Watchdog group says Wikimedia cares less about Chinese users

Wikimedia London Office

Chinese online watchdog group Greatfire has come out against the Wikimedia foundation, arguing that it holds Chinese users in less regard than others from around the world.

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The trouble started last week when Greatfire noticed that the Chinese government had blocked the encrypted, or HTTPS, version of Wikipedia ahead of the Tienanmen Square Massacre anniversary.

By blocking the encrypted version of Wikipedia, the government effectively ensured that people would be forced to use the HTTP version of Wikipedia, which means that they wouldn’t be able to see certain banned articles.

In a bid to draw attention to the situation, Greatfire urged Wikipedia to switch to HTTPS as a default. This, it claimed, would force authorities to completely block the site or leave it alone. “Based on the existing evidence,” it said “it’s more likely that [the Great Firewall] would leave Wikipedia alone”.

The Wikimedia foundation responded by saying that it doesn’t hold “any readers of our projects in any less regard than others”, before addressing the topic of universal HTTPS implementation.

According to Matthew Roth, spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation:

On the larger topic, the implementation of HTTPS by default across all Wikimedia sites for all readers and users is non-trivial, and a conversation is ongoing within the Wikimedia Foundation and within the community about how we might make this possible. We do have plans to eventually enable HTTPS as the default, but it’s difficult and we’re taking steps toward this goal over time.

Our first step is to force HTTPS for logged-in users. The next step will be to expand our SSL cluster and to do some testing on a wiki-by-wiki basis with anonymous HTTPS. At some point later we’ll attempt to enable HTTPS for anonymous users on all projects. Then we’ll look at enabling HSTS, so that browsers know they should always use HTTPS to access our sites.

We’ve only had proper native HTTPS for about a year and a half. We attempted to force HTTPS by default for logged-in users last month and rolled it back. We’ll be attempting this again soon. So, it’s something we’re actively working on. We’ve also hard-enabled HTTPS on all of our private wikis and have soft-enabled HTTPS on a single wiki (Uzbek Wikipedia), when it was requested by the volunteer editor community there.

Greatfire has since responded, saying that it appreciates the engagement but that it still has problems with Wikimedia’s statements.

It’s biggest bone of contention is that Wikipedia should have addressed the HTTPS issue on a country by country basis. “We would also argue that by not providing a default HTTPS connection in China, Wikipedia is consciously limiting access to project knowledge because they know that many Chinese language articles are blocked by the censorship authorities”, it says. It adds that “not having any country-specific strategy, especially for China, is a rookie mistake”.

It claims that implementing HTTPS in countries like China and Iran would be relatively simple, especially given that they represent a relatively small portion of Wikipedia’s total traffic.

Greatfire also thinks that the foundation’s gradual HTTPS roll out is “just not good enough” given the situation in China

This approach is just not good enough given the situation in China. China may have blocked access to the HTTPS version of Wikipedia because of the actions the organisation took to force HTTPS by default for logged in users. This is how the censorship authorities in China are able to manage information control effectively. Each time an organisation takes a baby step to make information more free, they allow the censors adequate time to step in and make a counter move. Wikimedia employees, Wikipedia editors, Jimmy Wales and the other powers-to-be in the combined organisations should know that you cannot treat China with kid gloves. If change is going to happen in China, it must be quick and forceful, not ‘soon and gradual’. If the organisation truly wants to fulfill its mission, it should not alienate half a billion netizens.

Finally, it alleges that “Wikipedia may be hesitating to switch to HTTPS-only because they fear they could be blocked completely in China”. Given that kind of language, it seems unlikely that this debate will disappear any time soon.

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