William Beutler on Wikipedia

Public Lives: Jim Hawkins and Wikipedia’s Privacy Dilemma

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on April 6, 2012 at 9:15 am by Rhiannon Ruff

Editor’s note: The author of this blog post is Rhiannon Ruff (User:Grisette), a friend and colleague, in what I hope is a continuing series. The Wikipedian published a previous guest blog post in December 2011.

Introduction to Jim Hawkins Wikipedia article.

As an occasional Wikipedian, I like to check out Jimmy Wales’ user Talk page every now and again; while user Talk pages are generally where editors leave messages for each other, notes of support, or even warnings, Jimbo Wales’ page is a hot-bed of intrigue, gossip and debate. It’s Wikipedia’s water cooler. And it’s the perfect place to go if you’re looking to find an example of the confusion that can result from the occasional collision of hot-headed editors, complex guidelines and individuals who are themselves the subjects of articles. Just today I came across a discussion that mentioned Jim Hawkins, a radio-presenter in the UK who has been struggling to deal with Wikipedia editors, and Jimmy himself, over privacy issues raised by his biographical article.

Contrary to what many people believe, the Wikipedia community and Wikimedia Foundation are very keen to protect individuals’ privacy. There’s a common misunderstanding that if you edit Wikipedia, anyone can find out who you are—an idea proliferated by media coverage of incidents where editors’ IP addresses were traced and companies outed for editing their own articles (or, worse, those of competitors). But there’s actually a simple solution: creating an account on the site hides your IP address when you edit. And as long as you only edit while logged into that account, there’s no way for anyone to find out who or where you are through your IP. There are also very strong rules against “outing” the real life identities of editors by posting their personal information on the site.

But what if you’re the subject of a Wikipedia article? Getting back to Jim Hawkins, here’s the real dilemma that people in the public eye are faced with: anyone can create an article about them, but how do they go about preventing their personal details from being included in it? Hawkins certainly wasn’t happy about the creation of an article about him, and he was even less impressed that it included details such as the county where he lives and his exact birthdate. He’s been trying to get the article deleted for five years now. Over time, his frustration in dealing with the Wikipedia community has led to increasing antagonism on both sides.

After a recent “edit war” where his birthdate was repeatedly added and removed, the date was removed once and for all after an official request was made on behalf of Hawkins. The edit was made in line with a privacy policy that allows subjects of biographical articles to request the removal of their date of birth from the site. But, the county remained and Hawkins continued to rail against the system on the article’s Talk page:

Why should the people who’ve been stalking, bullying and harassing me – and have been doing so again today! – have any say in what happens to the article?
Hooray for policies. Does common human decency come into this anywhere? Or am I going to get the same response I’ve had for five years, the borderline-fundamentalist ‘that’s not how Wikipedia works’?

In a lively discussion on Jimmy Wales’ User Talk page beginning on April 1, editors were divided over two issues:

  1. Should an individual who is on the cusp of notability (i.e. just about eligible for a Wikipedia article, according to guidelines) be allowed to choose whether or not they have an article?
  2. If personal information about a subject has been published in public sources, does it contravene Wikipedia’s privacy rules to include it in the article?

There’s no simple answer to either of these. The first one in particular is really rather tricky. It’s true that if an article about someone hasn’t been created, there’s nothing that says that it has to exist. If an article has been created, though, it isn’t clear whether there should be the option to delete if the subject isn’t very strongly notable. Wikipedians seem to fall into two roughly two camps on the issue: those with sympathy towards article subjects and those who are concerned with ensuring that information is available on Wikipedia, if sources exist to support it.

The main question that Hawkins raised was why there had to be an article about him, if he felt that it was unnecessary, inaccurate and infringed upon his privacy. At one point in discussion he asks:

Can I point out that the whole damn thing is an invasion of privacy?

And an experienced editor replies, summarising the crux of the issue here:

An invasion of privacy is, by definition, the release of private information. This information, however, is not private, but is stated by the subject in the very show he hosts.

So, the issue is: if information exists in the public sphere, why should it not be included in a Wikipedia article? The details are already out there, some editors argue, so adding it to a Wikipedia article can’t be infringing on the subject’s privacy as the information wasn’t private to begin with. The bright line that exists on Wikipedia is its governing principle of verifiability: information included in articles must always be verifiable, that is, they must be supported by reliable sources. So, if personal information about a subject isn’t supported by a reliable source—even if it’s true—it can’t be included. Unfortunately, as Hawkins has discovered, if the information does appear in a reliable source (in this case, in a local magazine and on the BBC website), whether it is included or not comes down largely to editors’ discretion.

In short, the lesson Jim Hawkins has learned the hard way is: if you don’t want something included in your Wikipedia article, make sure it isn’t published in the first place.

  1. How can publishing what county he’s in be an invasion of privacy when the radio station he broadcasts on everyday is named after the county? I don’t understand his beef.

  2. I agree, it’s a strange argument. Earlier today, I invited Hawkins via Twitter to write something up to post here. He said he’ll think about it.

  3. Hey, you quoted me. :D

    But, yeah, you summarized it pretty well. If he would just explain why he doesn’t want the information in the article, i’m sure he would have a much stronger case for its removal, if not outright deletion of the article (if it was a good reason).

    Though, his refusal to answer why seems to imply that his only reason is that he doesn’t like Wikipedia and nothing more than that.

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