16 November 2009

19th Century Responses to 21st Century Realities

From The Register:

A man who served 15 years for the gruesome murder of a famous German actor is taking legal action against Wikipedia for reporting the conviction.

Attorneys took the action on behalf of Wolfgang Werlé, one of two men to receive a life sentence for the 1990 murder of Walter Sedlmayr. In a letter sent late last month to Wikipedia officials, they didn't dispute their client was found guilty, but they nonetheless demanded Wikipedia's English language biography of the Bavarian star suppress the convicted murder's name because he is considered a private individual under German law.

Werlé's "rehabilitation and his future life outside the prison system is severely impacted by your unwillingness to anonymize any articles dealing with the murder of Mr. Walter Sedlmayr with regard to our client's involvement," they wrote. "As your article deals with a local German public figure (such as the actor Walter Sedlmayr), we expect you are aware that you have to comply with applicable German law."

They go on to say they are currently taking legal action against Wikipedia in the trial court of Hamburg. And according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Werlé's attorneys have also gone after an Austrian internet service provider that published the names of the convicted.

This is ridiculous on so many levels. When crimes and convictions occur today, they will be reported on news websites and blogs, which will be available in perpetuity. Even if this kind of action were successful, it would be pointless unless there was a worldwide requirement to purge all news sites of old stories, or retrospectively delete names. In essence, it would require the recording of history to be outlawed.

This kind of action also increases the chance of the plaintiff getting exactly the kind of publicity they are trying to avoid (ironically, as a result of the action, he now has his own Wikipedia entry). I certainly wouldn't have been aware of the case or the people involved if it hadn't been for the efforts of the killer trying to stop me becoming aware of it.

Some cases make the law look stupid. This one just makes it look irrelevant. I really don't think it matters what the outcome is. Even if the action is successful, the page will continue to be accessible from servers outside German and people will be able to search for the name of the victim and find the names of the killers on countless websites.

1 comment:

Mark Wadsworth said...

I was very aware of the case, WS was a nice old actor who played Bavarian granddads on telly and so on.

After he was rather brutally murdered it turned out he was gay (which must have been a motive, one way or another). So double-boo to his murderers, they deserve everything they get.