By Shloka Nath| Oct 28, 2010
The encyclopaedia that everyone can edit is not just the common man's favourite; now even courts are turning to it to settle legal questions
In 2008, the Supreme Court of India was faced with a peculiar conundrum when passing judgment in a taxation case. They were attempting to understand, what really was ‘bubblegum?’ Was it a confectionary item, that should be taxed at 6.25 percent? Or was it not at all a traditional sweetmeat? This would then make it an unclassified good, liable to a taxation rate of 10 percent! After much deliberation, the court called upon Wikipedia, to settle the matter. According to the online collaborative encyclopaedia, bubblegum is a type of chewing gum designed specially for blowing bubbles. It was indeed, not a sweetmeat. Case closed.
Already, there are over 50 references to Wikipedia that the courts of India have made in their judgments. Over the years Wikipedia has gradually climbed ranks to be frequently cited in India’s High Courts and the apex body, the Supreme Court. “Today with the Internet growing exponentially as it is, Wikipedia has become your best and instant source of information,” explains Senior Counsel and Additional Solicitor General, Darius Khambatta.
Among the Internet’s top 20 most popular sites, Wikipedia differs from traditional encyclopaedias in the sense that its entries are compiled and written by thousands of volunteers around the world and it is always open for editing. But Indian courts and judges are still grappling with the use of Wikipedia as a source in their judgments. Many believe it is not a reliable source of information, lacking credibility and authenticity. The indecision is reflected in two distinct and contradictory judgments of the Supreme Court. In 2008, Justice S.H. Kapadia allowed the usage of definitions of telecommunication devices in a Reliance Infocomm case. In another case Justice S.B. Sinha held that inputs in Wikipedia couldn’t be relied upon in court, as he was not convinced of their authenticity.
The courts normally give precedence to statutory definitions and authentic orreliable sources produced by experts in their respective fields. Indian courts have traditionally relied only on books and journals whose reputation has been firmly established. In the US there is the “Bluebook” that provides a framework of rules and prescribes the style of legal citations. It discusses elements of citing electronic media and non-print resources. We obviously, have no such guidelines! Some of our most unimpeachable sources are Encyclopaedia Britannica and scientific journals.
“Wikipedia has some excellent entries and some terrible ones — that’s the nature of crowd sourcing — it will show up that kind of range in quality,” says Sudhir Krishnaswamy, professor at the National University of Judicial Sciences, Kolkata, who specialises in constitutional law. “If judges intelligently use the source they will try to pick good from bad. But if there is unintelligent use of Wiki — then hell breaks loose.”
Wikipedia had a few episodes that have made people question its authenticity. A case in point is when writer John Seigenthaler was falsely accused in 2005, of being associated with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, by a Nashville delivery driver playing a joke on a colleague. John Seigenthaler however, had served as an administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy and was one of the pall bearers at his funeral. He was understandably upset.
Till date, there have been no reported cases of a wrong judgment being delivered in India because of a wrong Wikipedia entry. Yet, some people want the courts to be watchful. “Any information that has to be relied on in a case of law has to be credible and authentic. Wikipedia as a source is neither,” says Sumeet Malik, Supreme Court Advocate and Associate Editor of EBC Publishing that publishes Supreme Court cases Despite these concerns, Wikipedia appears to have established a berth in India’s courtrooms. In many cases it is the only source of information because it has entries on latest terms. “It [Wikipedia] can be useful as a context especially since many of its entries are so current, more than any other published source,” says Darius Khambatta. Wikipedia is quicker to add entries that are in demand.