Wikipedia Faces Legal Battle

How accurate is online encyclopedia Wikipedia? Controversial lawyer Giovanni Di Stefano says the website hasn't moved fast enough to deal with the gross lies that litter his entry.

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which began as a brilliant and idealistic project, based on the objective of sharing knowledge and information, is heading for stormy waters. A voluntary organisation, from the outset Wikipedia worked on two key principles: that there is effectively no limit to the amount of information that can be gathered on the world wide web; and that the internet makes it possible to continually edit and update information. The holy grail beckoned: that people possessed of the necessary knowledge and authority could create the ultimate information resource, one that would not just be thoroughly accurate but also up to date. It would blow other encyclopaedias out of the water.

For a while, it seemed that this ambitious objective might be realised. Through the work of teams of dedicated voluntary writers and editors, the volume of material carried under the Wikipedia banner mushroomed in the most extraordinary way. Today there are millions of profiles, the entire collection running into billions of words. But as the store of information has grown, so too has the amount of downright disinformation. Wikipedia has developed a reputation for inaccuracy – and, what’s more, for malicious inaccuracy, outright lies and propaganda – in a worryingly high proportion of its entries.

The worm in the apple is this. In practice, anyone can post or edit a Wikipedia entry. The origins of any editorial material, including the changes, additions and edits are in theory traceable. But in practice, with people in the online world adept at hiding behind aliases and covering their tracks, that is often far more difficult than was intended. As a result, the encyclopaedia has been dragged down into a mire of controversy by the kind of malice-driven, rumour-mongering creepy crawlies who thrive on the anonymity afforded by the internet.

FACELESS COWARDS

Hot Press has learned that Wikipedia’s reputation for inaccuracy may prove to be its undoing. The controversial Italian lawyer Giovanni Di Stefano has hit the Wikipedia organisation with a staggering €50million defamation case in the Italian courts. If successful, it would surely spell the end of Wikipedia.

Di Stefano – nicknamed “The Devil’s Advocate” because he has represented many notorious clients, including Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Harold Shipman, John Gilligan and Paddy ‘Dutchy’ Holland – has had a long-running dispute with Wikipedia over the inflammatory content of the entry bearing his name. Di Stefano says he opted to take the legal action after being constantly infuriated by a series of what he describes as outrageous accusations made on Wikipedia. Among the lies peddled about him is that he is not even qualified to practice law. Among other inaccuracies, the entry also states that he is banned from America.

Apart from seeking compensation, Di Stefano is also threatening to seek arrest warrants for his web detractors – including the anonymous contributors to Wikipedia who he says have bad-mouthed and slandered him. Speaking to Hot Press from Iraq where he’s working on cases involving Tariq Aziz and Chemical Ali, Di Stefano declared that this could be Wikipedia’s ‘Waterloo’.

In typically colourful language, Di Stefano told Hot Press that he is aiming to get the “anonymous fucking cunts” who are attempting to undermine his credibility and reputation.

“The article on me is clearly written aggressively and with factual errors – which when you try and correct, and politely, the correction gets deleted. Well, this has gone on for a year now and although Jimbo Wales (the founder of Wikipedia) did intervene, he has not been able to stay on top of things like a hawk. I showed him my qualifications. I even showed him my visa entries to the US in my passport. But the inaccuracies persist. So I have sued for defamation.”

Di Stefano insists that his objective is to ensure that Wikipedia “returns to being an encyclopedia of fact” by removing defamatory material in articles; and secondly, to ensure that Wikipedia contributors are clearly identified in any of their work.

“I’m taking legal action against Wikipedia because they are the only magazine media outlet which produces material without a signature. In other words, when you wrote your article on me in Hot Press there were maybe things that I didn’t like, but if I wanted to sue I had a name – Mr O’Toole. You put your name to it. The problem with Wikipedia is that you have nameless, faceless people who hide behind nom de plumes who are cowards. They are people who dare not stand up and say what they think publicly.

“I had a long conversation with Jimbo and I told him that this would be his Waterloo. He had a very good idea, but faceless people are writing harmful and defamatory material. But the whole point is transparency. In the media, you have a name. If those people who wrote shit about me put their names to it, I could sue them – I don’t sue people unless it’s really, really necessary. Like The Guardian. Like Scotland On Sunday. And then we are friends again.”

CRIMINAL OFFENCE

Contacted by Hot Press, Wikipedia founder Jimmy ‘Jimbo’ Wales acknowledged that he was “very much aware” of Di Stefano and the problem with his entry on Wikipedia. However, while he would gladly discuss the issue off the record, Wales was reluctant to make any official comment. For the record, a spokesperson for Wikipedia stated: “We are unaware of any legal action being brought against Wikipedia.”

Up to a point, this may be true, in that the form of the action being taken is unusual. Di Stefano points out that, rather than issuing a writ, he sent Wikipedia a legal letter – which can be read on his website – back in April, notifying them of his intention to go down the legal route. He has taken an approach to the process that is uniquely Italian. Di Stefano told Hot Press that, unlike other EU states, including Ireland, defamation is actually a criminal offence under Italian law. This allowed him to lodge a formal complaint to the Rome Public Prosecutor regarding defamation committed against him “by a number of people” at the Wikipedia Foundation, as well as several editors who are either anonymous or use pseudonyms. He did this in April 2008.

“In accordance with Italian law, the Public Prosecutor will investigate the complaint and send the matter for trial,” Di Stefano told Hot Press. “Under Italian law, the Public Prosecutor is obliged to send the complainants to trial. A case for defamation can take from three months to five years to complete up to the Appellate stages.

“I want to jail some of those nameless people,” he insists. “I have requested the Public Prosecutor to consider the issue of International and European Arrest warrants, in the event those accused fail to attend trial or interrogation. And I want to get a change in the law, so that people must put their names to what they write on Wikipedia, because a person’s reputation is the most important thing. I’ve given them every opportunity to make amends, because I didn’t want to do it. Also, I’ve named the people who write under pseudonyms and I’ve asked for an order of disclosure – and it will happen. It takes time, but it will happen. This week, for example, I sent a journalist to jail for two-and-a-half years for defamation against me in an incident from five years ago. It catches up with you. It was an Italian journalist who wrote that I had taken $160 million from Milosevic and channeled it to Italian politicians. I said, ‘You must be mad! If I’d taken that money I’d fucking keep it’. He’s going to jail, mate. You go to jail in Italy for defamation. There’s no fucking about. That’s why I do it here. People laugh, but then when it hits them...”

CLASS ACTION

Di Stefano says that while the defamation case might bankrupt the online encyclopedia, it is not his intention to shut Wikipedia down. “I will probably put it (the money) back into Wikipedia. My intention is not to harm Wikipedia, it is to stop what I believe... At the moment, it’s me that’s doing it and I’m a friendly face with Jimbo, but he obviously doesn’t want to learn the lesson the normal way. I’ve no objections to people writing shit about me, but at least put your name to it, to show that you’ve got balls.

“If a person believes that I’ve been to prison 20 times; that I’ve robbed banks; that I tried to escape from prison – all of that is part of a legend. It makes people think, ‘Fuck me! If Giovanni can do this, what can he do for me?’ It’s not that, I complain about – I complain about the faceless people who go around ruining ideas. It’s stopped since I issued a criminal action in Italy. Most of the people in Wikipedia are my friends – it’s just the fucking cunts who deliberately want to ruin a good idea. It’s not so much an attack on me – it’s an attack on Wikipedia.”

If nothing else, Di Stefano’s legal battle should at the very least raise a serious debate on the contentious issue of inaccuracies and deliberately misleading information being published, not just on Wikipedia but over the internet generally.

Jay Walsh, Head of Communications, WikimediaFoundation.org, is adamant that most complaints made against inaccuracies or false information can be quickly resolved. “We would be reached at the Foundation, and dispatch the request to a team of trusted volunteers. They would look at the request against Wikipedia’s basic ‘pillars’, or best practices. Basically, these ask the question of the article or content: is the article neutral, is it unnecessarily censored? Are these verifiable / sourced facts? Is the article ‘notable’ and is this new or unpublished research?

“It’s worth saying that Wikipedia’s volunteer editors are consumed with the ideas of quality, reliability and trust. Generally speaking we use an effective public response system to deal with errors and matters brought to our attention. If concerns come directly to us, we bring them to the volunteers, usually administrator editors, who provide careful support to help get the matters resolved.”

Wikipedia, according to Walsh, are also working on new “software-based solutions” in an effort to ensure greater accuracy. He says that this system would basically mark or ‘flag’ high quality articles on Wikipedia, and ensure that all subsequent edits are also of high quality. “In other words, vandal, or unregistered users could ‘propose’ edits to those articles, but only trusted editors would approve them, meaning the flagged, quality version will always be seen,” he added.

However, all this might be too little too late. Apart from his defamation case in Italy, Di Stefano says he is now planning to bring a class action against Wikipedia in the US. He is urging those who feel aggrieved by Wikipedia to contact him. “I am ready, willing and able to launch a class action in the US courts, entirely on a ‘no win no fee’ basis,” he says.

It promises to be an intriguing battle.

For further information on the proposed class action, log on to www.studiolegaleinternazionale.com

 

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