Wiki And Illegal Material

I have been thinking quite extensively about the WikiWikiWeb and WikiLikeThings for the past couple of days, and something occurred to me:

What is the deal with WikiAndIllegalMaterial?

Would Ward take the rap if someone were to post something against the laws of the country in which the server is housed? Or is there some security mechanism similar to that of Television and Newspaper Media, whereby they take no responsibility for the actual content itself, merely as a means to transfer.

I seem to remember a case a little back when someone complained that illegal content was being housed on AOL's servers. AOL of course stated that they had no control over the actual content.

I am wondering whether something similar would happen here, or whether one would just have to wait and see. In fact, have there been any cases like this on other mediums such as SlashDot?

Slashdot once had to remove a user comment after being threatened with legal action by the Church of Scientology. More details at

People would naturally delete the material, but I wonder what would happen if it went unnoticed until it was too late.

I wonder because Wiki is a medium based (largely) on trust. It is, of course, possible for anyone to abuse that trust. Would Ward be held responsible for that abuse?

I assume that he keeps logs and thus could point to the real culprit; still, what would the authorities say?

To the crux, therefore: does anyone actually know?

-- MatthewTheobalds

An interesting theoretical question. For all practical purposes, though, the material would last about 5 minutes before a RecentChangesJunkie found it and got rid of it.

Yes, it's worth noting that this is a real strength of Wiki and the WikiCommunity, compared to other media and communities. The weaknesses are perhaps more with knowing what to do with legal but boring, duplicate, badly expressed or OffTopic material. And most other net media do worse on each of these.

Wiki is self-policing. I've removed risky material in the past, and have known others do so. -- DaveSmith

I've thought of setting up my own Wiki to email each page-edit to me and other willing "moderators", who would normally take no action but would notice anything profane, etc., and remove it.

This idea seems inferior to simply checking RecentChanges on a regular basis.

I'm sorry - I still don't really understand all this. I'm very new to wiki, but I have to admit to entering a wiki site and changing stuff because I did not know what I was doing, and also because I could not see a lot of the material because it was written in Japanese, and my browser did not show it properly. I left a note that they should revert to previous versions if they wanted, but I don't know if they (who are "they" - is there some kind of supergod Wiki administrator?) can actually recover previous text. My intent was not to be a WikiVandal, but my behaviour probably had the same effect. How can this be avoided?

Also, it'd be a good idea for non English wikis to have warnings for English readers, in case anyone else makes the same mistake as I did.

-- DavidMartland
As an individual intending to start his own wiki, the original question does cause me serious concern... My wiki is likely to be low usage - I don't expect large numbers of friendly people to constantly review the change logs and I would like to avoid the overhead of me having to keep my beady eye on everything. But the topic area I am considering is fertile ground for people to begin mouthing off in nasty ways about certain topics. If material posted is defamatory or otherwise illegal, there are two questions:

  1. Exactly what type of text (I won't be allowing images) could be the basis of a complaint?
  2. Exactly what type of liability / legal implications would be held by the administrator of the site if a complaint were to be upheld?

I've no idea if these are the only categories or the best way to split things, but I think that text could arouse complaints for any of the following reasons:

There's one more, and I came here to find answer to this case. What if someone put copyrighted material on a wiki? In fact everything you find on a wiki could already be copyrighted.

Then the second part of my question is what type of liability would there be in each case...

I'd really appreciate any further info. While I like the thought of a Wiki being a self-policing community, I'm conscious of risks and would like to know what would happen if the actual police ever had to get involved.
One issue that has come up in other contexts is that if you do no editing based on objectionable content, you have some amount of defense - you can claim to be a "common carrier", and pass off the liability to the individuals who wrote the content. However, the moment you start editing for content, you lose that protection (the presumption is that you have the ability and will to remove illegal content, and fail to do so if the content remains). Wiki by its nature loses common carrier status, so I would think it's more open to this kind of problem.

I disagree with this statement that a wiki by its nature loses common carrier status - because it is freely editable by anyone. In this case, there is no "institutional editing" by the owner of the host site. Although anyone may edit the site - the owner of a wiki does not exercise editorial control over the content on the wiki. -- JimRobertson?

OK... thanks. That's useful, but...

What I think you're saying is that since everyone has the ability to edit, administrator included, then running a wiki does not constitute running a "common carrier". So it sounds like there is no defence of common carrier.

But there may be other defences?

Surely most explicit is (putting it simply) "I'm not the author." Does this have any merit?

Or maybe to claim that the wiki is not "publishing" those views...

I know there is a lot of history about publishers being taken to task for publishing unwholesome material, but has anything yet established that a wiki is a "publisher" or indeed established that they are not. HTTP is a request response format. You ask for something, you get something. No-one throws it out hard-printed to the masses in print format, you have to come and get it, and what's more, with a wiki if you don't like it you can change it. Try getting the NY Times to change an article you don't like, it's too late, it's been distributed already by the time you read it. Isn't that the point?

Don't sue us, change it.

Surely by saying that: "don't sue us, change it" you have made clear that the wiki is not a publishing medium, that the forum is not for propagating views, hard-printed out to the masses, that the message changes potentially every time you read it (every time someone reads it).

Think about suing an atom for its activities, it would plead Heisenberg's UncertaintyPrinciple.

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