Jimmy Wales Quietly Edits Wikipedia's New Edit Policy

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Phelan Ebanhack / ZUMA

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales

Late in August, Wikipedia announced that it was reining in its freewheeling ways. In several interviews, including many with TIME, officials at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that manages Wikipedia, explained that the user-edited online encyclopedia would soon impose restrictions on articles about living people. Under the new policy, anonymous Web editors would still be allowed to freely change biographical Wikipedia entries — but their changes would be made visible to readers only after an experienced Wikipedia volunteer had approved them. The plan, officials explained, would make the world's largest encyclopedia more accurate and fair, and would help prevent the high-profile hoaxes that have occasionally tarnished Wikipedia's reputation.

There's only one problem with the new policy: "It's just completely wrong," says Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's co-founder. Wales says that reports of Wikipedia's clampdown to prevent errors have themselves been in error. Wikipedia's ruling body of volunteers never decided to impose restrictions on all articles about living people. Instead, the site will adopt "flagged protection" — the new method for requiring editorial approval before changes to Wikipedia go up — for a small number of articles, most likely on a case-by-case basis.

The plan — still under development and, like everything else about Wikipedia, in flux — means that the online encyclopedia will undergo a far less momentous change than was previously reported. Wikipedia has long imposed tight controls on articles about boldface names — entries on Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Britney Spears, among roughly 3,000 others, are "semi-protected," meaning they can't be edited by anonymous surfers. Wales says that, at least initially, the new flagged-protection plan will probably apply to the same set of controversial articles, which are most prone to vandalism. But the vast majority of articles — even the ones about relatively famous people, like your average U.S. Senator or late-night talk-show host — would remain open to alteration by Web surfers.

In some ways, then, the new policy will make Wikipedia more open to anonymous contributions, not less. Not only will novices to the site still be able to edit most articles, they'll also be able to make changes to protected pages like Obama's; their changes will become visible only if approved by senior Wikipedians. Under the current rules, people new to Wikipedia are blocked from editing protected articles.

Why did news of what turned out to be non-existing restrictions spread around the Web? Blame Wikipedia's fractured organization. Policy decisions are made by a community of volunteers, and the foundation that runs the site isn't always aware of the specific rules that the group might adopt. When told about Wales' narrower view of the new policy, Jay Walsh, a spokesman for the nonprofit, was surprised. "This is the first I've heard of it," he said in an e-mail. Indeed, even the foundation's blog reported that the restrictions would apply broadly to all entries on living people. It has, like lots of things on Wikipedia, since been amended.

There's no small amount of irony in the fact that Wikipedia's efforts to reduce errors and misinformation have been clouded by misinformation. Or you might say that's par for the course: On the Web, we get to the truth in fits and starts — but eventually, as on Wikipedia, the real facts seep out.