Photo by Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Wikimedia Foundation and the Information Society Project (ISP) at Yale Law School recently expanded their longstanding collaboration to focus on raising awareness and conducting research related to threats against the intermediary liability protections that enable online platforms to act as neutral third parties in hosting user-generated content. Through the Wikimedia/Yale Law School Initiative on Intermediaries and Information (WIII), the Wikimedia Foundation will support a Research Fellow, based at Yale Law School. The initiative will support research on policies, legislation, and threats related to intermediary liability and hyperlinking.

Intermediary liability protections are a critical component of the open internet, supporting the free exchange of information online. Threats to hyperlinking and efforts to hold intermediaries liable for user content have become areas of increasing concern to the Wikimedia movement.  Over the past several years, international policies and litigation have threatened to undermine the ability for users and platforms to freely link across the web. The need to monitor and raise awareness around these threats, and to promote ways that help safeguard the freedoms currently in place, has become more vital than ever.

You may be asking yourself: What is intermediary liability?

For more details on intermediary liability, see our policy website.

Every day thousands of people contribute text and images to the Wikimedia projects, develop and support self-governing editorial policies, and work collaboratively to evaluate and resolve conflicting views about  facts, relevance, or the copyright status of a work. The Wikimedia Foundation acts as an intermediary, or a neutral third party, by hosting and supporting Wikimedia projects without controlling what people write and contribute to the sites. As a consequence, the Wikimedia projects are neutral, open platforms where people are free to share knowledge and learn.

Intermediary liability protections shelter intermediaries—such as internet service providers, search engines, social media platforms, and the collaborative projects hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation from liability for the content they host. In our case, these laws and regulations allow the Wikimedia projects to host users’ contributions from around the world without being held legally responsible for the expression of those users. These protections undergird the fundamental attributes of an open internet—for example, the ability to link to websites throughout the world and contribute new content via online platforms. Intermediary liability protections relieve the Foundation of what would otherwise be the near-impossible obligation to make constant editorial determinations about the tens of thousands of edits made to Wikimedia sites each hour.

It is essential to retain these protections for intermediaries and the user-generated content that they host in the face of recent threats that call into question the ability to freely hyperlink to other websites. National governments, through legislation or in some cases naked exercises of authoritarian power, are increasingly demanding that intermediaries block, delist, or remove online content that they deem undesirable or unlawful. Such content includes political criticism and dissent, hate speech, defamation, and content that may violate the privacy or copyright protections of a given country (but not others). In this way, governments and other third parties are increasingly trying to make intermediaries legally responsible for their users’ speech and activities. This is effectively a form of censorship, treating the intermediary as a proxy for the speaker, and imposing huge burdens and restrictions on the free and open exchange of information online.

WIII will aim to generate broader awareness and research around this subject — in part, through the introduction of a dedicated research fellowship position at Yale Law School. Initially, the Research Fellow will focus on advocating the “right to link” and understanding link censorship laws and litigation. The Research Fellow will also conduct broader research related to intermediary liability, organize academic events, foster collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas to protect intermediary liability, support the development of creative legal and policy solutions to the issue, and lead other activities to advance the core goals of the initiative. Applications for the Research Fellow position are being considered on a rolling basis; application requirements are available on the ISP website.

WIII grew out of an ongoing academic affiliation and collaboration between Yale Law School and the Wikimedia Foundation and is made possible, in part, by funding from the Wikimedia Foundation. Given Wikimedia’s mission to build a world in which everyone can freely share in knowledge, one of the Foundation’s fundamental activities is to directly contribute to and participate with the research and educational mission of Yale Law School and other institutions of higher education that support free and open internet principles and free access to knowledge. Yale Law School students and faculty in particular, along with members of the Wikimedia Foundation have participated in symposia, presentations and conferences hosted by either the ISP or the Foundation. Yale Law School students and recent graduates have held internships and fellowships at the Wikimedia Foundation, and Yale Law School researchers have engaged in research with the assistance of Foundation staff.

Eileen Hershenov, General Counsel
Zhou Zhou, Legal Counsel
Wikimedia Foundation

For more information, see Yale Law School’s press release.