TIME legal

Xbox One Counterfeiters Accused of Stealing ‘$100 to $200 Million’ in Data

Two of the four indicted U.S. men have pleaded guilty to computer fraud and copyright infringement, and will be sentenced next January.

Four men in the U.S. have been indicted by the Department of Justice for allegedly stealing unreleased software and other data from a series of gaming companies and the U.S. military.

Austin Alcala (18), Nathan Leroux (20), Sanadodeh Nesheiwat (28) and David Pokora (22) were charged with 18 counts of criminal activity, according to the federal indictment filed earlier in April and unsealed September 30. Charges included wire and mail fraud, theft of trade secrets, unauthorized computer access, copyright infringement and identity theft.

The indictment claims the four used SQL attacks and malware to hack into computer systems operated by Microsoft, Epic Games, Valve, Activision Blizzard, Zombie Studios and the U.S. Army itself. The DOJ alleges the hackers stole data ranging from authentication credentials to information about prerelease products in hopes of selling it for profit. The DOJ’s estimated value for all that data: between $100 million and $200 million.

The DOJ said the hacking ring stole information related to Microsoft’s Xbox One game console and Xbox Live online gaming network, Epic’s Gears of War 3 (a third-person tactical shooter), Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (a first-person shooter), and specialized software the U.S. Army uses to train Apache helicopter pilots. To date, the U.S. has seized $620,000 “in cash and other proceeds related to the charged conduct,” said the DOJ.

Two of the men–Nesheiwat and Pokora–have pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit computer fraud and copyright infringement. They’ll be sentenced on January 15 next year, and could serve up to five years prison time. On a side note, the DOJ said it believes Pokora may be the first foreigner convicted for hacking into U.S. companies to steal trade secret info. He was arrested last March while trying to enter the U.S. at Lewiston, New York.

“Today’s guilty pleas show that we will protect America’s intellectual property from hackers, whether they hack from here or from abroad,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell in a statement.

But a fifth person allegedly involved in the ring–an Australian citizen not named in the indictment who reportedly tried to sell a prototype of Microsoft’s Xbox One games console on eBay in August 2012 (the system wasn’t released until November)–told the Guardian that the DOJ’s valuations are “meaningless,” that the group was simply curious and that, save for an act of theft by a single hacker that relates to the DOJ cash grab, it made nothing.

TIME legal

Iowa to Tesla: Stop Test-Driving Your Cars in Our State

A logo of Tesla Motors on an electric car model is seen outside a showroom in New York
A logo of Tesla Motors on an electric car model is seen outside a showroom in New York on June 28, 2010. Shannon Stapleton—Reuters

Iowa's DOT recently put the kibosh on a three-day Tesla Motors test drive in the state capital.

If you want to check out one of Tesla’s newfangled electric rides before buying one, you can add Iowa to the list of states to steer clear of.

That’s because Iowa’s transportation department is telling Tesla Motors to stop offering test drives in the state because doing so is illegal, reports the Des Moines Register. Iowa’s DOT apparently said the test drives–conducted by Tesla in West Des Moines earlier this month–were illegal because Tesla isn’t a licensed auto dealer in Iowa, and that state law bans auto manufacturers from selling vehicles directly to consumers.

Trouble is, Tesla doesn’t sell through traditional franchise outlets, and the company has no franchises dealer relationships anywhere in the U.S. If you want to buy one of billionaire Elon Musk’s ballyhooed electric super-cars, you have to transact directly with the company. Unless you’re filthy rich and/or casually profligate, that’s going to be a tall order for most buyers, considering the base price on a Tesla Model S starts in the $70,000 range and surges by tens of thousands from there.

Note that driving Tesla cars in Iowa is perfectly legal. It’s just the test-driving or selling through a storefront part that’s the problem.

Forbidding car makers from selling directly to the public sounds odd, but in fact auto manufacturers are prohibited from selling directly to consumers in nearly every state. In Texas, for instance, Tesla has two show galleries, one in Houston and another in Austin, but as Tesla itself notes on its website:

In an effort to comply with the current laws, employees at these galleries are prevented from discussing pricing and the reservation process. This includes any discussion on financing, leasing, or purchasing options. Also, galleries cannot offer test drives. The store’s interactive kiosks are also amended to remove pricing. Lastly, we are unable to refer the customer to another store out of state. This puts Tesla at a serious disadvantage and inhibits our ability to reduce misconceptions and educate people about Electric Vehicles and the technology. Furthermore, people are forced to leave the gallery frustrated, lacking sufficient information about the car and the brand.

There may be a political element to the kerfuffle as well: the Register notes franchise auto dealers in states around the country have worked with dealers associations to keep Tesla out, presumably threatened by Tesla’s unconventional sales model. In fact, it was Iowa’s Automobile Dealers Association that tipped the DOT off to Tesla’s test drives in West Des Moines, says the Register.

But not allowing auto manufacturers to sell directly to the public may be harming consumers, argues a 2009 competition-related advocacy report on the U.S. Department of Justice’s website. The paper advocates “eliminating state bans on direct manufacturer sales in order to provide automakers with an opportunity to reduce inventories and distribution costs by better matching production with consumer preferences,” and notes that economic arguments for states’ bans on direct auto sales that cite holdup or free-rider issues “are not persuasive because competition among auto manufacturers gives each manufacturer the incentive to refrain from opportunistic behavior and to work with its dealers to resolve any free-rider problems.”

TIME Video Games

Rudy Giuliani Explains Why Noriega’s Call of Duty Lawsuit Is ‘Absurd’

The former mayor of New York explains why Activision chose him to lead a very public pushback against Manuel Noriega's lawsuit over the use of the former Panamanian military leader's likeness in the military shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.

Rudy Giuliani minces no words when speaking about former Panamanian military leader Manuel Noriega. When he describes the man he calls “a criminal of the worst kind,” you can hear the outrage. And when he refers to Noriega’s lawsuit against Call of Duty publisher Activision over the use of his likeness in one of the games, he repeatedly calls it “absurd.”

“Noriega is one of the worst criminals, dictators, opressors, terrorists, whatever you want to call it, of the past 30 or 40 years,” he tells me. “He’s been convicted in three countries, the U.S., France and Panama. And he’s suing a decent, good company, because he is included in a video game as a bit player.”

In July, lawyers for Noriega, currently serving a prison sentence in a Panamanian jail, sued Activision, alleging the company used Noriega’s likeness in the first-person shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 in a damaging way, without his permission, and without paying him royalties.

In the game, Activision’s version of Noriega works with the CIA to apprehend a fictional Nicaraguan political activist named Raul Menendez who’s the game’s prime antagonist. But Noriega betrays his own Panamanian Defense Force and frees Menendez, only to be savagely beaten by the terrorist leader. Later, players are tasked with capturing Noriega, loosely mirroring events that transpired during the historical invasion of Panama by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, during which the real Noriega was captured.

I spoke with Giuliani–a celebrity-caliber presence himself–about the case by phone. The former mayor of New York says he views the matter above all as a question of free speech, but says it’s also about precedent-setting he calls “extremely dangerous” were Noriega to prevail. He mentions the chilling effect it might have on historical fiction, for instance, and not just the sort of drier, voluminous, fact-obsessed tomes a James Michener might write, but gonzo-revisionist stuff like Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, in which the 16th U.S. president runs around staking the bloodsucking undead.

“If Noriega can do this–since video games, movies and books are considered to be exactly the same for free speech purposes, according to the Supreme Court decision in 2011 written by Justice Scalia–then Osama bin Laden’s heirs could sue the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty for bin Laden’s portrayal in that film,” Giuliani tells me. “Public figures, good ones, bad ones, who are included in books, movies and video games, all of these would have a right to sue.”

Here’s the rest of the interview in full.

Why did Activision contact you, specifically, to address this case publicly at this time? You obviously have a breadth of legal experience, but I’m not sure people think about you as a legal figure these days.

Well, I’ve been at Bracewell & Giuliani, that’s my law firm, and I’ve been practicing law there for nine years. So although it hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of the other things I do, I’ve been back at the practice of law now for at least nine years.

I think that I have a reputation of being a very good lawyer. I’ve argued cases in almost every court you could think of, including the United States Supreme Court. It’s an area of the law I know well. And I think also the fact that I have a background as a narcotics prosecutor is important here. I was head of the narcotics division in the United States Attorney’s office. As the Associate Attorney General, I was in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration. I probably possess considerably more knowledge about Noriega than the vast majority of lawyers. So it’s a combination of those things. And I’d like to think they asked me because I’m a great lawyer, which I am.

You’ve been talking about this case from the free speech angle, but Noriega’s lawyers are pushing this on the basis of a principle known as “right of publicity,” which, while it varies from state to state, is supposed to afford individuals some measure of control over how they’re depicted in commercial products. You’ve had football and basketball player sue Electronic Arts over the use of their likenesses in games, for instance, resulting in a multimillions payout, and the band No Doubt sued Activision for using their likenesses in a music game and got Activision to settle out of court.

I think you’ve hit on exactly the right point, the point over which the case is going to be argued, or as we say as lawyers, “distinguishing this case from those ones.” And they are very, very distinguishable.

The two cases you’re talking about, the football case and the band case, the litigants were basically the principle figures in the games. And not only were they the principle figures in the game, they were advertised as such. And you could play them in the game. So there was not enough transformative use involved.

Remember, that’s the distinction. If the court finds that there’s been transformative use of the character, then we win under the First Amendment. In those cases, the court didn’t believe there’d been sufficient transformative use because the football players were actually shown making their football plays. The band was actually shown playing their songs. And they were principles, and the video games were marketed around them.

(L) Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega takes part in a news conference at the Atlapa center in Panama City on Oct. 11,1998.(R) The character Noriega claims was created in his likeness.
Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega (left) sues Activision over a portrayal of him in Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 game (right) Alberto Lowe—Reuters; Activision/AP

In this case, Noriega appears in only two of 11 segments. He is one of 45 characters. If you add up the average time the game is played, he appears for about 1% of the game. You cannot play him in the game, as you could in the other games. Most importantly, he is not found anywhere in any of the advertising for the game, he is such an insignificant bit player. When you go back and look at the reviews of this game, which is one of the most popular games in the world, there’s no mention of Noriega, he’s so unimportant. And from the standpoint of transformative use, Noriega isn’t shown doing what he actually did. Noriega is being used as a historical figure, but shown doing very different, fictionalized things, the way Lincoln was in a book like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which of course is a genre, not only in video games, but in movies.

Think of Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump the character is shown with Nixon, Kennedy, Bear Bryant, all kinds of famous people. None of that really happened. The more transformational the work is, the more it’s protected as free speech. And we have a complete transformation in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, because unlike these other cases, Noriega’s shown doing things that are creative, things that a creative mind made up. That’s why free speech is so important. We want to protect people’s ability to be creative.

What about the fact that Noriega’s not a U.S. citizen? Let’s assume someone made a game where a figure like Noriega was, in fact, the principle component, maybe where you even play as him for whatever reason, and furthermore the game cares about historical verisimilitude, and then the company that makes the game markets it on that basis? What if the person portrayed, but not a U.S. citizen, sues on that basis?

We believe that that would still be protected because Noriega is such a public person. It goes back to a case a long time ago that started all of this libel law, New York Times v. Sullivan. What that case says is, if you are a public person, you are entitled to considerably less protection of your right of privacy and publicity than a person who is a private person. They even extend public persons to people that are victims of crime who don’t intentionally become public persons. But when you are a public person intentionally, your protection is lessened dramatically.

I can’t think of someone who has worked harder at becoming a public person than Noriega, in the most infamous ways possible. Every one of the crimes that he committed, every one of the things he did in the U.S. and France, I mean this is about as public as a person can get. In many ways, I think the Supreme Court would say he’s lost the usual protection you would have for your right of privacy or your right to be free of publicity.

But let me be clear, that’s not our case. We don’t have to go that far, because this is a one-percenter. If this were a movie, he would be way down at the bottom of the credits. This is a guy that’s trying to extort money out of a decent company, and who the heck knows what he wants to do with it down in Panama, and who knows what you can accomplish in a Panamanian prison if you can get yourself a few million bucks.

If the suit isn’t dismissed, will you personally lead it at trial?

The extent to which I am involved in it we’ll figure out, but I’m deeply involved in it right now.

TIME Web

Net Neutrality Advocates Make Last FCC Push as Comment Window Closes

Net Neutrality Video Billboard Outside FCC
Namecheap

The Commission's proposed rule for "fast lanes" on the Internet that would cost extra has generated millions of comments since July

Net neutrality advocates mounted a large video billboard outside Federal Communications Commission headquarters Monday, on the last day for public comment on the Commission’s proposed Internet regulations. The laws, if approved, would allows Internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast to create “fast lanes” that users can pay extra to access, thus violating the principle of net neutrality.

The billboard will play user-submitted videos from net neutrality rallies from major U.S. cities, along with users’ webcam appeals on why they believe net neutrality is important, according to Fight for the Future, an Internet advocacy group that worked with domain registrar Namecheap to set up the display.

The FCC’s window for input on the proposed law opened on July 15 and has since generated millions of comments. The FCC has not yet set a date to vote on new rules, and does not face a deadline, according to Bloomberg.

Recent analyses have indicated that most Internet users support net neutrality. A report by the Sunlight Foundation analyzed the public comments collected by the FCC to show that less than 1% of comments clearly opposed net neutrality. Another survey found that two-thirds of Americans are opposed to Internet “fast lanes.”

Meanwhile, net neutrality activism has recently hit its stride with visible success: most recently, a phone campaign to Congress members, public relations campaigns by Internet businesses and politicians, and virtual demonstration by popular websites.

TIME legal

Here’s How Celebs Can Get Their Nude Selfies Taken Down

Lionsgate's "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" Party - The 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival
Jennifer Lawrence attends Lionsgate's "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" party at a private villa on May 17, 2014 in Cannes, France. David M. Benett—;Getty Images for Lionsgate

The answer lies in copyright law

Imagine having nude images of yourself — images you believed to be private — shared against your will with millions of people around the Internet. It’s a pretty terrible feeling, and it’s exactly what happened to dozens of celebrities, from Jennifer Lawrence to Kirstin Dunst, who fell victim to a hacker who accessed their private cloud storage accounts and raided their contents.

Some of the celebrities, like Lawrence, have pledged to go after whoever’s responsible for the privacy violation. While the hacker remains unidentified, the victims have at least one weapon to try and stop the images from spreading any further: Copyright law.

Here’s how that could work: In the United States, copyrights on photos are granted to whomever took the image. Since so many of the stolen images are reportedly selfies, that means the women in the images took the photos themselves — and, therefore, they get the copyright on them.

Some background: In 1998, Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, which toughened penalties for online copyright violators. Crucially, the DMCA introduced what’s called a “Safe Harbor” provision for online platforms, like Facebook, YouTube, Reddit and others (though they weren’t around at the time). The Safe Harbor deal is this: Sites like YouTube don’t need to pre-check the content their users upload for copyright violations, but they do have to respond to what’s called a takedown notice. Copyright holders can file those notices to websites they believe are illegally hosting their copyrighted content, and the Facebooks, YouTubes and Reddits of the world then have to go and see if the copyright holder’s claim is legit — and if it is, they have to ditch the content.

Takedown notices have gotten increasingly popular over the last four years; people are now filing millions more to Google alone compared to just a few years ago, for example. Such notices are “very effective,” said Aram Sinnreich, an assistant professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information, “because otherwise the sites can be found as contributorily liable to copyright infringement, and that can run into the millions of dollars.”

So what Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Kirsten Dunst or any of the other hacking victims could do is file a DMCA takedown notice while they fill out the paperwork for a formal copyright on their photos, assuming they took the images of themselves. If their takedown notices are ignored, they can then sue the sites in question for copyright violation.

Such a move could be a “smart strategy,” said Danielle Citron, a professor of law at the University of Maryland who’s working on a book about online hate crimes. But fighting this fire through DMCA is akin to playing digital whack-a-mole: Knock the images off one site that was hosting them, and they’ll appear on another. “[The victims] might be outpaced by the scale at which this stuff spreads,” Citron added.

DMCA takedowns have other weaknesses, too: Sites hosted in countries with less stringent copyright laws won’t feel the same pressure to respond to them, Sinnreich said. So the celebrities probably won’t have any luck getting their private images off websites hosted in Cambodia, for example, a country that’s not party to the international treaty on which the DMCA is based. And the copyright strategy won’t work for the women who didn’t take the photos and can’t get the copyright from whoever did.

Still, Citron believes the incident is an opportunity to raise awareness about women having their private images spread widely around the Internet against their will, which happens daily but doesn’t always grab headlines.

“This is the perfect example of a case in which we should grab the public’s attention,” said Citron. “I’ve been writing about this since 2007. And nude photos are just one form of online harassment, and everyone just kind of shrugs their shoulders and blame the victims, ‘you stupidly shared it,’ or ‘you got hacked,’ or ‘you shouldn’t have been taking these photos in the first place.’ And now the cultural consensus is . . . we’re not shrugging our shoulders, and we think this is a really bad thing. So I think this is a terrific moment in which we’re getting people to really see the problem for what it is.”

TIME legal

Airbnb Hands Over Data on 124 Hosts in New York City to the Authorities

Airbnb'S Value Estimated At $10 Billion After New Round Of Investments
The Airbnb app is displayed on a smartphone on April 21, 2014 in San Anselmo, California. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The New York attorney general is seeking those who “flagrantly" misused the online platform

Airbnb has announced that it is handing over the personal information of 124 past and present hosts to the New York attorney general.

The online accommodation company said on Friday that the vast majority of the hosts were no longer on its site and the total is “far less than 1%” of its hosting community in the Big Apple.

“Nothing about these hosting profiles suggests [the attorney general] is after anyone but individuals who may be flagrantly misusing our platform,” said David Hantman, head of global policy for Airbnb, in a blog post on Friday.

The New York City battle for user information began last year. Attorney general Eric Schneiderman sent the first subpoena in October, requesting data on Airbnb’s hosts for the previous three years. Airbnb resisted but also reiterated its commitment to cooperate with authorities and eliminate illegal hotels and guesthouses. The San Francisco–based company then wiped out more than 2,000 listings in April.

The recent release of personal data followed the New York attorney general’s second subpoena for hosts’ information in May. Airbnb agreed to hand over “anonymized data” for about 16,000 hosts in New York. The office of the attorney general would then have a year to review the information and draft a list of individuals who are subject to further investigation. This means it’s possible that additional requests for user information are made in the months to come.

Airbnb says it has already contacted the 124 hosts concerned about the matter.

TIME legal

FCC Extends Net Neutrality Deadline After Website Crashes

Protesters hold a rally before the FCC meeting on net neutrality proposal in Washington, DC.
Protesters march past the FCC headquarters before the Commission meeting on net neutrality proposal on May, 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. Bill O'Leary—Washington Post/Getty Images

Unable to file complaints online, protesters prepared to deliver their complaints in person

The Federal Communications Commission has extended a deadline for comments on proposed rules governing the future of the Internet after its website buckled under the pressure of the tens of thousands of comments on the matter submitted by the public.

The FCC has received more than 700,000 public comments through its online comment forms and an email inbox set up to handle the high number of messages. The website crashed on Tuesday, several hours before the public comment period was scheduled to close at midnight. The FCC announced that it would extend the comment deadline to Friday at midnight to accommodate the surge of last minute filings.

“Not surprisingly, we have seen an overwhelming surge in traffic in our website that is making it difficult for many people to file comments through our Electronic Filing System,” the FCC said in a statement.

Before the deadline changed, a consortium of net neutrality proponents, including the ACLU, DailyKos, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and MoveOn, called on supporters to hand deliver “hundreds of thousands” of printed complaints to the FCC, which they plan to do Tuesday.

The proposed rules at the center of the debate may allow Internet providers to charge content providers, such as YouTube or Netflix, for access to higher quality connections. Detractors fear such a move would divide the Internet between “fast lanes” and “slow lanes,” enabling deep-pocketed content providers to pay for better service.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called the objections “flat-out wrong.” Nonetheless, he welcomed the flood of public feedback. A second round of public comments, in which people will be invited to respond to the first wave of comments, will begin on a yet-unannounced date.

“Keep your input coming” Wheeler recently tweeted as the number of comments neared 650,000.

TIME legal

California Town that Banned Pinball 80 Years Ago Will Finally Legalize It

Three year old Xandro from Eindhoven, Th
AFP / Getty Images

The ban hadn't been enforced in decades, but it's still on the books.

And here you thought games like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto had it rough: 80 years ago, pinball — yes, pinball — was a seedy, controversial business. So controversial that thousands of U.S. cities passed laws making pinball machines illegal, including Oakland, California, where you might be surprised to find the game remains a criminal matter on the books to this day.

That’s about to change, says the San Francisco Chronicle, which writes that Oakland is set to formally un-ban pinball at last, though it’ll be seen as a symbolic move: pinball machines are alive and well across the city, notes the Chronicle, and the ban hasn’t been enforced for decades.

Pinball machines (sans flippers — a later invention) were manufactured in the 1930s, installed in bars and called “pay-outs,” because that’s what they did, delivering cash to lucky players a bit like someone hitting the jackpot after pulling the handle on a slot machine. That’s all you did at the time: pull the plunger and cross your fingers. If you won, you’d collect your winnings from whomever ran the establishment. And that slot machine-like angle was enough to worry politicians and get pinball banned across the country.

“Yes, there was a certain amount of skill involved, but basically the law looked at it as a gambling device,” Eddie Adlum, publisher of RePlay Magazine, told Steven Kent in Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games. “Pay-outs started out legally in many states and eventually ended up being operated mostly illegally in places where the police would look the other way, such as New Orleans. They were nickel games, by the way. They paid off in nickels. So it was a little gamble, but nevertheless it was gambling.”

Oakland’s city council will meet this week to reverse the law as part of an overall reexamination of gambling in the city, though that reversal will include a new ban on slot-machine-like Internet sweepstakes cafes, which — like those early versions of pinball — are essentially games of chance.

TIME Law

Judges With Daughters More Likely to Rule in Favor of Women’s Rights

The "daughters effect" is actually real

Judges with daughters are more likely to make feminist-leaning decisions than judges who only have boys, according to new research out of Harvard.

The researchers found that judges who have one daughter are 7-9% more likely to decide in favor of women’s rights than judges with no girls. And that likelihood doesn’t increase with any additional daughters– one girl is enough to sway a judge. The researchers also found evidence that the so-called “daughter effect” matters most on judges who would ordinarily be more conservative.

Only daughters are especially persuasive. Among judges who only have one child, those who have a daughter are 16% more likely to vote in a feminist direction.

Here’s one other interesting side note — apparently liberals are more likely to keep having children until they have a girl, while conservatives are often content with just boys. This could suggest that a judge that has a daughter might be more liberal leaning in the first place.

This study is one of the first to suggest that personal relationships may influence judicial decisions as much as the judge’s own political affiliation, race, or gender. And the researchers haven’t identified a specific reason for the “daughter effect,” but it seems pretty clear; judges who have daughters probably want to make the world a better place for women. Mazel Tov.

TIME legal

PR Firms Vow They Won’t Try to Game Wikipedia

Updated 6:08 p.m.

Public relations firms and Wikipedia’s team of volunteer editors reached a truce Tuesday in their ongoing battle over who has the right to edit entries in the online encyclopedia. In a statement today, 11 large PR and advertising agencies vowed to abide by Wikipedia’s rules, which ban ad teams from editing articles for pay or trying to influence the tone of articles without disclosing their affiliation with a client.

“We recognize Wikipedia’s unique and important role as a public knowledge resource,” reads the statement, published on Wikipedia. “We also acknowledge that the prior actions of some in our industry have led to a challenging relationship with the community of Wikipedia editors. Our firms believe that it is in the best interest of our industry, and Wikipedia users at large, that Wikipedia fulfill its mission of developing an accurate and objective online encyclopedia. Therefore, it is wise for communications professionals to follow Wikipedia policies as part of ethical engagement practices.”

The statement, signed by Ogilvy & Mather, Edelman and Porter Novelli, among others, comes after a significant outcry from Wikipedia users and administrators over the actions of PR firms on the site. Wikipedia categorizes accepting pay to change the content of an article as a black hat (i.e. unethical) activity that is one of the most serious violations of the site’s rules. Last fall, the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent organization of Wikipedia, condemned a PR organization that it said was setting up hundreds of dummy accounts to edit clients’ content.

The PR firms who made the joint statement are now trying to distance themselves from such activity. “I believe that public relations people who engage in ethical practice have a lot to contribute to the great public resource that is Wikipedia,” Edelman Senior Vice President Phil Gomes wrote in a blog post. “This is the start of an industry-wide commitment.”

The Wikimedia Foundation expressed cautious optimism for the PR firms’ promise. “Any approach that is rooted in respecting the Wikimedia Foundation’s Terms of Use, the policies of the communities and projects, and making a commitment to open and transparent dialogue is a good step for any group interested in working with Wikipedia,” spokesman Jay Walsh said in an email. “It will ultimately be the community of Wikipedians who engage in a dialog about this proposal, and they may have different views about how well this could work out.”

Specifically, the PR firms have agreed to follow all of Wikipedia’s guidelines, investigate allegations of unethical editing of articles within their own firms, counsel other PR firms to behave similarly and open a dialogue with Wikipedia’s legion of editors. PR professionals that want to see a change made to an article are advised to advocate for it on an article’s discussion page instead of making the edits themselves.

 

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