Moral responsibility

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Noto Emoji Oreo 1f4c4.svg This is an essay. It expresses the opinions and ideas of some Wikimedians but may not have wide support. This is not policy on Meta, but it may be a policy or guideline on other Wikimedia projects. Feel free to update this page as needed, or use the discussion page to propose major changes.

I thought I might add my two cents to this The Register article ( so here is what I am writing to him. On that note, if anyone would like to edit this letter to make it more comprehensible, please do. This isn't meant to be an article, just discussion.

Dear Mr. Orlowski,

I am writing in reference to the article you penned on The Register entitled: “There’s no Wikipedia entry for ‘moral responsibility’.” Though, admittedly, much of the article amounts to banal slander acutely reminiscent of that for which you decry, you do make some arguments which I feel the need to refute.

I hope I get this right:

  • The users of Wikipedia are not responsible for the content they write. Wikipedia has a responsibility to present fair and accurate information.
  • Wikipedia is not a real encyclopedia because a good deal of the information is inaccurate. Instead, Wikipedia is a piece of ‘spontaneous graffiti.’ Since anyone can edit Wikipedia, it presents a slippery slope to unchecked libel and copyright infringement. If ‘publication’ by an ‘encyclopedia’ means anything, it means that you have to get those facts right.
  • ‘Publication’ entails responsibility.
  • Wikipedia cannot be trusted to present accurate information. It lacks ‘social responsibility.’

I will try to address these in the order I presented them; however, in true Wikipedian fashion I may skip around a bit.

You claim that Wikipedia as an organization is in some way responsible for the information contained therein. How? Is eBay responsible for the legitimacy of the items they allow users to purchase? Is Google, then, responsible for the content of everything they index? The Wikimedia Foundation has created a framework for organizing information in the same manner, why are they held to a different standard than Google? Is it not acceptable to leave some things uncensored? As a responsible individual, I feel perfectly capable of making that decision because, as in all interpersonal transactions, caveat emptor (which Wikipedia tells me is Latin for ‘let the buyer beware’) applies. Wikipedia is a private organization, they have no public responsibility and they claim no public authority. The users who support the website edit freely and censor freely. In the end what wins out is consensus between private individuals. No one has a right to judge that objectively true or false.

Wikipedia is a source of libel and copyright infringement. More so than in the real world? Wikipedia has stated their policy on copyright infringement (here:, they have explained to users how to spot copyright infringement, and they also actively fight it to the limited degree with which they, as individuals, are able. Libel is another story. Wikipedia is a constantly evolving medium, it is not ever strictly ‘published’ hence there is no last word or definitive statement made in any of the articles. This is understood by Wikipedia users and is considered a necessary evil in order to attain the dynamism of content that Wikipedia is capable of.

What is this dynamism that I speak of you might wonder. Since the articles contained herein are freely editable, what we experience is a mini-internet. The true internet is just as dynamic: one can find breaking details on just about anything desired from the latest hurricane information to circa 1940 John Deere tractors to--you guessed it--libel and copyright infringed materials. Shall we call for the elimination or stricture of the internet? “Welcome to The Internet, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…” What makes Wikipedia special is that it takes this experience and contains it within one search box and a standardized format all without limiting freedom of expression as most other websites do to some degree (be that due to policy or selectivity). It appears that Wikipedia’s advantages present an ideal target for those against freedom of expression since the internet as a whole is a much more elusive target.

Back to the subject. Wikipedia is not an ‘encyclopedia,’ it is and has always been a ‘free-content encyclopedia, written collaboratively by people from all around the world.’ There is no subterfuge involved; the users understand this caveat and appreciate it. You do not make a distinction and instead treat your topic as if Wikipedia were a true print and bound book. Just as an online message board or USENET group contains questionable content, so too does Wikipedia, the most useful online message board I have ever come across. Sometimes this questionable content is exactly what the user seeks! That which the user cannot easily find elsewhere is often contained within these electronic walls.

Now apparently you believe that publication entails responsibility. This invites the question: responsibility to whom? In the free market, book publication occurs when someone has enough money or knows people with enough money to print and distribute the work. I could easily write an ‘encyclopedia’ filled with poorly written argumentation, biased against certain political figures, market it as absolutely, positively true, and sell it at Barnes and Noble—failing that I could buy my own book store and sell it there. Would one not have a right to claim caveat emptor in this situation? And let's back up a moment, why would Barnes and Noble refuse to sell my book? Perhaps due to public outcry, more likely the direct result of loss of overall profit. Wikipedia is controlled in this same manner, people can choose to patronize them with donations or they can refrain and eventually the foundation will lose monetary motive force. You claim Wikipedia lacks regulation, I argue that Wikipedia is regulated by its patrons.

You state that Wikipedia cannot be trusted. You may very well hold that opinion, many others do. I agree with you, I trust Wikipedia just as much as I trust the results I find in Google. Google is full of hit or miss statements and Wikipedia is no different. In the academic pursuit of knowledge, one examines all things and makes up his or her own mind; one cannot ever accept any single source as unmitigated truth. Knowledge often arises from open forums and in that manner Wikipedia succeeds.

You assert that Wikipedia has some sort of responsibility to society. In essence, you conceptually place a private organization--that has made no claim of authority--in the public realm. However, public organizations that actually do make authoritative claims already appear to lack the sort of social responsibility that you insist upon. Take Grand Juries for instance. A prosecutor can indict an individual with very little conclusive evidence and later find the person not guilty. Raymond Donovan, secretary of labor under Reagan, was indicted by a federal grand jury for larceny and fraud and later acquitted. But the public does not see this; instead they read the big bold headlines, “Raymond Donovan under Grand Jury Investigation for Larceny and Fraud.” Is this not libel? Donovan was later quoted as saying “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?” and “Who will reimburse my company for the economic jail it has been in for two and a half years” (Quoted in George Lardner Jr., “Bronx Jury Acquits Donovan,” Washington Post, May 26, 1987.) Before you infer that Wikipedia is in some way similar to or should be a public utility, let us fix the public utilities we already have.

I am a bit dismayed that your article is so destructive of the topic; you fail to present constructive criticism and instead lash out with high-flatulent prose that seems more intended to shock your readership than present suggestions to make Wikipedia a better, safer place for factual information. Next time, start an article here on Wikipedia, perhaps we can help you with it before it makes the press. ~ Nhandler 23:27, 12 December 2005 (UTC)