References to information at Wikipedia have shown up in various inappropriate places, from homework assignments to college term papers. But there’s one place that it seems everyone can agree that it doesn’t belong: the US court system. The US Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, ruling in an immigration case, has agreed with the Board of Immigration Appeals in finding that a reliance on information in Wikipedia is insufficient grounds for a ruling. Nevertheless, it sent the case back to the Board, requesting that it clarify its decision.
The decision, filed late last week, stems from a case where an individual entered the country using a forged passport, and then applied for asylum based on the threat of torture if she were returned to her place of origin. Her application for asylum, and the processing of her case by the immigration courts, hinge on a personal identification document called a laissez-passer issued by the Ethiopian government.
Ryan Singel of Wired describes the decision,
Using the Wikipedia page as evidence, the government convinced an immigration judge that the document did not prove her identity, calling it a one-way travel document based on information provided by the applicant.
While the Board of Immigration Appeals subsequently said it didn’t “encourage the use of resources such as Wikipedia.com in reaching pivotal decisions in immigration proceedings,” it allowed the decision to stand since it couldn’t find any clear error.
The three-judge panel of the appeals court found that split decision disturbing. The court reiterated that anyone can edit Wikipedia and there’s no guarantee that the information on the page at the time the government officials looked at it had any correct information at all. The site may have misled and tainted government officials’ decisions in the case, the judges ruled:
The [Board of Immigration Appeals] presumably was concerned that Wikipedia is not a sufficiently reliable source on which to rest the determination that an alien alleging a risk of future persecution is not entitled to asylum. […]
We do not know whether the [Immigration Judge] would have reached the same conclusion without Wikipedia, or whether (and, if so, why) the [Board of Immigration Appeals] believes that the IJ’s consideration of Wikipedia was harmless error, in the sense that it did not influence the IJ’s decision.
The decision also raises serious civil rights issues, if officers of Homeland Security are using sources like Wikipedia instead of training and briefings to guide their decisions.
It also raises the issue of lawyers being familiar with Wiki technology so that they can articulate and understand the editing process involved, and appropriate shortcomings and flaws.