On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. But we can tell if you are a major news organization or corporation.

Illustration of a dog, sitting at a computer terminal, talking to another dog.  Includes caption: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”Published in The New Yorker July 5, 1993.
Image from The Cartoon Bank

As the saying, now a part of Internet lore, goes: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” That may be true, but now we must add: “But we do know if you are from a major news organization or corporation.”

Wired magazine reports on the efforts of Virgil Griffith to expose the source of anonymous edits to Wikipedia. In Virgil’s words, “I came up with the idea when I heard about Congressmen getting caught for white-washing their wikipedia pages.” So he created a searchable database of anonymous edits to Wikipedia pages indexed by the IP address of the computer that made the edit. By cross-referencing those edits with the database of IP addresses assigned to organizations, one can speculate with some certainty about who made the edit — or at least the organization responsible for the IP address of the person who made the edit. There is a list of interesting examples of wikiscanner results along the right side of the wikiscanner homepage, and Wired Magazine is inviting users to submit interesting examples as well.

This is an interesting project, but it is not without faults. First, non-anonymous edits — that is, when a user signs into Wikipedia — are not tracked. Since account registrations are free and not tied to a particular IP address, edits by an organization can be “masked” behind a slew of pseudo-anonymous accounts. (For instance, the list of edits for the range of IP addresses assigned to the OhioLINK central offices does not include edits made when I was logged into to my Wikipedia account.) Second, Virgil is presumably using a recent snapshot of the IP assignments database. Since IP address assignments can change over time, a current assignee could be implicated by the changes of the previous owner. Third, the whole system can be thwarted by systems and services that mask the IP address of the machine being used. So the credibility of the anonymous edits database is about the same as that of Wikipedia itself — good enough for most uses, but not extremely high.

The text was modified to update a link from http://www.cartoonbank.com/item/22230 to https://www.condenaststore.com/-sp/On-the-Internet-nobody-knows-you-re-a-dog-New-Yorker-Cartoon-Prints_i8562841_.htm on November 8th, 2012.

(This post was updated on 28-May-2014.)