Critical issues presentations/Privacy – a limit to “the sum of all knowledge”?

From Wikimania 2016 • Esino Lario, Italy
Presentation slides (PDF).
Submission no. 122
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Privacy – a limit to “the sum of all knowledge”?

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Policy, Projects


Wikipedia, community rules, privacy, right of personality, law, Google Spain, right to be forgotten, Europe


The right to privacy places limits on “the sum of all knowledge” – and Wikipedians keep ignoring it. This talk will address the issue and explain why Wikipedians have to change their approach towards privacy.

Over the years, Wikipedians have built remarkable expertise in the field of copyright law. The community’s desire to respect copyright is even embodied in one of its core rules (‘Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute’). The principle of privacy, however, is only considered as far as the users’ own inviolable privacy is concerned – the privacy of others is completely ignored, in these rules and beyond.

Yet with its enormous reach, the Wikipedia community has to accept that it cannot simply report everything about everybody, with relevance as the only limiting factor. Biographies, for example, should distinguish between information from a person’s public sphere and personal information that is invasive and should thus not be published in an article that is freely accessible on the web.

A closer look reveals that the issue has its roots in two cultural gaps. First, we have divergent understandings of expression and privacy on each side of the Atlantic. The United States is a country where freedom of expression is of paramount importance, taking precedence over privacy; the European tradition, meanwhile, attaches more importance to the individual, including the right to privacy.

Second, and more importantly, we have the Wikipedia community as a whole facing the rest of society. Wikipedians, in the end, are idealists. Following their vision to make the sum of all knowledge accessible to every person on the planet, they collect and share information about nearly every subject imaginable. This ideal – rooted in French enlightenment philosophy, after all – gives Wikipedians a strong belief in their role as providers of an unfettered access to information.

When discussing a person’s life in a Wikipedia article, however, it is not enough to be "on the good side." Not every bit of personal information that is deemed relevant for Wikipedia and that can be adequately sourced is of such importance for the public interest that it outweighs a person’s right to privacy.

As a community, we need more and better rules with regards to privacy. Drafting such rules is tough, though; they are all about balancing different principles and not so much about bright lines that can be easily understood and followed. This is why we need a broader discussion within the community about privacy law and privacy awareness.

This talk will discuss Wikipedia’s current shortcomings in the area of privacy, the legal aspects – including the European Court of Justice’s “Google Spain” decision on the so-called right to be forgotten – and the relevant community rules and procedures. The talk is aimed at community members with an interest in privacy, OTRS team members, and everyone interested in writing Wikipedia articles.



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