Congressional staff actions prompt Wikipedia investigation

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Monday, January 30, 2006

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Edits by Massachusetts congressman Marty Meehan's staff on his Wikipedia article spurred a Lowell Sun story and a subsequent Wikipedia investigation of all Internet addresses assigned to the Congress of the United States.

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While edits from the Capitol are not generally news, the biographical article for Mr. Meehan was carefully edited, removing negative comments while expanding with content from the congressman's political flyer. The IP address which made these edits has an extensive editing history on Wikipedia, and has been repeatedly blocked in past months for article vandalism and violation of Wikipedia policies (Wikipedia's log of 143.231.249.141 being blocked from editing).

Wikipedia administrators, alerted to the Marty Meehan article edits, realized that many edits to politically-sensitive articles had been made from IP addresses assigned to the US Capitol building, and have begun an investigation into all edits from such addresses.

Editing history

Editing from U.S. House computers

At the center of the investigation are edits by the IP address 143.231.249.141, which is the proxy through which most of the U.S. House Internet traffic passes. Jon Brandt, spokesman for the Committee on House Administration confirmed House ownership of the IP [1]. An aide for Rep. Meehan made two edits to the article on Meehan's biography. The first was on July 18, 2005 and replaced the article with his official biography, which was biased towards Meehan. A later edit on December 27, 2005 removed text referring to Mr. Meehan's pledge to only run four terms, or 8 years.

Marty Meehan

The text that was removed said "He also ran on a platform of term limits. However, after serving four terms as US Congressman, the number of terms he pledged that he and no other congressman should serve out, he has since gone back on his word and now is adamently [sic] against the idea of term limits for Congressmen."

The text was replaced with: "His fiscally responsible voting record since then has earned him praise from citizen watchdog groups."

Congressman Meehan has served seven terms as Representative of his home state of Massachusetts.

Most of the edits from Capitol Hill IPs have not been harmful edits. Many edits have been made which were neutral, correcting factual, spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. A sampling of both positive and harmful edits to politically-related articles are included here.

The communications director for Rep. Joe Wilson took a different approach to editing Rep. Wilson's article. She contacted Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales, who advised that she supply a biography on the Wikipedia article's discussion page, rather than edit the article directly, for other Wikipedia editors to check and to incorporate into the article itself. After she added the official bio to Wilson's discussion page, Wikipedia editors used it and several other sources to expand the article substantially.

Further investigation

Following the reports of the edits from the House IP address, a so-called checkuser (a check of confidential information to determine the accounts used by staffers coming from that IP) was performed to determine what users logged-in with an account edited from the House IP address, and the edits made by all of those users were checked as well. They all showed little bias and no vandalism. [2]

Editing from Senate computers

Unlike the U.S. House, computers from the U.S. Senate are assigned individual IP addresses. To identify possible vandals, the edit history for all senators was checked, and a list of 25 addresses was extracted. While some had good faith edits, others showed unacceptable behaviour.

The entire 156.33.x.x netblock is for Senate use only [3]

Senator pages edited

The following is a partial list of U.S. Senator biographies on the English-language Wikipedia edited by Senate employees.

  • Senator Conrad Burns' page was edited to remove negative comments as positive comments were added. [4]
  • Senator Norm Coleman's page was also edited to remove negative comments while positive comments were added. [5]
  • Senator Robert Byrd's page was vandalized [6]
  • Senator Tom Harkin's criticism section was deleted [7], a major section on Israel & military removed [8] and later vandalized by a different IP [9]
  • Senator Joe Biden's page had a major edit removing significant criticism [10]
  • Senator Tom Coburn's page was vandalized [11] more than once [12]

Edits categorized by IP

While the identity of these IPs are not known, a small sample of edits from Capitol IPs shows both helpful and harmful edits.

A complete list of all the Senatorial IPs that contributed to political articles can be found here.

Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia response

The attention of Wikipedia administrators was drawn to the pattern of edits to Wikipedia articles by Congressional staffers at 18:47 on January 29. In response, Wikipedia administrators began a systematic examination of all edits to articles made from IP addresses that have been assigned for use by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Administrators found several places where edits from U.S. Senate IP addresses had been to articles on Senators.

Following online discussions using IRC, Wikipedia administrator FireFox blocked the U.S. House of Representatives' Wikipedia editing privileges for one week while the issue is discussed. The block was lifted shortly thereafter by a dissenting admin. [19]

While the Wikimedia Foundation has not yet issued a statement regarding this, Jimmy Wales was quoted by the AP discouraging the removal of facts. "You don't delete it," Wales said. "If they wanted to put in their side of things, that would seem ethically relevant, rather than just omitting it."

Sources

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