive answers to the normative principle of equality between user and respect of individual right about freedom of expression. Firstly, absence of contributor's public notoriety on the project prevent discrimination and make all user equal in term of edition and control of other. Secondly, who wants to contribute from a country where human rights and freedom of expression are not in application, can do it without risk, thanks to the anonymity creating by an user account.

But beyond authorial responsibility, anonymity among Wikipedia users can still create trouble in term of governance within the contributors community. In fact, anonymity allows creation of multiples user account to influence article edition[11] or decision-making within the project[12]. All these behavior could be prejudicial for the neutrality of point of view of the encyclopedia when people start to be payed by company for editing wikipedia[13]. To deal with this, the community can contact some CheckUser IP officer to control if various user account are using the same IP address but this protocol spend time and can't resolve all suspicions.

In conclusion of this essay, it seems difficult to manage anonymity drifting in Wikimedia project. Yet, if the community applies editorial rules, the anonymity problem doesn't concern authorship issue but well neutrality and governance in the project. For fixing governance problem, real identity could be provide by drastic conditions of editing access linked to email, social network or bank account information. But this kind of policy will probably reduce considerably the user participation in the project. Finally, as a last technical solution to help the community control of multiple account abuse, the Wikimedia foundation could implement automatic listings of user account using same IP address without displaying any IP address in respect of privacy policy principle.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. Source : "Alexa Top 500 Global Sites". Retrieved 2016-04-20. 
  2. For example: "Une école Steiner accusée d'être une secte violente". 20 Minutes. Retrieved 2016-04-20. 
  3. For example: Leclercq, Bruno. Le Plagiat (PDF). UMONS. Retrieved 2016-04-24. 
  4. Source : "Legal/Legal Policies - Meta". Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  5. More informations on web page : "47 U.S. Code § 230 - Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material". LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  6. Source : "Privacy policy - Meta". Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  7. More informations on "Privacy policy - Wikimedia Foundation". Retrieved 2016-05-23. 
  8. For a good example about false identity within Wikipedia users, see "Essjay controversy". Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (2016-03-29). Retrieved on 2016-05-23.
  9. Source : "Wikipedia:No original research". Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  10. Source : "Wikipedia:Citing sources - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia". Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  11. Source and more information on "Wikipedia:Single-purpose account - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia". Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  12. Source and more informations on "Wikipedia:Sock puppetry - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia". Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  13. Source : Tuttle, Brad (2015-08-12). "Some People Get Paid a Lot of Money to Edit Wikipedia Pages". Time. ISSN 0040-718X Check |issn= value (help). Retrieved 2016-05-23. 

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