Wikipedia editing controls spell end to famously open system


A PLAN by Wikipedia to place new restrictions on its open editing system, which lets anyone make changes to its articles, highlights the difficulty the online encyclopedia has had in maintaining a balance between openness and preventing abuse, writes RICHARD WATERSin San Francisco

The changes, which will focus in particular on items about living people, are designed to protect the “high-profile people who have always been a target for pranksters and vandalism” on the site, says Jimmy Wales, a founder of the collective reference work, which is among the world’s 10 most visited websites.

Limiting the ability to make changes on the site, even if only in certain circumstances, marks a rare admission by Wikipedia that its famously open system needs more controls to maintain quality and prevent abuse.

However, Wales says the site will set a “very, very low threshold to entry” for anyone who wants editing privileges.

“We’re looking at anybody who has been around a very short period of time [on the site] and hasn’t been blocked,” he says, a number that could top 100,000, based on the number of people who are already frequent editors of the site.

Under Wikipedia’s existing system, anyone can make a change to an article on the site instantly, leading to the defacing of pages on controversial subjects and wars between rival interest groups who constantly edit and re-edit articles to project their point of view.

As a result, Wikipedia has “locked” several thousand pages, such as those for US president Barack Obama, limiting updates to a small number of volunteer administrators on the site.

The new, minimalist editing process will allow Wikipedia to open these locked pages again to a wide range of people to make changes and so represents more of a relaxation of the controls on the site than any greater level of restriction, says Wales.

However, the editing limits will be placed on all articles about living people and Wikipedia could not rule out extending the arrangements eventually to all three million of its articles.

The German-language version of the site already restricts editing on all of its articles.

“It’s been one of the sorest points, how the site has played fast and loose with people’s reputations,” says Larry Sanger, a Wikipedia co-founder who left to set up a rival online encyclopedia with more controls over its contributors, called Citizendium.

“It’s nice to see they’re doing more – but one has to ask if this will make much difference at all.”

Sanger adds that while the changes would probably prevent casual vandalism of articles, “it’s going to be fairly easy to get around these barriers if someone really wants to start a rumour” about a famous person. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009