Wikimedia blog

News from the Wikimedia Foundation and about the Wikimedia movement

Posts by Sue Gardner

Katherine Maher joins the Wikimedia Foundation as Chief Communications Officer

Katherine Maher

We’re happy to announce that Katherine Maher has joined the Wikimedia Foundation as Chief Communications Officer. She officially stepped into her new role as head of WMF communications on April 14, reporting to the Executive Director.

In her role as CCO, Katherine will work to ensure fast, easy information flow about Wikimedia in multiple languages, both internally within the movement and outside of it. She’ll also work to provide vital communications support to WMF’s various departments and programs, as well as the broader Wikimedia movement.

Katherine comes to us from Washington D.C., where she was most recently Advocacy Director for Access, a global digital rights organization. At Access, she was responsible for media and communications, including communications between the organization and its 350,000 members. She handled urgent global threats to digital rights and participated in the organization’s strategic planning. In addition, she was deeply involved with the production of RightsCon—a conference series convening key stakeholders and influential voices on the issue of preserving a free and open internet that supports digital rights and free expression.

Katherine’s experiences advocating for the rights of ordinary internet users and engaging with a large global community make her an exceptional fit for this new role. We are thrilled to have her aboard.

Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation

Announcing the search for the Wikimedia Foundation’s Chief Communications Officer

A few weeks ago, Jay Walsh stepped down as head of Communications for the Wikimedia Foundation. I was sad to see Jay leave — for nearly six years he’s guided WMF communications activities with unerring judgement and poise. He’s been a trusted colleague and a good friend to the movement.

Today, we’re announcing an international search for his replacement: a Chief Communications Officer (CCO) to lead the WMF’s small communications team.

It’s a unique job. Wikipedia is super-famous and the press and general public are highly interested in us. We’re likelier to turn down press opportunities than to seek them out. Unusually for an organization representing a famous brand, we tend to speak freely, rather than aiming to restrict access to information about us, and we do it in collaboration with a decentralized global network of volunteer spokespeople. We don’t try to significantly control or shape people’s perceptions of Wikipedia because we believe brand perception emerges organically out of users’ day-to-day experiences with a product. People love Wikipedia, and so do we: that means we’ve got no reason to be overly controlling about our public image.

We want a CCO who believes in the WMF vision and shares our values. He or she will manage communications at the WMF and across the projects we operate, ensuring a fast and easy flow of information in multiple languages, both internally within the Wikimedia movement and externally with the press, readers, donors and general public. The full CCO job description, including required qualifications, can be found here.

To help in the recruitment process, we’ve engaged Chaloner Associates, an executive search firm specializing in communications roles. If you’re interested in the role, or want to suggest potential candidates, you can write to Amy Segelin (amy@chaloner.com) or Kassie Wilner (kassie@chaloner.com) at Chaloner. You can also apply online here. If you’re a Wikimedia community member, please say that in your application since it’s a plus for us. Also please note we don’t discriminate on the basis of ethnic origin, nationality, religion, political perspective, sex, age, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation, and we particularly value international experience and fluency in languages in addition to English.

We expect to begin interviewing candidates in December, and hope to have a new CCO in place in January.

Please join me in thanking Jay for his many years of service to the Wikimedia movement, and please share this post with your networks.

Thanks,
Sue Gardner

Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner’s response to paid advocacy editing and sockpuppetry

Editors on the English Wikipedia are currently investigating allegations of suspicious edits and sockpuppetry (i.e. using online identities for purposes of deception). At this point, as reported, it looks like a number of user accounts — perhaps as many as several hundred — may have been paid to write articles on Wikipedia promoting organizations or products, and have been violating numerous site policies and guidelines, including prohibitions against sockpuppetry and undisclosed conflicts of interest. As a result, Wikipedians aiming to protect the projects against non-neutral editing have blocked or banned more than 250 user accounts.

The Wikimedia Foundation takes this issue seriously and has been following it closely.

With a half a billion readers, Wikipedia is an important informational resource for people all over the world. Our readers know Wikipedia’s not perfect, but they also know that it has their best interests at heart, and is never trying to sell them a product or propagandize them in any way. Our goal is to provide neutral, reliable information for our readers, and anything that threatens that is a serious problem. We are actively examining this situation and exploring our options.

In the wake of the investigation, editors have expressed shock and dismay. We understand their reaction and share their concerns. We are grateful to the editors who’ve been doing the difficult, painstaking work of trying to figure out what’s happening here.

Editing-for-pay has been a divisive topic inside Wikipedia for many years, particularly when the edits to articles are promotional in nature. Unlike a university professor editing Wikipedia articles in their area of expertise, paid editing for promotional purposes, or paid advocacy editing as we call it, is extremely problematic. We consider it a “black hat” practice. Paid advocacy editing violates the core principles that have made Wikipedia so valuable for so many people.

What is clear to everyone is that all material on Wikipedia needs to adhere to Wikipedia’s editorial policies, including those on neutrality and verifiability. It is also clear that companies that engage in unethical practices on Wikipedia risk seriously damaging their own reputations. In general, companies engaging in self-promotional activities on Wikipedia have come under heavy criticism from the press and the general public, with their actions widely viewed as inconsistent with Wikipedia’s educational mission.

Being deceptive in your editing by using sockpuppets or misrepresenting your affiliation with a company is against Wikipedia policy and is prohibited by our Terms of Use. We urge companies to conduct themselves ethically, to be transparent about what they’re doing on Wikipedia, and to adhere to all site policies and practices.

The Wikimedia Foundation is closely monitoring this ongoing investigation and we are currently assessing all the options at our disposal. We will have more to say in the coming weeks.

Sue Gardner
Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation

Changes to the Wikimedia Foundation Fundraising Team

I’m sorry to tell you that Zack Exley has decided he wants to leave the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), although I am glad to say he’s planning to continue contributing his prodigious creative and analytic talents to our fundraising. As of August 30, Zack will no longer be Chief Revenue Officer, but will instead be a part-time consultant and advisor to the WMF fundraising team, in addition to other consulting work he’s planning to take on.

We all owe Zack enormous thanks and praise.

The year before Zack joined us, the WMF raised USD 16 million in donations, and three years later that has more than tripled to USD 56 million — and we are doing it in a way that’s 100 percent consistent with our mission, vision and values. The many-small-donors model preserves the Wikimedia movement’s independence by preventing over-reliance on a small number of people, it enables the WMF to focus on readers and editors without having their needs drowned out by other stakeholders and it makes us the largest amount of money at the smallest-possible cost. Zack has earned his place in the histories of Wikimedia yet to be written: For the past three years, he has been the single person most responsible for funding the growth of resources for the global movement.

Zack is leaving the WMF fundraising team in terrific shape, and I’m very happy to announce I’ll be promoting into the position of Chief Revenue Officer the deputy head of the department, Lisa Seitz Gruwell.

Since Lisa joined in 2011, both Zack and I have come to heavily rely on her leadership, managerial and strategic abilities. Lisa has been responsible for foundations and major donors as well as being Zack’s deputy, and over the past two years she and her team have significantly grown revenues without increasing the costs to the organization. This is a big deal: Most non-profits need their non-fundraising staff to participate in fundraising efforts, and it’s to Lisa’s credit that her team has figured out how to raise money without that. Lisa is widely respected and trusted. I look forward to her leadership and am confident she will continue Fundraising’s track record of success.

We are also promoting Megan Hernandez, who has been the behind-the-scenes creative talent of our last two online campaigns. She will become Director of Online Fundraising, leading all our online work. And we are promoting Sara Lasner to the role of Development Director, where she will lead the foundations and major gifts team that has been Lisa’s responsibility. Congratulations to Megan and Sara.

Our fundraising strategy will not change. We will continue to focus on the many-small-donors model, supplemented by unrestricted grants and major gifts. Everything takes effect immediately, except Zack’s official departure, which will be August 30. He won’t be at Wikimania, but people in the San Francisco Bay Area will get a chance to see him when he comes to town in early September. And of course we’ll continue to see him afterwards, in his new relationship with us.

I’m very confident in the trio of Lisa, Megan and Sara to lead fundraising for the movement, and I’m delighted Zack will continue to lend his guidance and creativity to our campaigns. Please join me in thanking Zack for everything he has done for the Wikimedia movement and for his continued involvement. And congratulations to Lisa, Megan, and Sara on their well-deserved promotions.

Sue Gardner
Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation

What’s missing from the media discussions of Wikipedia categories and sexism

Last week the New York Times published an Op-Ed from author Amanda Filipacchi headlined Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists, in which she criticized Wikipedia for moving some authors from the “American novelists” category into a sub-category called “American women novelists.” Because there is no subcategory for “American male novelists,” Filipacchi saw the change as reflecting a sexist double standard, in which ‘male’ is positioned as the ungendered norm, with ‘female’ as a variant.

I completely understand why Filipacchi was outraged. She saw herself, and Harper Lee, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Judy Blume, Louisa May Alcott, Mary Higgins Clark, and many others, seemingly downgraded in the public record and relegated to a subcategory that she assumed would get less readership than the main one. She saw this as a loss for American women novelists who might otherwise be visible when people went to Wikipedia looking for ideas about who to hire, to honor, or to read.

In the days following, other publications picked up the story, and Filipacchi wrote two followup pieces — one describing edits made to her own biography on Wikipedia following her first op-ed, and another rebutting media stories that had positioned the original categorization changes as the work of a lone editor.

For me–as a feminist Wikipedian–reading the coverage has been extremely interesting. I agree with many of the criticisms that have been raised (as I think many Wikipedians do), and yet there are important points that I think have been missing from the media discussions so far.

In Wikipedia, like any large-scale human endeavor, practice often falls short of intent.

Individuals make mistakes, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t call into question the usefulness or motivations of the endeavor as a whole. Since 2011, Wikipedia has officially discouraged the creation of gender-specific subcategories, except when gender is relevant to the category topic. (One of the authors of the guideline specifically noted that it is clear that any situation in which women get a gendered subcategory while men are left in the ungendered parent category is unacceptable.) In other words, the very situation Filipacchi decries in her op-ed has been extensively discussed and explicitly discouraged on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a continual work-in-progress. It’s never done.

In her original op-ed, Filipacchi seems to assume that Wikipedians are planning to move all the women out of the American Novelists category, leaving all the men. But that’s not the case. There’s a continuous effort on Wikipedia to refine and revise categories with large populations, and moving out the women from American Novelists would surely have been followed by moving out the satirical novelists, or the New York novelists, or the Young Adult novelists. I’d argue it’s still an inappropriate thing to do, because women are 50 percent of the population, not a variant to the male norm. Nevertheless the move needs to be understood not as an attack on women, but rather, in the context of continuous efforts to refine and revise all categories.

Wikipedia is a reflection of the society that produces it.

Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit, and as such it reflects the cultural biases and attitudes of the general society. It’s important to say that the people who write Wikipedia are a far larger and vastly more diverse group than the staff of any newsroom or library or archive, past or present. That’s why Wikipedia is bigger, more comprehensive, up-to-date and nuanced, compared with any other reference work. But with fewer than one in five contributors being female, gender is definitely Wikipedia’s weak spot, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it would fall victim to the same gender-related errors and biases as the society that produces it.

Are there misogynists on Wikipedia? Given that anyone with internet access can edit it, and that there are roughly 80,000 active editors (those who make at least 5 edits per month on Wikimedia projects), it would be absurd to claim that Wikipedia is free of misogyny. Are there well-intentioned people on Wikipedia accidentally behaving in ways that perpetuate sexism? Of course. It would be far more surprising if Wikipedia were somehow free of sexism, rather than the reverse.

Which brings me to my final point.

It’s not always the case, but in this instance the system worked. Filipacchi saw something on Wikipedia that she thought was wrong. She drew attention to it. Now it’s being discussed and fixed. That’s how Wikipedia works.

The answer to bad speech is more speech. Many eyes make all bugs shallow. If you see something on Wikipedia that irks you, fix it. If you can’t do it yourself, the next best thing is to do what Filipacchi did — talk about it, and try to persuade other people there’s a problem. Wikipedia belongs to its readers, and it’s up to all of us to make it as good as it possibly can be.

Sue Gardner, Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation

Wikimedia projects reach more than 500 million people per month

In the Wikimedia movement, we have a vision statement that inspires many contributions to our endeavor: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.”

comScore traffic data to Wikimedia sites.

comScore traffic data to Wikimedia sites.

We’re still a long way from realizing that vision, but we’ve recently surpassed an important milestone: as of March 2013, the combined sites hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation reached more than 500 million monthly unique visitors, according to the latest comScore Media Metrix data. Our traffic increased to 517 million in March, five percent higher than our previous record: 492 million in May 2012.

While more people are coming to Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia sites, they are also staying longer and reading more. Over the past 12 months, Wikipedia monthly page requests increased from 17.1 billion to 21.3 billion, with the mobile share increasing to roughly 15 percent of the total, or more than 3 billion monthly views (data). We’re also gratified to see growth in significant target areas: in India, traffic as a percentage of our worldwide total increased from 4.0 percent to 4.8 percent; in Brazil it increased from 3.6 percent to 5.9 percent.

To reach the entire planet, we will need to not only continue to expand our mobile offerings, but also eliminate barriers to access. With Wikipedia Zero, we’re partnering with mobile providers in the developing world to reduce or eliminate data fees for accessing Wikipedia on a mobile phone. In March, we announced the fifth major Wikipedia Zero partnership, which means that the program will be available to 410 million mobile users around the world.

For those who don’t have an Internet connection at all, Wikimedia movement contributors are enabling offline access to Wikipedia, such as the work by Kenyan volunteers who travel to rural schools and install copies of the encyclopedia on computers there. And now, there’s also an open source application for Android phones and tablets that makes it easy to download and read offline copies of Wikimedia content.

The idea of enabling every single human being to freely share in the sum of all knowledge is still as audacious as ever — but it’s also starting to look like an achievable goal, if we come together to make it happen.

Sue Gardner, Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation

 

Please read: an announcement from Wikimedia Foundation ED Sue Gardner

Earlier today I sent an e-mail to the Wikimedia Foundation’s mailing lists, letting people there know that I’m planning to leave my position as Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation. The purpose of this post is to get the news out to a somewhat larger group.

Sue_Gardner_Feb_2013_portrait_crop_2

Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner

I will not be leaving right away. The Board and I anticipate it’ll take at least six months to recruit my successor, and I’ll be fully engaged as Executive Director all through the recruitment process and until we have a new person in place. And so, this note is not goodbye — not yet.

I want to say that making the decision to leave hasn’t been easy. It comes down to two things.

First, the movement and the Wikimedia Foundation are in a strong place now. When I joined, the Foundation was tiny and not yet able to reliably support the projects. Today we’re healthy, thriving, and a competent partner to the global network of Wikimedia volunteers. If that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t feel okay to leave, and in that sense, my leaving is very much a vote of confidence in our Board and executive team and staff. I know they will ably steer the Foundation through the years ahead, and I’m confident the Board will appoint a strong successor to me.

I feel that although we’re in good shape, with a promising future, the same is not true for the internet itself. (This is thing number two.) Increasingly, I’m finding myself uncomfortable about how the internet’s developing, who’s influencing its development, and who is not. Last year we at Wikimedia raised an alarm about SOPA/PIPA, and now CISPA is back. Wikipedia has experienced censorship at the hands of industry groups and governments, and we are –increasingly, I think– seeing important decisions made by unaccountable, non-transparent corporate players, a shift from the open web to mobile walled gardens, and a shift from the production-based internet to one that’s consumption-based. There are many organizations and individuals advocating for the public interest online — what’s good for ordinary people — but other interests are more numerous and powerful than they are. I want that to change. And that’s what I want to do next.

I’ve always aimed to make the biggest contribution I can to the general public good. Today, this is pulling me towards a new and different role, one very much aligned with Wikimedia values and informed by my experiences here, and with the purpose of amplifying the voices of people advocating for the free and open internet. I don’t know exactly what this will look like — I might write a book, or start a non-profit, or work in partnership with something that already exists. Either way, I strongly believe this is what I need to do.

I feel an increasing sense of urgency about this. That said, I also feel a strong sense of responsibility (and love!) for the Wikimedia movement, and so I’ve agreed with the Board that I’ll stay on as Executive Director until we have my successor in place. That’ll take some time — likely, at least six months.

Until then, nothing changes. The Wikimedia Foundation has lots of work to do, and you can expect me to focus fully on it until we have a new Executive Director.

To that end, the Board has appointed a Transition Team that consists of Wikimedia Foundation Chair of the Board of Trustees Kat Walsh, Vice-Chair Jan-Bart de Vreede, Chair of the Board’s governance committee Alice Wiegand, me, my deputy and the Wikimedia Foundation’s Vice-President of Product and Engineering Erik Moeller, Geoff Brigham our General Counsel, and Gayle Karen Young, our Chief Talent and Culture Officer. The Transition Team will be chaired by Jan-Bart, and I will facilitate its work on his behalf.

We haven’t yet defined exactly what the process will look like, although we do know that we will be engaging a search firm to help us. The Transition Team will be meeting informally over the next several weeks, and will have our first face-to-face meeting in mid-April. People who are potentially interested in the Executive Director role should keep an eye on the Foundation’s jobs page, where the position description and contact information for the recruiter will be posted.

Being the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation has been enormously rewarding for me, and I have loved my time with you all. There are many people I am going to want to thank, when we are closer to the date when I’ll be stepping down. For now though, I’ll just say that I love working with you all, I’m enormously proud of everything the Wikimedia movement is accomplishing, and I’m looking forward to our next six months together. I will, of course, always be your friend and advocate.

Thanks,

Sue Gardner, Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation

Wikipedia, the people’s encyclopedia

(This post originally appeared on January 13th in the Los Angeles Times. Tuesday, January 15th, is Wikipedia day and is the 12th anniversary of Wikipedia’s founding in 2001.)

Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can write and edit (yes, even you!), but most people don’t think much about who performs those tasks. With half a billion people around the world relying on Wikipedia for information, we should.

More than 1.5 million people in practically every country have contributed to Wikipedia’s 23 million articles. Actually, that last figure isn’t quite accurate, since more than 12,000 new entries are created every day. Eight articles were created in the last minute. The authors are poets and professors, baristas and busboys, young and old, rich and poor.

It’s crazy. An encyclopedia is one of humankind’s grandest displays of collaborative effort, and Wikipedia takes that collaboration to new levels, with contributors from pretty much every ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic background, political ideology, religion, sexual orientation and gender. The youngest Wikipedian I’ve met was 7, a boy in Tel Aviv who makes small edits to articles about animals and children’s books. The oldest I’ve met was 73, a retired engineer who writes about the history of Philadelphia, where he’s lived for half a century.

My most recent cab driver in San Francisco, a middle-aged guy who I think was Eastern European, told me he edits, although I don’t know on what topics. I don’t know of a comparable effort, a more diverse collection of people coming together, in peace, for a single goal.

But beneath that surface diversity is a community built on shared values. The core Wikipedia editing community — those who are very, very active — is about 12,000 people. I’ve met thousands of them personally, and they do share common characteristics.

The first and most defining is that Wikipedians, almost without exception, are ridiculously smart, as you might expect of people who, for fun, write an encyclopedia in their spare time. I have a theory that back in school, Wikipedians were the smartest kids in the class, kids who didn’t care what was trendy or cool but spent their time reading, or with the debate team, or chess club, or in the computer lab. There’s a recurring motif inside Wikipedia of preteen editors who’ve spent their lives so far having their opinions and ideas discounted because of their age, but who have nonetheless worked their way into positions of real authority on Wikipedia. They love Wikipedia fiercely because it’s a meritocracy: the only place in their lives where their age doesn’t matter.

Wikipedians are geeky. They have to be to want to learn the wiki syntax required to edit, and that means most editors are the type of people who find learning technology fun. (It’s also because Wikipedia has its roots in the free software movement, which is a very geeky subculture.) The rise of the dot-com millionaire and the importance of services such as Google, Facebook and Wikipedia have made geekiness more socially acceptable. But geeks are still fundamentally outsiders, tending to be socially awkward, deeply interested in obscure topics, introverted and yet sometimes verbose, blunt, not graceful and less sensorily oriented than other people.

Nine of 10 Wikipedians are male. We don’t know exactly why. My theory is that Wikipedia editing is a minority taste, and some of the constellation of characteristics that combine to create a Wikipedian — geeky, tech-centric, intellectually confident, thick-skinned and argumentative, with the willingness and ability to indulge in a solitary hobby — tend to skew male.

Although individual Wikipedians come from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds, we tend to live in affluent parts of the world and to be relatively privileged. Most of us have reliable Internet connectivity and access to decent libraries and bookstores; we own laptops and desktops; we’re the product of decent educational systems, and we’ve got the luxury of free time.

Wikipedians skew young and are often students, concentrated at the postsecondary level. That makes sense too: Students spend their reading, thinking, sourcing, evaluating and summarizing what they know, essentially the same skills it takes to write an encyclopedia.

Like librarians and probably all reference professionals, Wikipedians are detail-obsessed pedants. We argue endlessly about stuff like whether Japan’s Tsushima Island is a single island or a trio of islands. Whether the main character in “Grand Theft Auto IV” is Serbian, Slovak, Bosnian, Croatian or Russian. Whether Baltimore has “a couple of” snowstorms a year or “several,” whether the bacon in an Irish breakfast is fried or boiled, whether the shrapnel wound John Kerry suffered in 1968 is better described as minor or left unmodified. None of this makes us fun at parties, but it does make us good at encyclopedia writing.

As befits an encyclopedia that anyone can edit, Wikipedians tend to be iconoclastic, questioning and curious. Wikipedia is a place where debate is a form of play and people are searching in good faith for the most correct answer. We’re credentials-agnostic: We want you to prove what you’re asserting; we take nothing on faith (and the article on “Faith” has ample footnotes). We’re products of the Enlightenment and the children of Spinoza, Locke and Voltaire. We oppose superstition, irrationalism and intolerance; we believe in science and reason and progress.

The most contentious topics on Wikipedia are the same as those in the rest of the world, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global warming, “intelligent design,” the war on terrorism and people such as Adolf Hitler, Ayn Rand and Dick Cheney. We believe it’s not our job to edit Wikipedia so that it reflects our personal opinions; instead, we aim to be fair to all sides. Entries need to be neutrally stated, well-documented and verifiable. Editors are asked to avoid stating opinions, or even seriously contested assertions, as facts; instead, we attribute them to their source. We aim for non-judgmental language: We avoid puffery words like “legendary” and “celebrated” and contentious words like “racist” and “terrorist.” If we don’t know for sure what’s true, we say so, and we describe what various sides are claiming.

Does this mean Wikipedia’s perfect? Of course not. Our weakest articles are those on obscure topics, where subtle bias and small mistakes can sometimes persist for months or even years. But Wikipedians are fierce guardians of quality, and they tend to challenge and remove bias and inaccuracy as soon as they see it.

The article on Barack Obama is a great example of this. Because it’s widely read and frequently edited, over the years it’s become comprehensive, objective and beautifully well sourced.

The more eyes on an article, the better it is. That’s the fundamental premise of Wikipedia, and it explains why Wikipedia works.

And it does work. On Dec. 17, 2001, an editor named Ed Poor started an article called “Arab-Israeli conflict” with this single sentence: “The Arab-Israeli conflict is a long-running, seemingly intractable dispute in the Middle East mostly hinging on the status of Israel and its relations with Arab peoples and nations.” Today that article is 10,000 words long, with two maps and six other images and 138 footnotes. It’s been edited more than 5,000 times by 1,800 people in dozens of countries, including Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Denmark, Germany, Australia, Canada, Britain, the United States and Russia.

Since it was founded 12 years ago this week, Wikipedia has become an indispensable part of the world’s information infrastructure. It’s a kind of public utility: You turn on the faucet and water comes out; you do an Internet search and Wikipedia answers your question. People don’t think much about who creates it, but you should. We do it for you, with love.

Sue Gardner, Executive Director, the Wikimedia Foundation

The message from the Wikipedia Blackout: Please leave the Internet alone

WMF SOPA boiler room

I’ve had ten hours of sleep in the last three days, and I just ate my first proper meal since Saturday. My inbox is clogged with messages I may never read. I am tired, but happy.

The Wikipedia blackout is over. Our goal was to raise awareness about SOPA and PIPA and to encourage readers to make their voices heard — and we’ve been successful on both counts. More than eight million people used our look-up tool to find their elected representatives, and millions more made their voices heard on social media. Thousands of journalists wrote news stories featuring the Wikipedia blackout screen.

We’ve made history together, all of us. And I think it’s important we understand what’s happened here, because the ground has just shifted under our feet.

Journalists see this as a conflict between old media and new media. They are wrong.

They see it that way because it fits with how things normally work.

“Right now, if you want effective legislation around your industry, then you need to pay the right lobbyists, make the right campaign contributions, and write the right legislation at the right time in order to get it out of Washington,” says Clay Johnson, formerly of the Sunlight Foundation. “If you had to objectively pick the winning team in Washington, pick the team with deep pockets and great lobbyists, not the team with community organizers and signed petitions. … It sucks, but those are the rules of the game.”

That’s precisely why MPAA chair and former longtime senator Chris Dodd called the blackout an “abuse of power,” and characterized it as “technology business interests resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into corporate pawns.” He can only see the issue as a clash of moneyed interests, because that’s how things normally have worked.

That’s why NPR, the Associated Press, Fox News – all label this fight as Hollywood versus Silicon Valley. It’s why stories like this one from Bloomberg compare how much money television, movie and music companies are spending in Washington, versus what Google and Facebook are spending. People are imagining that post-blackout we are playing the same game, just with new participants.

That’s not what this is.

There’s a lovely Clay Shirky talk floating around the Internet today. In it, Clay says what’s at risk with SOPA and PIPA isn’t just websites, or website owners: it’s our ability to share things with one another, as individual human beings. We are the people, Clay says, that SOPA and PIPA aim to police, because the biggest producers of content on the Internet are not Google and Yahoo. It’s us.

We know that’s true, because the people who led the blackout yesterday weren’t the CEOs of Google or Yahoo or Facebook or Twitter. It wasn’t the Wikimedia Foundation. The blackout was led by ordinary Internet users. At its centre were people like Osarius and SiPlus and FT2 and Titoxd and Fluffernutter. These are the people at the forefront of online content creation.

Wikipedia’s involvement in the fight against SOPA proves this wasn’t about powerful interest groups, and it wasn’t about money. Wikipedia is operated, and not controlled, by a non-profit — it’s got no corporate interests to protect and it doesn’t make any money from piracy or copyright infringement. It’s written by ordinary people. Reddit is a bunch of people sharing links and talking about them. Metafilter is the same. Tumblr, Craigslist, the Cheezburger network, The Oatmeal, 4chan, identi.ca. These are not mega-corporations.

The Internet has been giving ordinary people access to the means of production for more than fifteen years. Sometimes we use it to create pictures of cute cats. Sometimes it’s the world’s largest encyclopedia. Sometimes, we bring down corrupt regimes.

What happened yesterday is that around the world, Internet users found their voice — fighting back against people who wanted to threaten their freedoms. It is true that copyright infringement poses a problem, and it’s reasonable that those affected want to get their problem solved. But their problem is not more important than the ability of ordinary people to express themselves, to share and to learn.

It sounded today like Congress is starting to come back to technology firms and their users and ask what they want. What compromises to SOPA and PIPA would be acceptable. Would OPEN work. Do they need to draw up something new.

The message of the Wikipedia blackout, and the other responses to SOPA and PIPA, wasn’t “Let’s talk about how we can combat online copyright infringement.” It was: “Don’t hurt the Internet. It’s too important. Let us do our work. Let us learn and create and share.”

I want to thank everyone involved with the blackout. Below is a quick list of people I worked with, or saw working. If you helped but you’re not named here, please consider yourself thanked :-)

In completely random order: Dario Taraborelli, Lori Phillips, Moka Pantages, Nicholas Bashour, Luke Faraone, Jan Ainali, Puki, André Savik, Dcoetzee, Vituzzu, Stacey Merrick, Dan Rosenthal, Michael Snow, Sumana Harihareswara, Wikitanvir, Jim Redmond, Kaganer, PeterSymonds, Mikołka, ZeaForUs, Spiritia, Iliev, Anubhab91, Ali, Haidar Khan, Joan manel, Davidpar, Cameta, Mormegil, Okino, Sir48, Giftpflanze, Rbmj, Tecsie, BreadMaker, Antonorsi, Mariadelcarmenpatricia, Huji, Tommikovala, Nikerabbit, Lamiot, Seb35, Zetud, Amire80, Rekp, איש המרק, Eranb, עידן ד, Trần Nguyễn Minh Huy, Itzike, Vibhijain, Ruy Pugliesi, Roberta F., Tgr, Kelly Kay, Pagony, Alensha, William Surya Permana, Gombang, Gregorovius, Civvì, Gnumarcoo, Austroungarika, Miya, Whym, Takot, Melberg, Omshivaprakash, Idh0854, Freebiekr, Diagramma Della Verita, RajeshPandey, Mathonius, Romaine, Mwpnl, Whaledad, Wpedzich, Sp5uhe, Przemub, Ency, Przykuta, Teles, Vitor Mazuco, Lvova, OC Ripper, Euriditi, Maduixa, Wikiwind, Јованвб, A1, Олег-літред, Violetbonmua, Prenn, Cheers!, Sameboat, Tbayer (WMF), OhanaUnited, Tom Morris, Wdchk, Sarah Stierch, Risker, Billinghurst, NuclearWarfare, Jimmy Wales, Orionist, Ryan Kaldari, John Du Hart, Aaron Schulz, Kat Walsh, Cherian Tinu, Mike Godwin, Jim Burger, David Gerard, Johnuniq, James Forrester, Prodego, Fluffernutter, Dana Isokawa, Fae, Andrew Lih, Brandon Harris, Jeremyb, Michelle Paulson, DeltaQuad, Pete Forsyth, Fetchcomms, Heather Walls, Rachel Farrand, CMBJ, Erik Moeller, Fifelfoo, James Alexander, Itzik Edri, Katie Horn, Iván Martínez, Matthias Schindler, Ben Hartshorne, Jon Davies, Anthere, Slobodan Jakoski, Victorgrigas, Dimce, Jerry-Yuyu, Patricia Morales, Stephen LaPorte, Varnent, Lennart Guldbrandsson, Neil Kandalgaonkar, Greg Maxwell, Ian Baker, Jeandré, Howie Fung, Ryan Faulkner, Beatriz Busaniche, Philippe Beaudette, Ziko van Dijk, Oliver Keyes, Dimce Grozdanoski, Keegan, André, Guillaume Paumier, Maggie Dennis, Mentifisto, Phoebe Ayers, Arne Klempert, Mike Peel, Gorilla Warfare, Geoff Brigham, Swarm, Peter Gehres, Megan Hernandez, Leslie Harms, Tomasz Finc, Pretzels, Jay Walsh, Whenaxis, Liberaler Humanist, Sam Klein, Andrew Gray, Fifelfoo, Zack Exley, Katie Filbert, Victor Vasiliev, Guy Chapman, Avi, Kenneth/MD, Stu West, Harry, Ryan Lane, Josh Lim, Matthew Roth, Richard Symons, Gayle Karen Young, Yuvaraj Pandian, Evangeline Han, Milos Rancic, James Hare, Adrienne Alix, Samat, Tomasz Ganicz, FT2, Alessio Guidetti, Galileo Vidoni, David Richfield, Alison Wheeler, Siska Doviana, Erlend Bjoertvedt, Анастасия Львова, Steven Walling, Casey Brown, Tim Starling, Patrick Reilly, Arthur Richards, Asaf Bartov, Alolita Sharma, CT Woo – and of course, the 1,800 English Wikipedians who made the decision to black out the site.

I am happy to add new names to this list — if you want to nominate anyone, just say so in the comments :-)

Thanks also to the sister projects that chose to support the enWP blackout with their own protests: the Albanian Wikipedia, Arabic Wikipedia, Bulgarian Wikipedia, Catalan Wikipedia, Chinese Wikipedia, Croatian Wikipedia, Dutch Wikipedia, Georgian Wikipedia, German Wikipedia, Greek Wikipedia, Japanese Wikipedia, Korean Wikipedia, Indonesian Wikipedia, Italian Wikipedia, Norwegian Wikipedia, Portuguese Wikipedia, Russian Wikipedia, Serbian Wikipedia, Spanish Wikipedia, Swedish Wikipedia, Ukranian Wikipedia, Vietnamese Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons.

Sue Gardner
Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation

Wikipedia’s community calls for anti-SOPA blackout January 18

Today, the Wikipedia community announced its decision to black out the English-language Wikipedia for 24 hours, worldwide, beginning at 05:00 UTC on Wednesday, January 18 (you can read the statement from the Wikimedia Foundation here). The blackout is a protest against proposed legislation in the United States —the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECTIP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate— that, if passed, would seriously damage the free and open Internet, including Wikipedia.

This will be the first time the English Wikipedia has ever staged a public protest of this nature, and it’s a decision that wasn’t lightly made. Here’s how it’s been described by the three Wikipedia administrators who formally facilitated the community’s discussion. From the public statement, signed by User:NuclearWarfare, User:Risker and User:billinghurst:

It is the opinion of the English Wikipedia community that both of these bills, if passed, would be devastating to the free and open web.

Over the course of the past 72 hours, over 1800 Wikipedians have joined together to discuss proposed actions that the community might wish to take against SOPA and PIPA. This is by far the largest level of participation in a community discussion ever seen on Wikipedia, which illustrates the level of concern that Wikipedians feel about this proposed legislation. The overwhelming majority of participants support community action to encourage greater public action in response to these two bills. Of the proposals considered by Wikipedians, those that would result in a “blackout” of the English Wikipedia, in concert with similar blackouts on other websites opposed to SOPA and PIPA, received the strongest support.

On careful review of this discussion, the closing administrators note the broad-based support for action from Wikipedians around the world, not just from within the United States. The primary objection to a global blackout came from those who preferred that the blackout be limited to readers from the United States, with the rest of the world seeing a simple banner notice instead. We also noted that roughly 55% of those supporting a blackout preferred that it be a global one, with many pointing to concerns about similar legislation in other nations.

In making this decision, Wikipedians will be criticized for seeming to abandon neutrality to take a political position. That’s a real, legitimate issue. We want people to trust Wikipedia, not worry that it is trying to propagandize them.

But although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence is not. As Wikimedia Foundation board member Kat Walsh wrote on one of our mailing lists recently,

We depend on a legal infrastructure that makes it possible for us to operate. And we depend on a legal infrastructure that also allows other sites to host user-contributed material, both information and expression. For the most part, Wikimedia projects are organizing and summarizing and collecting the world’s knowledge. We’re putting it in context, and showing people how to make sense of it.

But that knowledge has to be published somewhere for anyone to find and use it. Where it can be censored without due process, it hurts the speaker, the public, and Wikimedia. Where you can only speak if you have sufficient resources to fight legal challenges, or, if your views are pre-approved by someone who does, the same narrow set of ideas already popular will continue to be all anyone has meaningful access to.

The decision to shut down the English Wikipedia wasn’t made by me — it was made by editors, through a consensus decision-making process. But I support it.

Like Kat and the rest of the Wikimedia Foundation Board, I have increasingly begun to think of Wikipedia’s public voice, and the goodwill people have for Wikipedia, as a resource that wants to be used for the benefit of the public. Readers trust Wikipedia because they know that despite its faults, Wikipedia’s heart is in the right place. It’s not aiming to monetize their eyeballs or make them believe some particular thing, or sell them a product. Wikipedia has no hidden agenda: it just wants to be helpful.

That’s less true of other sites. Most are commercialy motivated: their purpose is to make money. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a desire to make the world a better place –many do!– but it does mean that their positions and actions need to be understood in the context of conflicting interests.

My hope is that when Wikipedia shuts down on January 18, people will understand that we’re doing it for our readers. We support everyone’s right to freedom of thought and freedom of expression. We think everyone should have access to educational material on a wide range of subjects, even if they can’t pay for it. We believe in a free and open Internet where information can be shared without impediment. We believe that new proposed laws like SOPA –and PIPA, and other similar laws under discussion inside and outside the United States– don’t advance the interests of the general public. You can read a very good list of reasons to oppose SOPA and PIPA here, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Why is this a global action, rather than US-only? And why now, if some American legislators appear to be in tactical retreat on SOPA?

The reality is that we don’t think SOPA is going away, and PIPA is still quite active. Moreover, SOPA and PIPA are just indicators of a much broader problem. All around the world, we’re seeing the development of legislation intended to fight online piracy, and regulate the Internet in other ways, that hurt online freedoms. Our concern extends beyond SOPA and PIPA: they are just part of the problem. We want the Internet to remain free and open, everywhere, for everyone.

On January 18, we hope you’ll agree with us, and will do what you can to make your own voice heard.

Sue Gardner,
Executive Director

Take action: If you’re a US citizen, contact your representative to let them know you oppose SOPA and PIPA.