Jimmy Wales talks online protest, censorship and the flow of information

Jimmy Wales

Jimmy Wales

In a recent interview with prominent financial magazine Finweek, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales spoke about how the internet has impacted on the world’s protest movements and how governments have sought to quell those movements. He also spoke about the measures some governments are taking to try to curb the free flow of information online, legitimate or illegitimate, is essentially “impotent”. With Finweek’s permission, Memeburn has selected extracts from the interview, which strike right at the heart of these topics.

There are fascinating scientific discussions to be had about information and its probable fundamental place in our universe, but the more pressing issues surrounding it are philosophical. Consider, for example, the Chinese government’s system that filters out parts of the Internet in an attempt to control the information accessible by its citizens. There is also the proposed Protection of Information Bill in South Africa that makes several assumptions in terms of rights to censor information and potentially undermine the roles of journalists and whistleblowers in our democracy.

Other discussions concern the availability of information in the form of digital content, the replication and sharing of which have no technological barriers, but face legislative restriction. That hard drive floating around the office with the latest season of Mad Men on it is the target of a fierce campaign to clamp down on piracy and protect intellectual property.

At the forefront of thinking about information in its various forms are sources that are pushing the limits of our perceptions about the stuff. Not least of these is Wikipedia – the free, online encyclopaedia that has become the de facto source for many people when they need a definitive overview of a subject. It makes information freely available in a powerful way and was recently compared to the Encyclopaedia Britannica in a peer-reviewed study that found the two equally accurate on a wide range of subjects.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who started his career at a futures and options trading firm in Chicago, Illinois, is a vocal opponent to legislation that potentially harms the sensible transfer of information, such as the recently overturned Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the US. It’s not that he supports piracy or believes that IP shouldn’t be protected, but rather that overreaching legislation in this regard is potentially dangerous, even if unintentionally so.

A global push for online censorship

SOPA and PIPA are not unique in nature to the US, and bad legislation as SA’s Protection of Information Bill are symptomatic of a global trend of governments vying to tighten their grip on the flow of information, whether ostensibly attempting to protect intellectual assets or the safety of citizens.

Wales says that in the UK, where he currently resides, there’s legislation being proposed that will enable government to monitor web traffic within the country — essentially spying on citizens as they interact online. The draft Communications Data Bill is Britain’s version of the US’s Patriot Act, only more overarching and akin to legislation in Australia with similar enablement. According to Wales, this nature of legislation, while misguided, is also inherently impotent.

“It’s quite complex, but also quite useless,” he explains. The problem, he says, is that the legislation targets legitimate problems, but is being considered by politicians who know very little about technology and who are being pushed by industry groups to take action through overreaching means.

Wales’s sentiment is shared by anyone with an understanding of how the internet ticks. The problem with this kind of legislation in terms of intent is one thing, but then there’s the fact that governments have tried and failed repeatedly to effectively monitor online traffic.

Part of the reason for this was famously phrased by libertarian John Gilmore when he said: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” The nature of information in its digital form, along with the architecture of the internet, means that you cannot control, police or even effectively monitor it.

Any battle against piracy or the spreading of dangerous ideas online is as pointless as trying to limit access to information that doesn’t suit a particular government. The only way would be to shut down the Internet – and that, too, is impossible for all intent and purpose given the distribution of name servers globally.

The US’s proposed SOPA act superficially targeted the spread of pirated content online, but suggested doing this by compromising the name servers that make the Internet work. A terrible idea, but not easy to explain to someone who doesn’t have a grasp of the technology.

The virtually uncompromisable nature of the internet is also what makes it a powerful tool for spreading ideas and mobilising people. In recent years we’ve seen this idea made manifest, from protests in Iran to the Occupy movement in the US.

“There were some, rather cynical, news stories [about SOPA] saying that it’s an industry battle between Hollywood and Silicon Valley — two industries with different business models, intersecting with each other,” says Wales.

“That’s an interesting way of looking at parts of it, there’s no question about it. But looking at it in that way forgets about citizens and users. I would refer to ‘consumers’, except that it’s a mistake when talking about some of the issues on the Internet. Instead of consumers, I think about ‘citzens’ in their capacity as producers of information for each other,” says Wales.

He uses the example of SOPA, where 10m people in the US were mobilised to call congress and voice their protest against the act. The “Arab Spring” protests in Libya and Egypt are more extreme examples of free information flow used to mobilise masses of people and spread awareness of their plight globally. Uprisings used to be easy to contain – now you can’t hide them from the eyes and ears of the world.

The China problem

Consider that Wikipedia is one of the sites that has been subject to the “great firewall of China” with some of its pages being blocked, such as those referring to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 or the controversial spiritual discipline of Falun Gong. If you try to read those articles in China, you will be greeted with a polite message telling you that you may not.

“Currently we’re broadly available in China, but they continue to filter certain pages,” says Wales. “… and we think it’s a stable situation. We don’t approve of the filtering at all, but we can’t stop them from [doing it],” he adds.

“If they were to have somechange of heart and do something more extreme, I think they should at least talk to us first … but as it is right now, they just block certain pages as they see fit.”

According to Wales, the Chinese government has no delusions about the strength of its censorship technology. Even they know it’s a losing battle. “[The Chinese government] does understand that when it blocks the Liu Xiaobo page, it doesn’t for a second believe that it’s stopping people from knowing who won the Nobel Peace Prize that year, but what is quite effective is that it has a chilling effect on the domestic conversation,” says Wales.

“There are over two-million bloggers in China who are increasingly political, but they are very careful about what they say to avoid having their blogs taken down. There are things — for example corrupt local officials — that the government has no interest in defending, and the corrupt local official has no authority over the Internet. So if you want to complain and discuss that sort of thing, they do allow it. But don’t talk about Liu Xiaobo, or democracy in China.”

Wales believes it’s just a matter of time before the status quo shifts in China with regards to the control of access to information.“It’s just transitional, as far as I can tell,” says Wales.

“The people at the top in China do believe they’re going to transition to a more open model in the future — but they also believe that they can’t just do it overnight or else China will explode. They believe that, even if it’s
not true.”

This article by Simon Dingle originally appeared in Finweek magazine and is republished with permission. The full piece can be found in the current edition of Finweek. You can also follow Finweek on Facebook and Twitter.



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