Wikipedia exists because of people like you – creators, editors, translators, advocates of free knowledge. But Wikipedia does not exist in a vacuum. Wikipedia’s survival relies on legal infrastructure and regulations around the world that allow it to be the open forum that it is today, one that is created and curated by a global community of 80,000 active monthly contributors.
From time to time, the Wikimedia Foundation’s ability to provide a safe place for the Wikimedia projects to thrive is challenged by lawsuits stemming from discontent about the content appearing on the projects. On January 30, 2013, the Wikimedia Foundation was served with a lawsuit by Mr. Cesare Previti, a former Italian Minister of Defense during Mr. Silvio Berlusconi’s term as Prime Minister. Mr. Previti claimed the Italian-language Wikipedia article “Cesare Previti,” — which he characterized as “pseudo-journalistic gossip fed by totally unreliable people” — contained inaccurate and defamatory statements.
Mr. Previti believed that the Wikimedia Foundation should be liable under Italian law for providing a place for allegedly defamatory content to exist. On June 20, 2013, the Civil Court of Rome disagreed with Mr. Previti, finding that, under Italian law, the Wikimedia Foundation is a hosting provider, rather than a content provider, and therefore could not be liable for content drafted by individual users.
Two of the factors the Court considered in coming to this conclusion were whether the Wikimedia Foundation is clear about its role in the creation of content and whether there are procedures by which a person could address possible errors in the content. The Court recognized that the Wikimedia Foundation is very clear about its role as a hosting provider and concluded that Wikimedia “offer[s] a service precisely structured around the users’ freedom to compile the encyclopedia entries.” The Court further found that the Wikimedia Foundation is explicit about the fact that, due to the open and fluid nature of the projects, it cannot guarantee the accuracy of the content found on Wikipedia.
Because the community of Wikipedia editors, rather than the Wikimedia Foundation, takes the lead in the creation and management of content, the Court also examined whether Mr. Previti had methods to address potential inaccuracies in Wikipedia content. The Court noted that Wikipedia is open for all to edit and that one could identify and address potential inaccuracies through community review processes. These processes — created and implemented by the community and driven by consensus — were an important factor in the Court’s decision and would not be possible without the community’s dedication and support.
Therefore, the Court concluded that the role of the user community (rather than the Wikimedia Foundation) in the creation of content balanced by the ability of Mr. Previti to address his concerns with the community directly relieved the Wikimedia Foundation of the duty to provide any guarantee of accuracy.
Open and collaborative forums, like Wikipedia, could not exist if the organizations that host them were legally (and frequently monetarily) liable for every alleged mistake that makes its way onto those forums. The ability to freely teach, learn and share depends upon having a place for knowledge to live and grow. Decisions like the one made by the Civil Court of Rome in this case help protect the viability of Wikipedia and thus, this decision is not just a victory for the Wikimedia Foundation, but to all who use the Wikimedia projects.
Legal Counsel,* Wikimedia Foundation
* Special thanks goes to our phenomenal Italian law firm, Hogan Lovells, especially Marco Berliri, Massimiliano Masnada, and Marta Staccioli, without whom this victory would not be possible.
- ↑ Complaint at 2-3 (English translation). Previti v. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Tribunale di Roma, n. 12261/2013.
- ↑“In the case in point, without Wikipedia the defamatory publication would not exist; in practice, Wikimedia, by providing to the material author of the piece of writing a place to disseminate it (thus turning it into a defamatory publication by virtue of the powerful means of communication used), put in place those conditions which have allowed the unlawful act to be performed.” (Emphasis in the original.) Complaint at 19 (English translation).
- ↑ This decision is immediately enforceable. However, Mr. Previti has thirty (30) days from the date of this decision to appeal. It should be noted that if Mr. Previti chooses to do so, the Wikimedia Foundation intends to fight the appeal to the best of its ability.
- ↑ “In the light of the detailed objections brought by the defence of the defendant, it is not demonstrated that, in managing Wikipedia’s encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation Inc. acts differently than a hosting provider, that is, a subject which solely hosts on its servers information provided by the users.” Decision at 6 (English translation). Previti v. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Tribunale di Roma, n. 12261/2013.
- ↑ “[The Wikimedia Foundation] created a webpage with a general Disclaimer, where the defendant itself provides some preliminary information, clearly stating the impossibility for the defendant to guarantee, in any way, the validity of the information published…”. Decision at 7 (English translation).. See also “The possibility for anyone to modify the encyclopaedia contents and to ask for their elimination”. Id.
- ↑“[The Wikimedia Foundation] created a webpage with a general Disclaimer, where the defendant itself provides some preliminary information, clearly stating the impossibility for the defendant to guarantee, in any way, the validity of the information published; It is, in fact, demonstrated that such general Disclaimer exists on the following webpage http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:General_disclaimer, where this notice can be found: ‘The structure of the project allows anyone with an Internet connection to alter its content. Please be advised that nothing found here has necessarily been reviewed by people with the expertise required to provide you with complete, accurate or reliable information. That is not to say that you will not find valuable and accurate information in Wikipedia; much of the time you will. However, Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found here. The content of any given article may recently have been changed, vandalized or altered by someone whose opinion does not correspond with the state of knowledge in the relevant fields.’ Such notice points out that the company offering the technologic platform for the online encyclopedia . . .”. Decision at 7 (English translation).
- ↑Decision at 7 (English translation).
- ↑See footnote n. 6.
- ↑“ . . . [The Wikimedia Foundation] offer[s] a service precisely structured around the users’ freedom to compile the encyclopedia entries. It is exactly such freedom that leaves out the duty to provide any guarantee, and that is balanced by the possibility for anyone to modify the encyclopedia contents and to ask for their elimination . . .”. Decision at 7 (English translation).