Privacy Commission Day 6, Witness 2: Jimmy Wales


The PM Privacy Commission spoke to Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia on Thursday June 30, 2011. The commissioners are Sir Michael Lyons, Lord Faulks QC and Baroness Liddell.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Please note the PM programme, BBC Radio 4, must be credited if any part of these transcripts are used.

NB: This transcript was typed from an audio recording. The views expressed by the witness are their own.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for their accuracy.


ML: Well our next witness takes us into the discussion of the role of new media in this debate on how we strike the right balance between the interests of the individual in protecting their own privacy and the rights to free expression from the press. We have with us now Jimmy Wales who is the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy thank you for coming to join us.

JW: Thank you for having me.

ML: Thanks. Would you like to start by introducing your take on this debate?

JW: Yeah, so of course as, generally people know, Wikipedia is written by thousands of volunteers in many languages from all around the world and we don't regard ourselves as a platform for open or free expression, we're not like Twitter or Facebook in that regard. We want in the encyclopaedia to publish only reliable information that's confirmed in reliable third-party sources but what's interesting about this is that in the process of writing Wikipedia which we do publicly in an open....the editors need to have open and frank discussions about whether something has been verified or not, whether something is sufficiently confirmed to go in Wikipedia. Therefore in the recent situation with all of the very famous super-injunction rumours on Twitter, later confirmed in overseas press. It was difficult for many of our contributors because they were concerned about whether they could openly discuss things. For me one of the interesting things about this question of freedom of speech versus rights to privacy is that all the kinds of laws that we have in place around this were 50 years ago essentially industrial regulations, they were regulations on large businesses and organisations because ordinary people didn't have a platform for publishing or for discussing in a way that millions of people might see. Today, the impact on the freedom of speech is not just on the freedom of speech of the press but of ordinary people and I think that's very important and does push us to re-evaluate how we handle these things.

ML: Jimmy, you immediately raised the issue about standards there didn't you? Standards of accuracy. And during the short life of Wikipedia that's been a big debate about ensuring the accuracy of material. Can I ask you to say a little bit more about that and perhaps particularly to focus also whether there's scope here for people with malicious intent to use social media to do things which they would, you know, which the law would prohibit normally from doing.

JW: Well certainly within the scope of Wikipedia the question of quality is always at the forefront of everyone's mind as it should be. Within the Wikipedia community there's a great passion to seek the highest possible quality and sometimes we hit it and sometimes we don't and I think almost any publication would have to say the same thing if they're honest. I do think that within the Wikipedia context, it's quite difficult to use Wikipedia for malicious purposes other than for a few minutes at a time. In this particular case of the recent super injunctions; when it was just rumours on Twitter, the community decided that Wikipedia shouldn't cover it because it hadn't been confirmed anywhere and I think that's good. In terms of the broader question of social media, there's no question of course people are able to use their ability to speak for good or for ill and that's part of the price of having the tools to free expression. I think it's a very low price to pay though for all the benefit that we get from it.

ML: But let me focus for a moment on what we might call the victim of that. I mean you rather, expressed yourself in rather strong language when talking about the current privacy laws which I think you said were a human rights violation. Is that, is that really what you said?

JW: Yes, that's right I think it is a human rights violation. I think that when we have people in the public eye who are subject of some questions of some scandal or what have you that the right of ordinary people to discuss that openly is fundamental. I think it's key to what it means to live in an open society and a democratic society and it's very problematic when we realise that a law which forbids speaking certain facts true facts even when it impinges on the rights of ordinary people to talk to their friends, that something's gone very horribly wrong there. I think it was always wrong, always wrong to restrict the press from this type of thing but it's even more wrong today as we realise it affects all of us in our day-to-day lives.

ML: But as I listen to you, I'm left with the impression that you, that nothing is private in your view?

JW: Well I think the place to look at this is...how is the information obtained and how did the information become public in the first place. Certainly if, you know, the information is obtained through the invasion of someone's home with wire taps, with digging through someone's garbage and reconstructing shredded documents where it's truly harassment and truly invasion, stolen documents from a company that kind of thing. At that point where the information is stolen I think is where we should focus our attention. If on the other hand, it's just something embarrassing that someone did in public or has become public through some legitimate route no one stole the information they just talked about the truth as they saw it. I don't see how we can reasonably stop people from doing that.

ML: Helen.

HL: I'm a bit concerned about the quality assurance on accuracy. We've an expression here I don't know if it's used in the United States that a lie will go round the world before the truth has got its boots on and it is easy, you know, I've looked up people on Wikipedia and I've seen things that I know not to be true. It's quite easy to contort a story and that can be done for malicious purposes. How can you give any sort of quality assurance guarantee that the, the secondary victims in some of these cases are not being maligned? One case, we've taken evidence from a lady who was involved with one of the footballers that was the subject of a super injunction and she was an innocent victim in all this but her life has been exposed to scrutiny. She's not got the wealth of a multi millionaire footballer. How do you protect her?

JW: Well I think it's a difficult, it's a difficult question. Whenever people are inadvertently placed into the public eye through no fault of their own, it's always problematic and I don't think that there's anything the law can really do about that. Certainly not at a price that we should be willing to pay in terms of freedom of expression and the ability to look into things - I do think that there's a certain sense of responsibility that people should have in the media to follow up and correct things that are wrong, to not name people in certain cases if they're not personally involved in the story in any meaningful way but I don't see a role for the law in that because it becomes a very clumsy instrument which might lead to consequences that are much worse than what we're trying to prevent.

HL: You became very exercised about Wikileaks. Tell us a little bit about your view of Wikileaks.

JW: So I have mixed views about Wikileaks, certainly I believe in a free society, when people have evidence of wrongdoing there should be avenues for them to come forward but it's not as if we were lacking that anyway. Certainly there's always been the ability for someone who has a confidential document which reveals wrongdoing to take it to any number of legitimate news outlets. The concerns that I would have about Wikileaks -- and here I mainly am echoing the concerns of Amnesty International and Reporters without Borders -- is the potential harm if they release documents that could basically put innocent people in danger, I think that is a matter of responsibility on the part of the Wikileaks organisation that I think they've taken up to a certain extent although I think we're all a bit nervous of them but I think it's important to understand, I think this is really key that the phenomena of Wikileaks is really, purely as brand name phenomena and he's made a very famous name for himself such that he's able to get press attention and so forth but the actual underlying facts of reality that lead to Wikileaks as a phenomenon are with us no matter what the ability of anyone who has a USB stick, memory stick with documents. If you want to release them on the internet you can do it whether Wikileaks exists or not. There's a thousand different avenues for people anonymously to publish documents all around the world so as we think about Wikileaks and we say is this particular organisation responsible or irresponsible -- all very interesting questions -- I think we also have to keep in mind that the underlying phenomenon is here with us to stay, there's nothing to be done about it, because the only possibility is to close the internet which isn't going to happen.

HL: What about innocent victims who are traduced by some stories that appear from whatever kind of direction, how do they get some kind of protection or compensation for being traduced on the internet?

JW; Well I think we have to look at very specific cases because there are many, many possibilities of what kind of harm that may happen.

HL: Maybe children of famous people?

JW: So children of famous people and its revealed their parents have been up to something the public doesn't approve of, I don't think there's anything to do about that certainly if your father's a footballer and has been having an affair on the side and it's suddenly slapped across all the newspapers, your schoolmates are going to find out about it and I don't think it's viable to say well we should have a law which prohibits the publication of personal details of famous people I just don't think it's viable so I don't think there is much to be done in that case. It's very different if we're talking about a situation where you know someone's bank details have been stolen and released on the internet, those kind of things where it is a truly there's an actual crime involved, stealing information and causing harm with it.

HL: Relatives of... murder victims, how do you protect them?

JW: Relatives of....

HL: Murder victims...

JW: Murder victims, I'm not sure...protect them from what exactly?

HL: Well there's been a very big case here in Britain over the past week. The family of a young girl who was murdered Milly Dowler and the personal details of the family details, the father and so on who are completely innocent have appeared both in newspapers and on the internet causing enormous distress and a great deal of anger. How do you protect people like that who have no real experience of being in the public eye and no real need to be taken apart in the public eye.

JW: Well I don't think you can, I think that those are actually matters of legitimate public interest and so, you know as discomforting as that is to certain people you know the public has a right to know and I think that's very fundamental. I mean the one thing I would say is that I do think that as a matter of tradition and custom newspapers should give some thought to this kind of question to say rather than, than saying the persons name we should omit their name but even that you know it becomes, it becomes quite difficult because if we go down a path where we say actually you're not allowed to speak about certain things and certain crime cases we really cut off the avenue for the press and the public to investigate what's going on, to understand the legal system, to understand social problems because we end up with this censored view of the world that doesn't give us the full picture we need in order to make better decisions about policy, about how the law should be and things like that.

HL: So if someone's life is wrecked that's just tough luck?

JW: It might just be tough luck.....this is, it's a difficult thing but I also think that it's not actually wrecking people's lives. I mean I think the important thing is that the best answer to bad speech is more speech, that if in fact someone is an innocent victim in a situation we should have stories about that, say look this person here's how their life was impacted by this murder, they didn't do anything wrong but now these...this and that horrible thing has happened to them so that people can understand things.

HL: What about jurisdiction, this has been an issue here because a local authority in Britain has taken action in the United States. Have you any views on how legal redress could be sought.

JW: So I mean one of the interesting things about jurisdiction is that because the internet is fully global, fully open we end up in a situation where if, if freedom of speech is restricted in one country the speech will naturally move and take place on servers in other countries and just as a matter of simple fact in the United States due to existence of the First Amendment and the very strong tradition of the defence of the right of speech it's not even an option really for the United States - if the President and all of Congress decided they wanted to change US law to respect super injunctions in the UK it's impossible the Supreme Court would overturn it so in order to change that law in the US you would have to change the entire Supreme Court or have an amendment to the Constitution all of these things are basically impossible. So as a realistic matter certainly in the next several years I think we have to accept that the internet is not controllable in that way. So whatever legal remedies or legal processes we have in mind I think we have to understand that there's absolutely no possibility for a legal framework which would prevent people from announcing information on Twitter whether any government in the world be it China or the UK doesn't want that information being made public.

HL: Thank you.

ML: Jimmy do you distinguish between social media - the right of the citizen to have voice to have access to information - from the publishers, economic organisations that seek to make money out of the distribution of news and opinion.

JW: I think we can make, we can draw some distinctions in some cases but I think the, the distinctions are blurring all the time. You have people on Twitter who are just talking to their friends or may have a very large following. You have bloggers who are doing it just out of love of some topic, they love to talk about politics or footballers or whatever and some of them are in it to make money and some of them make a fair amount of money and we have traditional publishers so all of these things begin to blur together. I do think one very important distinction we need to make is a distinction between a platform that allows people to speak and an organisation that is speaking because without that distinction much of the internet becomes essentially impossible to sustain. If Wikipedia for example, if we as the organisation the Wikimedia Foundation which is the charity that runs Wikipedia, if we had to be held responsible, if we could be held responsible for every single thing that anyone does on the website, it would be very, very difficult for us to have an open platform. We would have to control everything from the top down and it would basically make the entire miracle that is Wikipedia, an impossibility. It's important that we proceed thoughtfully about these sort of things. I think there's no problem with saying that just as the owner of a pub is not responsible for every comment that's made in the pub, they may have certain responsibilities to deal with people who've had too much to drink or who appear to be becoming violent, it's not that they have complete carte blanche to do what they want. But at the same time we do recognise that people who are hosting the conversation are not the people who are making that conversation.

ML: And indeed that seems to take us back to some of your opening comments really about you've for your own purposes taken steps to improve the accuracy of Wikipedia. Maybe, I think, it suggests there might be steps to be taken further in the future to avoid the platform being used inappropriately.

JW: Yeah I think that's right. I mean one of the interesting things about Facebook for example and this is speaking not so much in terms of publication of private information necessarily but cyber bullying and other kinds of problems is that Facebook allows you to block people quite easily and this leads us almost automatically almost to a higher standard of behaviour on Facebook. If somebody's being obnoxious other people start to block them and they're not heard anymore. That's very much on a peer to peer level you know individual people being annoying to other individual people. But I do think that it's worth thinking about for all internet platforms. What are the steps you can take to reduce abuse? You know, in Wikipedia we, we block people who are misbehaving we delete - sometimes permanently delete comments that are inappropriate, libellous this sort of thing. I think those kind of steps are important. At the same time I am reluctant to endorse anything like a view that publishing information that is true about famous people is a form of abuse that should be curbed. I think that, that takes us down a very, very difficult sort of route that is problematic.

ML: Even if there might be threats of blackmail lying behind the release of the information.

JW: Yeah, because I think in that case, the threats of blackmail are what need to be dealt with directly. The fact that free speech allows people to share information is, is not the problem. The problem is whatever crime is behind the information being released in the first place.

ML: Jimmy, I suspect we could have taken this conversation on for a lot longer. We are constrained in time today I know. Can I give you the opportunity to...if you'd like to speak directly to the listeners on this issue of the balance between rights of the individual and rights of free speech?

JW: Well, I guess the main thing I would say to the listener is to recognise that this debate is not an abstract debate that you know many of the debates we may hear about I don't know bank regulation or something like this, it impacts our lives but in a fairly abstract way we don't personally run into it. But these days with the availability of many, many different ways of people participating in the public dialogue these kinds of questions apply to you personally and directly. What we're talking about is not what should the Daily Mail do, or what should the Guardian do, or what should the government do about the Daily Mail or the Guardian, we're also talking about what should the government do about you speaking on Facebook to your friends and because both of those things are all part of a spectrum of communication we have to be very, very careful as we think about these issues not to say oh well I hate the Daily Mail they seem so irresponsible publishing trash all the time or whichever paper you decide that you don't like because we're also concerned about what we can say and when we can say it and I think those are very critical issues.

ML: Thank you very much.

BBC iD

Sign in

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.