THE VENERABLE NEWSMAN John Seigenthaler had it about right when he explained last weekend why he decided not to take legal action against a rogue Internet user who had posted defamatory -- and false -- claims about him in the popular open-source research tool, Wikipedia. ''I still believe in free expression," Seigenthaler said. ''What I want is accountability."
Seigenthaler has been badly maligned by charges added to the Wikipedia entry about him, saying that he ''was thought to have been directly involved" in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. The 78-year-old former editor of the Nashville Tennessean, who has won numerous awards for courage in publishing, was a pallbearer at RFK's funeral.
On Friday the man who posted the addendum, Brian Chase, confessed -- once he realized his identity was about to be unveiled by a cyber-sleuth -- claiming it all was a prank. Seigenthaler's response was more principled than Chase had any right to expect, sticking to his First Amendment principles but calling on Wikipedia to do a better job policing its own content.
The incident touched off the always-simmering debate over the limits, if any, of material posted on the Web. Champions of a freewheeling Internet often claim that it is self-correcting, since hundreds of ''editors," or readers, visit websites and will catch errors. But the slander against Seigenthaler sat on the Wikipedia site for four months.
Other supporters say the Web is more transparent than other anonymous sources, because postings can be traced -- with enough diligence or with a subpoena. The very fact that an Internet watchdog was able to track Chase's electronic fingerprints to his workplace shows the system is working, they claim. But Wikipedia seems to thrive on drive-by postings; its guidelines offer hints for how users can shield their identities, including avoiding company computers.
Wikipedia, a non-profit, all-volunteer effort, is a phenomenal success, with millions of listings in 82 languages. But its idealistic mission to be a ''global digital commons" is easily undercut by sloppy or unscrupulous contributors. Given its immense reach, a disclaimer notice and caveat emptor don't seem good enough.
One step in the right direction is Wikipedia's decision to require all of its contributors to register with the site. Another would be to give better play to ''editors" who are willing to sign their work.
Rather than holding Wikipedia or other sites liable for the actions of the unruly masses, which could chill the vigorous, free exchange the Internet should be, websites need to find ways to be more accountable. Even the global village needs to police its town common.