The Perils of Wiki PR
Forbes, Andy Greenberg 08.15.07, 7:21 PM ET
The military contractor Raytheon (nyse: RTN - news - people ) would probably like to erase a few controversies in its past, like the disappointing performance of its Patriot Missile in the first Iraq War, or an espionage lawsuit from a competitor in 1996. And according to Wikipedia's records, someone there has tried.
In October of 2005, a computer user on Raytheon's network edited an article about the company on Wikipedia's open-source encyclopedia, deleting all information about the Patriot Missile's performance in the war, a lawsuit from competitor AGES, as well as paragraphs describing a $910,000 fine for illegally obtaining classified military documents and a $4 million penalty for inflating a government contract.
The Raytheon editor is just one of several caught sanitizing corporate histories or smearing rivals since Virgil Griffith, a graduate student at Caltech, released a Web tool capable of tracking the source of changes on Wikipedia. Griffith's WikiScanner links publicly available data tracking the IP addresses of Wikipedia's anonymous editors with a registry of companies' IP addresses, allowing users to search for all the Wikipedia changes made from any company.
"It was dead easy," says Grffith. "I just combined two databases and--poof--you have these public relations disasters."
Another company where purging of Wikipedia information occurred is Diebold (nyse: DBD - news - people ). Criticisms regarding the security of its voting machines were deleted by a user at its IP address. Similarly, someone on a Dow Chemical (nyse: DOW - news - people ) computer deleted details of the company's development of birth defect-inducing Agent Orange and the continuing controversy around the Bhopal disaster, in which Union Carbide, a firm that Dow later acquired, was responsible for the death of as many as 22,000 Indians.
Some edits were plain sophomoric. Someone at the BBC, for instance, changed George W. Bush's middle name from "Walker" to "Wanker." From Apple (nasdaq: AAPL - news - people ) came the redefinition of the verb "to google" as a profane sexual act.
Neither Raytheon nor Diebold immediately returned requests for comment.
Griffith's WikiScanner gets no closer to pinpointing who made a particular change than it being someone on a company's computer network, let alone if he or she were linked directly to management.
"We can't say exactly what happened on Dow computers," says Chris Huntley, Dow's head of media relations. "There is a possibility that people see things that they think are wrong and make changes to them. As far as an action by our organization, we've never done anything like that."
But the cases illustrate a real struggle to control reputations on the Web, as well as the public relations gaffes that result from failed attempts to hide controversy. Wired.com has already posted a page of user-generated links to the most scandalous instances of editing and vandalism revealed by WikiScanner.
"Wikipedia has always been a truth tool," says Michael Fertik, founder of the online PR firm Reputation Defender. He argues that companies should have known better than blatantly to skew information on a site that tracks IP addresses and closely monitors articles for spin.
"It's our policy never to delete anything from Wikipedia," Fertik says. "People have been aware for a long time about who's doing what on the site, and changes are observed very closely. If you get in the business of deleting this or that, you can easily get in a flame war with the whole community."
If companies do continue to police their wiki-reputation, Fertik says, they'll most likely start using third-party IP addresses to mask changes. Proxy server programs like Tor and Psiphon could also mask the source of changes on the site.
Now that Wikipedia's anonymity has been compromised, corporations will likely control their employee's behavior on the site to avoid future gaffes. "We have 43,000 employees with Internet access," says Dow Chemical's Huntley. "We've never regulated them on what they may do in terms of making changes to Wikipedia's entries. But in the light of what's happened, it's certainly something that we're reviewing."
Wikipedia's lack of anonymity comes as no surprise to Matt Zimmerman, a privacy-focused attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Wikipedia has always made it clear that it tracks IP addresses," he says. "This should just remind people that they need to pay attention to the electronic footprints that they leave behind."
As for the future of corporate meddling on Wikipedia, Zimmerman says it won't be long before public relations executives learn to hide their tracks with anonymity tools. "But in any case, it's interesting to see what's been going on before everyone realizes they're being watched," he says. "It's a chance to lift up the rock to see what's crawling around underneath."
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