What does it mean when somebody is defamed? German Edition

In Germany, when someone provides evidence that published info about them is false and it’s hurting their reputation, the courts want to restore the harm done to their honor. So, their rule is that the info should be removed completely. I.e. in a way that the public can’t find out about it (part of the right to be forgotten).

Recently, the community and the Foundation received a request to remove some accusations of criminal conduct from the representative of a religious scholar who lives in Germany. And you know what? The request was right. The article about the scholar didn’t have the sources to support the accusations. The one source that could be found had already been sued by the scholar and had lost. His representative provided the community with court judgment ruling that the source had defamed him with false accusations. So, the community reviewed the article and took out those accusations just as he asked because they weren’t supported by reliable sources and the article didn’t follow the Biography of Living Persons policy.

So everybody is happy, Wikipedia is more accurate, case closed, right? Well, not quite. A couple months later, the scholar came back, this time skipping the polite requests and presenting the Foundation with a German court order. His concern was that even though the article was changed (and the community had even oversighted some of the historical edits), there was still a discussion page on the article where the topic of the accusations, the source, and what to do about it had been debated. The scholar didn’t want those discussions visible because members of the public could still find out about the accusations against him, even though they had been proved false.

This case brings up a key difference in how different countries think about the idea of defamation. In the United States, fixing defamation means offering some money and perhaps a retraction to make up for the harm that has been done, but it doesn’t mean that historical articles have to be deleted or archives erased.

In Germany (and many other countries around the world), fixing the problem seems to mean making sure that the false information can no longer be found. The German rules want to not only make up for the harm done, but to ensure to the extent possible that no further harm can be done, even if that interferes with other operations like archives and historical discussions (right to be forgotten).

Now, the end of this story is that the German oversighters were willing to hide the discussion pages when we let them know about the court order, and we’re in the process of resolving the case since there’s no longer anything on Wikipedia that defames the scholar. And we’re happy that different languages of Wikipedia can set different policies around things like article and discussion oversight that match the preferences of the people who speak each language. 

This case does raise some bigger questions for Wikipedia though. When should archival versions of articles and discussions be preserved and when should they be hidden? If the volunteers who speak a language decide that a particular discussion or old version of an article is important to preserve (perhaps to help prevent issues from being reopened and reargued in the future, perhaps to show how an important topic evolved over time) what options do they have for preservation? Should the countries of the world be trying to make the rules around defamation more uniform, or is it a good thing that different people in different places have different standards for what you can say about them?

We plan to continue watching for these types of cases, and to look for ways to improve the rules around the world to allow Wikipedia to act as an effective source of free knowledge, including keeping an archive of how that knowledge was created and evolved over time.


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