Wikipedia has decided to screen edits to encyclopedia entries about living people, significantly reining in the power it has bestowed for a decade upon anyone who wants to change an article on the open-source encyclopedia, the New York Times reports.
The policy change addresses a fundamental problem that has bedeviled the site for years: if anyone can change an entry, and nobody in particular vouches for the information's authenticity, how can you trust what you read? Despite this seeming anomaly, Wikipedia is a top 10 sites with 60 million visitors a month. It's also increasingly a go-to resource for breaking news: in the first 24 hours after Michael Jackson's death, his entry was viewed six million times.
But even though (as far as we know) factual errors are often quickly discovered by the site's cadre of volunteers, malice does get through long enough to be noticed. Among others, Wikipedia has reported the deaths of Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), both of whom are very much alive. And then there was that whole messy business about President Obama's entry, ginned up by Fox News.
While the open nature of the site is core to its DNA, even founder Jimmy Wales has called for so-called flagged revisions, and it has been tested already in Germany. So this step was not unexpected and it seems more than appropriate, contradictions aside, for a mature site that has become a de facto global resource.
"We are no longer at the point that it is acceptable to throw things at the wall and see what sticks," Michael Snow, a lawyer in Seattle who is the chairman of the Wikimedia board. told the Times. "There was a time probably when the community was more forgiving of things that were inaccurate or fudged in some fashion - whether simply misunderstood or an author had some ax to grind. There is less tolerance for that sort of problem now."
Wikipedia has already locked out individuals and entities - notably, the Church of Scientology, which got the boot in May for repeated and deceptive editing of articles related to the controversial religion. Wired.com readers also pulled in an award for discovering the most egregious Wikipedia whitewashes by corporation and government agencies.
But now, if you want to sow the seeds of doubt about President Obama's country of birth, don't bother to edit his Wikipedia entry. It'll never see the light of day.