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The perils of community editing

by Paul Jay, CBC News Online

The volunteer editing process made famous by online encyclopedia Wikipedia was hit with two very different cases of tampering in the last week.

In the first more prominent case, pro-golfer Fuzzy Zoeller launched a lawsuit over allegedly defamatory remarks posted onto Wikipedia. Interestingly, Zoeller's lawsuit is against the Miami education consulting firm that owns the Internet Protocol (IP) address from where the remarks allegedly originated.

While some IP addresses point to specific computers or routers, others can be shared by multiple devices on the same web server, making it impossible to identify the exact person behind a company server from the IP address alone.

Zoeller's lawyer Scott D. Sheftall told the Associated Press he filed a suit against Josef Silny & Associates because the law won't allow him to sue Wikipedia.

"Courts have clearly said you have to go after the source of the information,'' Sheftall said. "The Zoeller family wants to take a stand to put a stop to this. Otherwise, we're all just victims of the Internet vandals out there. They ought not to be able to act with impunity.''

Wikipedia has since taken down the offending paragraph, which the suit said alleged Zoeller abused drugs, alcohol and his family with no evidence to back it up.

It's not the first time someone has taken advantage of Wikipedia's community-editing policy to tamper with an entry, nor even the most famous example. The site has also been criticized in the past for factual errors.

As Wales told the AP, "We try to police it pretty closely, but people do misbehave on the Internet."

Evidently this community editing process is harder than it looks, as Conservapedia, a U.S. -based conservative alternative to Wikipedia recently found itself the target of numerous prank entries: so many the site was overloaded with viewers and was down earlier on Monday.

Andrew Sullivan's blog includes some of Conservapedia's tampering, including an entry on the well-established hoax species the Pacific Northwest Arboreal Octopus.

But as Sullivan points out, Conservapedia's ultra-short entries and pervasive political leaning make it difficult to differentiate between the actual entries and the parodies spawned by Stephen Colbert imitators.

Consider, for example, the site's theory of gravity entry, which reads in part:

The considerable disagreement between scientists about the theory of gravity suggests that, like evolution, the theory will eventually be replaced with a model which acknowledges God as the source of all things, the Prime Mover, and the only real fundamental force in the universe.

Since the site proper is often down, those curious to know what all the fuss is about can look at a cached version here.

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