Wikipedia and the Right to Know vs Right to Privacy

Sometimes it’s interesting to compare Wikipedia articles in different languages. I just read something about the last school shooting in Germany, the one in Winnenden in March 2009, and decided to search the web for it. The English Wikipedia article came up first, probably because I am located in the US.

I expected the German version to be longer, because obviously Germans should care more, right? To my surprise, the English version actually has more details. It lists the full names of the victims, for example!

This is emblematic for the US-American “public’s right to know” and the German “right to privacy”.

After the Ft. Hood shooting last week, for example, I overheard people saying “Nidal Malik Hasan… Hasan, well no surprise there.” The name was released, and because it was Muslim-sounding, the suspect was prejudged to be guilty. German media would not have released the name, or used first name and last initial only.

It would have been prudent to wait with the release until after being pronounced guilty at his trial (or death). In this particular case, it is highly unlikely that he will go free, but other cases may be less clear. Also, remember the flood of incorrect information that was released in the immediate aftermath of the Ft. Hood shooting: (1) The shooter was dead; (2) the female police officer was dead; (3) two or three other suspects were detained. With all of these mistakes being made, it is easy to imagine that someone may have been mistaken about the shooter’s identity, too, and thus subjected an innocent person completely unrelated to the incident to unwanted media attention.

Innocent until proven guilty is the fundamental tenet of the US justice system. Justice trumps the “people’s right to know”, and justice includes the right to privacy for suspects. And in the case of shooting victims’ identities, that “right to know” does not exist (@ I realize Wikipedia gathered these identities from other publicly available sources; I nonetheless wonder what purpose listing the victim’s names serves.@).


About Mathias

Software development engineer. Principal developer of DrJava. Recent Ph.D. graduate from the Department of Computer Science at Rice University.
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