A couple days ago on Twitter, I noticed Judge Stephen Dillard having a conversation with a few people about the validity of using Wikipedia as a reliable legal authority. I mentioned that I wrote about the topic back in 2011. But given the continued growth and reliance of the general public upon Wikipedia, I decided it was probably worth looking at again.
It must suck to teach middle school these days. Every student paper has got to be littered with factual citations to the crowdsourced compendium of human knowledge known as Wikipedia. Even if teachers barred students from citing Wikipedia, they just blatantly plagiarize the stuff anyway. Wikipedia is basically the using song lyrics for “write a poem” of the modern era.
Sometimes prestigious law professors may act just like middle schoolers. Cramming to turn in his expert report, one T14 professor allegedly decided to go ahead and spice it up with plagiarized Wikipedia analysis. Indeed, parts of 13 pages of the 19-page report might have been lifted from the website that once explained that “Plato was an ancient Hawaiian weather man and surfer, writer of cosmo girls and founder of the punahou in Ancient Florida?”
When surveying an average law school class, among every other stereotypical type of law student — from the gunners right down to the kids you didn’t know were in the class until they showed up for the final — you’ll typically see a nontraditional student, or, in less polite terms, an old fart. Almost every law school class has at least one of them, and they’re usually more than a bit annoying.
These mature law students tend to favor old-fashioned notebooks over laptops for note-taking during class, and they like to rub elbows with their professors, if only because they’re the same damn age. You may even hear a story or two about how one time, they had to walk uphill, both ways, IN THE SNOW, just to get to school. Ahh, memories — but in truth, most of their classmates would prefer that they just STFU about the good ol’ days.
So what happens when you’ve got an older law student in your midst who also happens to be a well-known author and technology journalist, complete with his very own Wikipedia page? Of course, the most logical course of action for budding lawyers would be to hack it….
SOPA is getting pwned. Yesterday, all the uber players with their epic gear hopped on Vent and raided the SOPA base, and now the newbie Congress people who sponsored the law are running scared. As we mentioned in Morning Docket, the sponsors of the Stop Online Piracy Act have “renounced” their law. The New York Times reports that Senators and Congresspeople are abandoning this thing like it was a campaign promise.
Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, all of the big internet corporations flexed their muscles — and oh, by the way, this is what it looks like when corporations use speech for speech, as opposed to pretending that anonymous corporate campaign contributions magically count as speech.
In the wake of this victory, here’s a question: Is this what we want? Yesterday, the internet used its power for good (though I fear the movie industry will strike back by making you watch full-length Kevin James movies before you can download the next Batman preview). But what if in the future “the internet” wants something bad, something that is more than the mere protection of freedom?
On Sex and the City, Samantha was never seen scrolling through comments on news blogs to make sure her clients’ reputations weren’t being maligned. Instead, she attended fancy New York parties and talked up her roster of good-looking clients.
But SATC is dated. The work of public relations professionals has been made harder (and less glamorous) by the explosion of online news sources. We know that law firm PR folks spend a healthy amount of time monitoring the legal blogosphere to do damage control for their firms. Another place they need to watch is Wikipedia.
The crowd-source encyclopedia has become the go-to reference site for most Internetters. Society’s sages often warn people not to take everything they find in Wikipedia at face value — since the information does not necessarily come from experts and is not systematically vetted — but that advice often goes unheeded.
Because Wikipedia is such an important source of information, and so easily edited, some try to manipulate entries to give them a positive or negative spin. Lawyers at certain firms have been found guilty of this before (e.g., Wachtell). Sometimes dueling manipulation of an entry reaches the level of what Wikipedia calls an edit war — when two or more editors are continually overriding one another’s changes.
The Wikipedia gods ordered an end to the war on the page of Latham & Watkins. BLY1 noticed that the page was put on lockdown. A note from the Wikipedia war god says:
NOTE: IF YOU HAVE COME HERE TO EDIT ABOUT LAYOFFS, THINK TWICE. EDITS MUST BE FACTUALLY VERIFIABLE, AND NEUTRAL. IF YOU ARE CONNECTED TO THIS COMPANY IN ANY WAY WE ADVISE YOU *NOT* TO TOUCH IT.
Someone kept inserting references to Latham’s layoffs and how hard hit first-year associates were. That info has now been scrubbed from the page.
We decided to take a stroll though the revision history of other law firm pages to see who needs to do clean up, and who has done clean up. Cravath, for example, had a very interesting description for a short time…
Over on AutoAdmit (via Concurring Opinions), folks have been talking about Wikiscanner. This neat application allows you to see recent edits to Wikipedia and who made them, in terms of the editor’s IP address (which often reveals their employer).
As Professor Dave Hoffman notes at Concurring Opinions, law firm lawyers seem to love playing with Wikipedia. A tipster is more specific:
Apparently members of Vault 15 law firms have been making, umm, questionable edits to wikipedia. For example:
– Vandalizing Ann Coulter’s page – Shameless self-promotion – Editing articles on BDSM (WTF?) – Hiding links to Skull and Bones – Taking shots at Noam Chomsky – Taking shots at other firms
Eric Turkewitz, over at the NY Personal Injury Law Blog, zeroes in on edits made from computers at Wachtell Lipton (where we once worked). He accuses the firm of “duplicity,” since someone at WLRK is making (flattering) edits to the firm’s page, even though the firm claims it doesn’t engage in advertising or marketing.
But what if the edits were made not by Wachtell firm management, but by a mere associate? Would that be as problematic? Should Wachtell, or any other law firm, prohibit firm employees from touching up firm write-ups in Wikipedia (at least from law firm computers)?
With respect to the Wachtell Wikipedia edits, we have some interesting speculation. Check it out, after the jump.
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