It’s not just difficult to imagine a world without Wikipedia – it’s nigh-on impossible. Jimmy Wales and his crowdsourced encyclopedia is pretty much the greatest illustrations of the old tech rallying call ‘information wants to be free’.
Founded in 2001 by Wales and software developer Larry Sanger, Wikipedia is one of the few online forces for good in an age where technological innovation, no thanks to increasingly dystopic NSA revelations, is met with wariness, if not outright suspicion.
Speaking to Dazed at the Lovie Awards, the internet pioneer and visionary talks about internet surveillance, the Chinese ‘Arab Spring’ and the potential for huge online leaks.
Dazed Digital: Has there been a turnaround in the idea of a free internet? It seems like governments are trying to increasingly control the web.
Jimmy Wales: I think they’re going to fail. It used to be easy – if you wanted to suppress a piece of information, you had to ring up the editors of five newspapers and say “don’t print it, or else”. Now you’ve got millions of people who can get that information out – even in China, which has the most systematic and comprehensive censorship programme. No longer do they think, “Ah, the government’s looking after us”. They’re mocking and laughing at them. This is going to change China in the long run – there will be a Chinese [Arab] Spring. I don’t know if it’s this spring or ten years from now, but people won’t continue to live this way.
DD: Wikipedia is censored in China, which you've been pretty critical of. Where do you see that going?
Jimmy Wales: The mission of Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet in their own language. So when we have situations where, for example, the Chinese government is censoring the entry about Ai Wei Wei, we can’t do anything other than view that as a human rights violation and something that we will never countenance. We’ll fight in every possible way that we can.
“It should be as hard for the government to find out what you’re reading on Wikipedia as it is for them to find your bank balance when you log into your bank account"
Similarly for surveillance: what you’re reading in Wikipedia is your own personal business, it’s not the government’s business and it’s not your employers business. Imagine about a young teenager in a repressive country who is having questions about their sexuality. They’re in an environment where information about human sexuality is hard to come by and your government might actually persecute you. You really just want that kind of privacy to be able to read what you want and just learn.
We can use that kind of example, or Ai Wei Wei, who mocks the government. It’s your right as a Chinese person to be able to read about him. Maybe you read it and say “Actually, I don’t agree with him but that’s your right as an individual to [read about him]. We’ve taken steps in recent months to encrypt every connection to Wikipedia. My feeling is: let’s make them work for it. It should be as hard for the government to find out what you’re reading on Wikipedia as it is for them to find your bank balance when you log into your bank account.
DD: How surprised are you by the NSA revelations?
Jimmy Wales: I am surprised by the sheer audacity and magnitude of it. Within the United States, it’s absolutely unconstitutional. People are going to go to jail for that.
DD: So why hasn’t there been as much anger over surveillance in Britain?
Jimmy Wales: It’s a fairly deep cultural question. In the US, the national religion is the Constitution. People care about the Bill of Rights and the idea that your dignity is inviolable and the government does not have the power to do certain things to you. In the UK, there is no sort of written bill of rights and the Supreme Court is not that powerful, and Parliament can pass any law they want unless the Queen vetoes it, which ain’t going to happen.
You could repeal any legislation about freedom of speech. It doesn’t happen now because culturally, the UK is a robust functioning democracy. Whereas in the US there is this understanding that if Congress passed a law saying “The New York Times is hereby shut down”, the President could sign it and the Supreme Courts can say say “Fuck off, that’s a violation of First Amendment.” That’s part of the American identity, that there are these certain things that the government doesn’t have the right or the power to do.
The Germans are incredibly upset about this too, in no small part because of their own history with the Stasi and the files they kept on people. They know how bad governments can get. The UK hasn’t had that experience.
DD: Do you think there’ll be more Snowden-style leaks?
Jimmy Wales: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s just a function of the technology. It’s not hard for people in many organisations to download a massive amount of data and publish them. Worst case scenario is someone stealing all the data and private messages from a hundred thousand Facebook accounts and throws them up on illegal, file-sharing networks. That kind of irresponsible, massive leak is bound to happen at some point.
DD: So this year, everyone should learn to encrypt their shit?
Jimmy Wales: What’s interesting is that I don’t think people will need to learn. I think we’ll see an ongoing trend to more websites being encrypted by default. It’s happening already and becoming easier and easier – you probably don’t think, “I’m going to encrypt my connection to Gmail”, you just go onto the website and it’s encrypted now. It’s happening more and more, people are just realizing, “Actually, an open web connection is a bad idea.”