Jimmy Wales's clandestine editing of a girlfriend's Wikipedia entry has done more than just bring the online encyclopedia into disrepute. It may well put the site's nonprofit parent, the Wikimedia Foundation, in legal jeopardy. Wikipedia has thrived in part thanks to a protection granted by the Communications Decency Act, which spares websites which merely host users' content from liability for what they say. But what if one of the website's officials moves to have that content edited? Then the protection vanishes. That is the legal argument advanced by Wales's ex, Rachel Marsden, in a series of emails with Mike Godwin, Wikimedia's general counsel, that she has posted to Valleywag.
Marsden, who is seeking to have her biography removed from Wikipedia altogether, writes:
It would appear that the approach you describe directly contradicts the spirit of the CDA, which claims that Internet providers are merely providing a blank bulletin board, where people can post whatever they want. That is only true, however, insofar as the owners of the bulletin board do not interfere with what is posted there. It is my understanding, based on extensive legal consultation, that the moment they decide to take action regarding postings, they are liable for everything that is on it.
Jimmy Wales, my ex-boyfriend and Wikimedia Board member, admits publicly to having my article altered. In other words, he is admitting that he is essentially responsible for the content of the bulletin board—he can influence what it says, and the law says that since he can, he should. In other words, the safe harbour—I am not responsible for what people post on my bulletin board—goes right out the window.
Wales sought to hide his involvement in editing Marsden's page. He admits that he gave a false reason to Wikipedia's volunteer administrators on why he wanted to recuse himself from the discussion, at the same time that he gave them clear marching orders on how he wanted it changed. Marsden believes that Wikipedia's administrators have rewritten her biography to be less favorable to her after Wales broke up with her and withdrew his protection.
But the question isn't so much Marsden's page, or her individual case. If she does not test the law, someone else will. The larger question is whether Wikipedia loses its legal protections if its board members or employees involve themselves in any way in the editing of the site. The answer may well lie in the courts, thanks to Wales's thoughtless actions. If that happens, Wikipedia will not be the better off for it. But why should Wales care? He got his fling.