Wikipedia Logo

Wikipedia Logo

Ernie the Attorney provides us all an intersting commentary on the veracity of information gathered from web-based research in general, and Wikipedia in particular, saying that he “cringe[s]” when other people “talk about the perils of using the Internet to do research”.  He further comments:

As a lawyer, I’m perfectly comfortable with conflicting information. The remedy for conflicting information is not to try to eliminate “flawed sources,” but to think critically about all sources of information that you encounter. In some areas, Wikipedia is superior to traditional sources.

He then describes how Wikipedia can be superior to print sources, providing more information, in a more detailed manner, than any print source could.

Ernie’s right–not only should lawyers be confortable with conflicting information, but all Americans should be.  The Framers created the First Amendment right to free speech because they believed that, rather than having the government (or private individuals, through lawsuits) regulate speech to publish only “true” words, we have more speech, a “marketplace of ideas,” where the public reviews all the speech and discerns the best ideas and the truest facts.

Perhaps some fears lie with the perceived lack of responsibility that a wikipedia author (wikiier?) has for the post. If the Encyclopedia Brittanica publishes enough uncorroborated articles, no one will buy its encyclopedias.  If news networks report false information, people will no longer trust them and stop watching (well, there are a few exceptions to every rule), leading to a decline in advertising revenue.  A wikiier has no direct, financial incentive to be trustworthy, and therefore her material must not be trustworthy.

But here comes that tricky marketplace of ideas.  More speech trumps incomplete speech.  A wikiier’s posting that trashes  or hijacks an entry will often be quickly replaced by zealous editors.  New information gets updated quickly, from a variety of sources.  And Wikipedia has put in place some common sense rules to protect controversial entries and allow users to contest the reliability of articles.

In the trademark world, Internet evience, properly authenticated, has been acceptable evidence for a variety of claims at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.  The USPTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board recognized the validty of Wikipedia evidence in determining that an applied for trademark was descriptive and thus not immediately registrable.  And Wikipedia has been relied upon well over 100 times in judicial opinions.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Is Wikipedia an acceptable substitute for a high schooler’s digging in books, online databases, or other sources for a research paper? Can it be a present-day “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the “the standard repository for all knowledge and wisdom”? Of course not.  Is Internet research here to stay, and can it be a valid, and even important part of any research reportorie? You betcha.

But for now, Don’t Panic. The Framers didn’t when they enacted the First Amendment, even if that meant that some people would say or print some mean or potentially untrue things  We don’t have to now.

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