Here’s another bizarre Internet case that makes you wonder…. Typing now into your favorite Internet browser the address www.wikipedia.de (the German Wikipedia) will not lead you to the familiar Wikipedia homepage. Instead, you will find yourself starring at the following notice (original is in German, below is my loose translation):
By virtue of an interim injunction ordered by the Lübeck state court dated November 13, 2008, upon the request of Lutz Heilmann (Member of Parliament – “Die Linke” party), Wikipedia Germany is hereby enjoined from continuing linking from the Internet address wikipedia.de to the Internet address de.wikipedia.org, as long as under the address de.wikipedia.org certain propositions concerning Lutz Heilmann remain visible. The service of wikipedia.de in its current form must therefore discontinue until further notice…
Huh? I found some background on this case in a Spiegel-Online article (in German). The plaintiff, Mr. Heilmann, is a member of a left-wing political party called “Die Linke” and a member of the Bundestag. According to some reports, he used to work as a bodyguard for the notorious Stasi during the DDR era. Heilmann was said to initially conceal this chapter in his resume while elected for office at the Bundestag. The original Spiegel-Online story from December 2005 is still available here.
The German Wikipedia article dedicated to Heilmann had mentioned these embarrassing assertions, and Heilmann sued Wikipedia Germany. To be sure, this is not the first time that Wikipedia is sued for publishing allegedly defamatory material. But it is quite rare that courts issue such sweeping injunctions. Angry plaintiffs who seek judicial remedy are usually advised to file a claim against the U.S.-based Wikimedia Foundation, since the German Wikipedia neither controls the content published nor does it host any of it on Germany soil. This time, however, the court decided to order wikipedia.de to deactivate its liking to ALL German Wikipedia articles! Wikipedia’s attorney in Germany Thorsten Feldmann said that he certainly plans to submit an objection, but scheduling oral hearing might take weeks.
The injunction is not only absurdly broad, it is also completely useless, since the direct links to the article on Heilmann, both in the German and the English Wikipedias, operate perfectly well. So, if you go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutz_Heilmann you can read the English article, and as a bonus, there is recent information concerning the legal battle with Wikipedia, adding some more juicy stories on Heilmann. If you click on the link http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutz_Heilmann you can read the original article in German, the one Heilmann has attempted to knock.
This story has some anecdotal flavor. It indeed generated a lot of press, especially bad press for the politician. At the same time it underscores a real problem. For people who feel offended by Wikipedia Articles, there is probably no immediate and effective legal recourse available, even if the articles are accessible in their home countries, and even if there is little doubt that the author/s of the article violated domestic libel/defamation laws.
There is a good side to that, of course. No single person or entity can determine or control the content of Wikipedia articles, which serves well free speech interests, anti-censorship sentiments and diversity of opinions. But at the same time, those who see their personality interests harmed and reputation ruined, sometimes unjustifiably, feel growing frustration when advised by their lawyers to join the community and try to democratically influence the content, and/or to personally sue the individual contributors who wrote the article. Both American and foreign plaintiffs have 230 (CDA) reasons not to spend energy and money on suing the Wikimedia Foundation in the U.S. This could be a partial (and admittedly ramshackle) explanation to those radical and senseless injunctions we see emerging in the litigation fronts oversees.
UPDATE: in a press release from yesterday Mr. Heilmann declares that he has no intention to pursue further legal steps against Wikipedia. He further expresses deep regret for starting this whole thing in the first place. And he has good reasons to be sorry, because during the past 48 hours his reputation suffered beyond measure.