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Wikipedia's Co-Founder Explains Why We Need a Free Internet

Jimmy Wales talked to us about the need to be on the lookout for threats to a free and open internet.
Photo by Nate Griffin

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Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, is one of the few people who can legitimately claim to have changed the world. His much-imitated open-content website has profoundly changed the way people access information. He's also advocated for a free and open internet, going so far as to sue the NSA last year in an attempt to preserve Wikipedia's users' anonymity.


Recently, I sat down with Wales to discuss the role of civil society in holding governments accountable for their actions and promoting individual liberties.

VICE: How would you define the importance of the internet today?
Jimmy Wales: I consider the internet a breakthrough innovation in the history of humanity. It presents a fantastic opportunity for people to connect with each other online, voice their opinions, and discuss political ideas. They can engage in organizational behavior to hold governments accountable and mobilize for global positive change.

Why do you frequently insist on the notion of a "free internet"?
The best way to understand free internet is to contrast it with the shortcomings of a censored internet. Open internet is when there are no restrictions on people having online conversations. China censors significant amounts of online content today. Although Wikipedia is accessible in China, certain pages are filtered. Nobel peace prize recipient Liu Xiaobo and dissident artist Ai Weiwei's pages were blocked by Chinese authorities. Events like the Tiananmen Square riots or religious cults like Falun Gong cannot be openly discussed online in China.

Can censorship be justified at times?
Censorship threats exist in varying forms. Justifications also vary in nature. They can be terrorism-related: "Oh we have to monitor what everyone is doing on the internet to save our children from terrorists." Preposterous decisions or policies will ensue. During riots in London, the British government suggested shutting down Twitter for people's protection. I use that example because it symbolizes policymakers' one-dimensional perception of social media. Shutting down Twitter to curb social upheavals ignores that people also use Twitter to share political information or warn others of areas to avoid. If anything, these harmful ideas will further encourage riots. It's just a silly concept. But those kind of ideas get put forward fairly often in places like the UK where they really shouldn't.


What is Wikipedia's stance on censorship?
We are a politically neutral community. People of all political leanings and affiliations are welcome on Wikipedia as long as the content they publish is supported with evidence. We try to be neutral and we try to leave our biases and preconceptions at the door and get our work done together.

Censorship however is something that cuts across political spectrums. We are very political and mobilized against censorship because it undermines our vision of a free encyclopedia for everyone on the planet in their own language. If governments deter people from finding neutral and factual information, the whole idea of Wikipedia crumbles.

The blackout you initiated a few years ago drew a lot of attention to Wikipedia. What was the rationale behind it?
A few years ago, the US House of representatives introduced the SOPA Bill (PIPA was the corresponding bill in the Senate). Under its original version, the bill intended to set up a technological surveillance system similar to what the Chinese government had implemented. It would have enabled American officials to block and censor overseas websites that were allegedly violating copyright without judicial process or oversight. For example, a small website owner in Denmark wouldn't have had the legal resources to challenge a US government ban on his site for alleged copyright infringements. These measures would have seriously endangered the open internet. We debated this piece of legislation internally and concluded on closing our site's English version for 24 hours in the US. Our community then voted to forbid access to the English Wikipedia globally. The impact was phenomenal. A senator declared that 10 million people contacted Congress that same day. The House of Representatives phone system crashed because so many people were calling in. Our maneuver drew tremendous press attention on this law and fueled citizen pressure on Congress, which eventually succumbed and abandoned it. We must be vigilant because freedom-destroying laws are bound to arise sooner or later.


Has the debate over bills like that changed since then?
Things have shifted in Congress. The conflict was initially depicted as an industrial dispute between Silicon Valley and Hollywood on the parameters of copyright. Policymakers were arrogant enough to believe that voters weren't concerned about copyright issues. It turns out they understand it because it's impacting their everyday lives. For instance, if you film your kid's birthday party and send his grandma YouTube footage with music playing in the background, the soundtrack may have been silenced because Google detected a copyrighted song playing on the radio. Restricting the personal use of music defeats the purpose of copyright.

People have understood by now that this issue no longer exclusively concerns an industrial regulation of publishers but rather something that impacts us at our core. The blackout set new terms to this debate by involving civil society. Civil society told legislators that if they want to pass a bill on copyright they have to prove to the general public that they understand what they're doing. You can't introduce an ill-conceived law intended to block foreign websites with no judicial process. The public really cares about this issue so you have to listen and cater to their concerns, fears and claims. You have to accommodate other people than the lobbyists who are raising campaign funds for you.

Can the relationship between giant internet providers and consumers be transparent and neutral?
Look no further than app stores to witness the chokehold where control is exerted by a small amount of people. Both Google play and Apple have to approve every new app available in their stores and subsequently take a 30 percent cut. People fear that internet providers will block applications like Skype to promote their own systems. To be fair, this is likely to occur but it hasn't happened yet and we should all be very concerned. Apple can decide tomorrow to come out with a phone service and block Skype from the app store because they already have the right infrastructure.

What would you say to world leaders about censorship and freedom of information?
I think it's a huge mistake for any country to systematically monitor its population and control information. It fuels people's discontent. It's also becoming less feasible. There are new ways to circumvent surveillance and access content.

Follow Katherine Keating on Twitter.