It's coming from inside the House: Government accountability in the age of Wikipedia

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A bot that tweets out changes made to government Wikipedia pages is shedding light on issues of transparency. Photo from Getty Images

Public access to government information is often touted as indispensable in a free and democratic society. In an era of “alternative facts” and fake news, the value can be that much more.

Since its swearing-in ceremony in 2015, the Liberal government has promised and promoted transparency in all its activities. Yet there are growing concerns from experts that there isn’t enough being done to make crucial information available to the public and combat government secrecy.

Cue @gccaedits, a Twitter bot that, since its inception in 2014, has tweeted every edit to Wikipedia pages made from Government of Canada computers.

An open registry, documenting the changes made to these Wikipedia pages by federal employees, is necessary to combat the growing problem of government anonymity, one expert says.

Duff Conacher, the founder of DemocracyWatch and a former law professor, believes transparency is vital for an open and fully democratic government.

The bot identifies users by tracing Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, which work like fingerprints or a digital signature.

IP addresses, however, are tied to locations, not a single computer, so there is no way to perfectly identify who the user was.

Users can make changes anonymously.

“The government, like anyone, has a legitimate right to be correcting false information that might be put up on Wikipedia,” Conacher told Yahoo Canada News.

But, he adds, there needs to be full transparency about what information is being changed and who is making the changes.

“To have real accountability I think you need to have real-time disclosure because that’s the only way you’re going to prevent abuses from happening.”

The account has revealed that users on federal networks regularly edit Wikipedia articles. While some changes are trivial, like clarifying the attendance at a Buffalo Bills game or adding ‘Earth Defense Force franchise’ to a list of Playstation 3 games, others are more significant.

In 2014, CTV News identified attempts to remove public criticism from a page about Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets and Canada’s plans to buy the planes. The user made changes from within the Department of Defence. A different Wikipedia user restored the original comments, but they were changed a second time by a user within the House of Commons, who this time added: “The opposition tends to overreact and cancels contracts without just cause or reasoning, setting back the procurement of needed equipment.” Those comments were once again removed by a registered editor.

On another occasion CTV News noted that a user made changes to a page about Senator Pierre-Hughes Boisvenu, removing all mention of an ethics complaint that had been filed against him.

“There is no editorial oversight, and that has always been the problem with Wikipedia,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, a professor of journalism at the University of Toronto.

To combat this, he suggests clearly and publicly identifying users.

“I think the solution is for media watchdogs to identify these changes, bring them to public attention and let the chips fall where they may.”

The best way to address government employees freely, and anonymously, making changes to important information on Wikipedia, Conacher says, is to make the editing transparent and the names of users known, removing any potential need for access to information requests.

“To have real accountability I think you need to have real-time disclosure because that’s the only way you’re going to prevent abuses from happening,” Conacher said.

Employees making these changes could be in direct violation of the values and ethics code for the public sector, Conacher says. It calls for government workers to constantly be serving the public interest by “Taking all possible steps to prevent and resolve any real, apparent or potential conflicts of interest between their official responsibilities and their private affairs in favour of the public interest.”

It continues, “Acting at all times with integrity and in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that may not be fully satisfied by simply acting within the law.”

Michel Nadeau, the executive director of the Institute of Governance and Private Public Organizations, a think tank, echoes Conacher’s statement, calling for full transparency from government officials and workers.

“It should be stated that the information has been added by parties related to the government, to the department, to the ministry. And then the reader should be aware that this information is not totally impartial,” Nadeau said. “The reader should be allowed to know that the information provider in the article is from a single source and that the source repeatedly intervened in the building of the article.”

When asked whether banning employees from accessing Wikipedia may be a solution, Dvorkin tentatively agreed but said these workers are still granted a certain amount of freedom of speech in their roles.

“[However] if organisations, government or non-governmental, engage in this kind of activity there needs to be some level of accountability.”