"Elsewhere": electronic alibis

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American readers may not yet have heard the recent story about the chairman of the Conservative Party in Britain, Grant Shapps MP. He has been accused of sock-puppetry: editing his own Wikipedia page to remove unfavorable references to his business life (and editing the pages about other Conservative MPs to highlight unfavorable aspects of their lives). And his response was to say that he couldn't possibly have done it, because: "A simple look in my diary shows I was elsewhere."

Elsewhere, many of us wondered? Somewhere other than where the Internet is? Comedians and satirists have had plenty of fun with this. Because of course, on the Internet, not only does nobody know you're a dog, but nobody normally knows which kennel you're logged in from.

I have made edits to documents on other continents from coffee shops in Spain and double-decker buses in Edinburgh and commuter trains in New Jersey. Group blogs like Language Log and Lingua Franca could hardly survive without such possibilities. I have (I confess it!) fiddled with files on remote servers while listening to less-than-riveting conference papers, and even during routine agenda items in department meetings.

Just once, in a move of admittedly dubious legality, I sat down on the doorstep of an apartment block in the New Town district of Edinburgh, opened a laptop, picked up a weak signal from some stranger's open wireless router, joined its network, and transacted some brief but urgent piece of Internet business.

There might be effective ways of showing that you did not and could not have been responsible for some electronic persona making certain edits at certain times, but you'd be quite lucky to be able to establish such an electronic alibi. You can't just say you were elsewhere anymore. The world isn't like that. And I'm a bit worried that the chairman of the party that currently dominates the UK government, and could do so again after the May 7 election, imagines otherwise. He must be singularly uninformed about the digital world. Or perhaps his mind was elsewhere.

(Anonymous sources close to Shapps have tried to explain that four of the suspect edits were during times when Shapps was actually inside a synagogue on a Jewish holy day, and I'm not sure what the wireless Internet arrangements are in London synagogues; but the details are not by any means unmurky: The Guardian investigates them here.)

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