Right to Privacy for Criminals on Wikipedia?

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By Minara El-Rahman on November 16, 2009 9:15 AM

Wikipedia's charitable donor has been sued by two German men. They claim that the online encyclopedia's description of their involvement in the murder of a German actor back in 1990 violates their right to privacy.

This case is crucial because it covers so many different aspects of law, from freedom of speech to privacy with regards to criminal law. In fact, in Germany there are rules against mentioning crimes after a certain amount of time has passed.

The two men, Wolfgang Werlé and Manfred Lauber have managed to be successful in removing mention of their crime in German media and information outlets, but are now attempting to do the same with an American outlet.

Their lawyer told the New York Times, "They should be able to go on and be resocialized, and lead a life without being publicly stigmatized" for their crime. "A criminal has a right to privacy, too, and a right to be left alone."

The German men feel that the Wikipedia article that mentions their crime violates their right to privacy.

However, this brings up many issues with the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The Electronic Frontier Foundation issued a bulletin on the case quoting Orson Welles: "he who controls the past, controls the future."

EFF is afraid that this case will open a Pandora's box of censorship: "At stake is the integrity of history itself. If all publications have to abide by the censorship laws of any and every jurisdiction just because they are accessible over the global internet, then we will not be able to believe what we read, whether about Falun Gong (censored by China), the Thai king (censored under lèse majesté) or German murders. Wikipedia appears ready to fight for write once, read anywhere history, and EFF will be watching this fight closely."

It will be interesting to see what happens. Most American lawyers are confident that the case will be dismissed because it falls squarely under right to freedom of speech. Once you start limiting one aspect of speech, it becomes easier to limit other aspects. And that is something that U.S. courts try to avoid.

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