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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

USA - State Workers Massage Wikipedia Entries

State Workers Massage Wikipedia Entries
By Adam Wilson
The Olympian
08/28/07 10:47 AM PT
A semi-public site, Wikipedia has been news before when political enemies try to add or delete information on each other. However, this week it became a national story again through an independent site, WikiScanner. WikiScanner allows people to look up the computers behind nameless changes, for instance revealing Wal-Mart terminals used to delete information on the wages paid to its employees.
In Digital Dialogue: Technology, Capitalism, and the Pursuit of Freedom, Sonia Arrison distills the most pressing tech issues of the day into provocative essays. To purchase a copy of the book, visit Pacific Research Institute.
Turns out Washington state workers are online fact checkers, using their expertise in everything from professional wrestling to ocean acidity to tinker with the popular Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia .
Thanks to their efforts, readers across the globe may be coaxed to link the prominent Seattle law firm Preston Gates Ellis to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramhoff. They might find the date of Mount Rainier's earliest eruption.
They wouldn't read anything about a sexual harassment lawsuit against state Sen. Chris Marr because someone in the Legislative Services Center deleted that part of his entry -- but someone else added it back.
The Names Behind the Changes
A semi-public site, Wikipedia has been news before when political enemies try to add or delete information on each other. However, this week it became a national story again through an independent site, WikiScanner.
WikiScanner allows people to look up the computers behind nameless changes, for instance revealing Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) terminals used to delete information on the wages paid to its employees.
WikiScanner is the work of California graduate student Virgil Griffith.
Washington state computers in the Olympia, Wash., area have been used to make 531 changes to Wikipedia, according to The Olympian's analysis of WikiScanner's database. State workers can be fined or even fired for using government computers to do personal business. However, Susan Harris, director of the state Executive Ethics Board, said previous cases have shown some minor Web surfing is OK.
"An occasional e-mail, a quick visit to a Web site, as long as there's no commercial use," she said. "If it's related to their work, there's no problem whatsoever."
There have been no complaints filed over a Wikipedia entry, Harris added.
Using state computers to conduct outside business -- to support a political campaign or candidate or to look at pornographic sites -- results in punishment, she said.
Posting Info, Fact Checking
The largest number of changes, 70, came from Department of Ecology computers. Workers there mainly added links to data on everything from "solar azimuth angle" to state efforts in Seattle's Gas Works Park.
"With more people using public bulletin boards like this to post information -- and to check for facts -- we recognize there are valid reasons for our scientific and technical experts to use and monitor the Web as it relates to our work and mission," agency spokesperson Dave Workman said via e-mail.
He called defining the appropriate amount of Web use an "ongoing job" for most employers.
Many of the changes made by state workers appear to be within their field of expertise. State Historical Society computers were used to edit the entry on the Washington State History Museum, for example.
Controversial Changes
However, even technical changes could be controversial. A Department of Health worker apparently deleted an entry that stated high doses of fluoride can be fatal and replaced it with information on children who develop fluoride spots on their teeth.
There were blatantly political changes: Several edits of Abramoff's entry were made from Department of Information System's computers, and two changes to the page of possible candidate for governor Dino Rossi were made from the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development.
Other subjects were more obscure: Capital High School, heavy metal rocker Glenn Danzig, the knuckleball pitch in baseball, trivia on the "WCW Monday Nitro" wrestling show and Star Wars movie character R2-D2, for starters.
Those changes account for only a part of the Wikipedia editing done at public computers. A search for changes made from Washington government agencies resulted in a list of more than 150 schools, counties and fire districts statewide.
Because of its newfound popularity, WikiScanner has limited the amount of returns it will provide, according to a note on the site from Griffith.
"Once the media frenzy dies down, I'll take the cap off."

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