Wikipedia editors slam blackout

2012-01-18 07:35

New York - Can the world live without Wikipedia for a day? The planned shutdown of one of the internet's most-visited sites is not sitting well with some of its volunteer editors, who say the protest of anti-piracy legislation could threaten the credibility of their work.

"My main concern is that it puts the organisation in the role of advocacy, and that's a slippery slope," said editor Robert Lawton, a Michigan computer consultant who would prefer that the encyclopaedia stick to being a neutral repository of knowledge.

"Before we know it, we're blacked out because we want to save the whales."

Wikipedia will shut down access to its English-language site for 24 hours beginning at 12:00 Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday. Instead of encyclopaedia articles, visitors will see information about the two congressional bills and details about how to reach lawmakers.

It is the first time the English site has been blacked out. Wikipedia's Italian site came down once briefly in protest to an internet censorship bill put forward by the Berlusconi government. The bill did not advance.


The shutdown adds to a growing body of critics who are speaking out against the legislation. But some editors are so uneasy with the move that they have blacked out their own user profile pages or resigned their administrative rights on the site to protest. Some likened the site's decision to fighting censorship with censorship.

One of the site's own "five pillars" of conduct says that Wikipedia "is written from a neutral point of view". The site strives to "avoid advocacy, and we characterise information and issues rather than debate them".

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales argues that the site can maintain neutrality in content even as it takes public positions on issues.

"The encyclopaedia will always be neutral. The community need not be, not when the encyclopaedia is threatened," he tweeted.

The Wikimedia Foundation, which administers the site, announced the blackout late on Monday, after polling its community of volunteer contributors and editors and getting responses from 1 800 of them. The protest is aimed at the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect Intellectual Property Act under consideration in the Senate.

"If passed, this legislation will harm the free and open Internet and bring about new tools for censorship of international websites inside the United States," the foundation said.

Both bills are designed to crack down on sales of pirated American products overseas, and they have the support of the film and music industry. Among the opponents are many internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, eBay and AOL. They say the bills would hurt the industry and infringe on free-speech rights.


Social news website is shutting down for 12 hours on Wednesday, but most companies are staying up. Google Inc said it will display its opposition to the bill on its home page in some fashion.

Dick Costollo, CEO of Twitter, said he opposes the legislation as well, but shutting down the service was out of the question.

"Closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish," Costollo tweeted.

Since Wikimedia depends on a small army of volunteers who create and update articles, it's particularly concerned about a lack of exemptions in the bills for sites where users might contribute copyrighted content.

Today, it has no obligation under US law except removing that content if a copyright holder complains. But under the House version of the bill, it could be shut down unless it polices its own pages.

The plans for the protest were moving forward even though the bill's prospects appeared to be dimming. On Saturday, Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, said the bill would not move to the House floor for a vote unless consensus is reached. However, Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, said work on the bill would resume in February.

The White House raised concerns over the weekend, pledging to work with Congress to battle piracy and counterfeiting while defending free expression, privacy and innovation in the internet. The administration signalled it might use its veto power, if necessary.


That the bill seems unlikely to pass is another reason Lawton opposes the blackout.

"I think there are far more important things for the organisation to focus aside from legislation that isn't likely to pass anyway," he said. He's been contributing to Wikipedia for eight years.

Danny Chia, another contributor to the site, said he had mixed feelings about the blackout. The neutrality applies to the content, but a lot of people interpret it as being about the site as a whole, said the California software engineer.

In an online discussion, others raised the same point about the blackout: Appearances matter, and if the audience sees Wikipedia taking a stand, it might not believe the articles are objective, either.

Wikipedia has seen a small decline in participation, from a peak of 100 000 active editors a year ago to about 90 000 now. Wikimedia Foundation blames this mainly on outdated editing tools, and believes it can get the number growing again with software upgrades.

  • MrCyanide - 2012-01-18 08:14

    Forget the dissenters... how can one stand asside when the bill will obviously hamstring the growth and development of the net? not only that but it destroys all freedom of speech, free software development and MANY other things besides If they are too afraid to make a stand and deal with the concequences then ask your self are they HONESTLY worthy of taking up the fight with you? Go dark wikipedia... go dark google, facebook and all the others that protest against this obvious move towards enslaving the public mind... stop SOPA and PIPA at all costs.

      Justin - 2012-01-18 08:39

      Counld not agree with you more MrCyanide, how can you NOT fight against your own closure?

  • david.joffe - 2012-01-18 08:22

    Threaten media freedom in South Africa and News24 pays attention. Internet freedom is threatened in the US and instead of supporting the protests, News24 firstly ignores the censorship story and then secondly posts this article portraying protests thereto negatively (I guess that makes News24's "position" effectively pro-Internet-censorship.)

  • Nathan - 2012-01-18 08:39

    If anyone needs to actually view some WIKI pages today, just Google search them and click the "cached" link that Google provides.

  • Jeffrey - 2012-01-18 09:16

    Since wikipedia is an information source, I think they're quite right in focusing - just for one day - everyone's attention to the proposed bills. Freedom of the net is important; many millions of web users are unaware of a time when there was no internet. The potential precedent of these bills opens any and all governments to an almost Chinese-style censoring of public access to information. These bills should not pass.

  • glen.e.huysamer - 2012-01-18 09:17

    A balance will have to be reached as the music and film industry especially in the independent field take enormous losses. If the current wave of intellectual piracy continues then soon there will be no artist, writers musicians. Freedom of information and it's sharing are all important. However the work of artists that create material content needs to be paid for and people who download this creative work should pay for it. To create art, music, films cost time, and money and for people to think that it is their 'human right' to steal that content, enjoy it without paying a dime is ridiculous. There is a difference between freedom of information and free information. There is a difference between public information e.g. information that belongs to the public, this is daily news, government policies, public companies that are paid for by tax payers. and Information, art, concepts, music and films, entertainment put into the public domain sourced from the imagination of a author, photographer, film maker, musician, designer and so on, and this should be paid for by the public that want to enjoy and be entertained by this material, unless offered for free by the creators. Artists must be paid! Large internet companies at present enjoy the present scenario because it drives traffic to their sites, it creates business for them, telecommunications companies love large downloads, it all adds to large revenues for them. The only one's out of pocket are the creative artists.

      Johan - 2012-01-18 12:23

      Yes, something needs to be done. Everyone likes getting stuff for free, but not working for free. So stop being a hypocrite, and stop stealing others' work. If you don't like paying for music, just make your own. Same for art, computer software, etc.

  • TinyRamsamy - 2012-01-18 10:02

    Shutting down WikiPedia for 24 hours will achieve nothing. Rather get the interset service providers to shutdown all government sites in the world for 24 hours and then see the chaos. The puritanical lawmakers will see the power of people power. Now how do we influence the IS providers to shutdown the government sites - the people of the world unite. Lets us unites to stop using the internet for 24 hours unless they shutdown the government sites. This then is the true potential of the internet an the people who use it. Every entity requires something alse for its own purpose and survival, every organism or inanimate thing has their purpose to serve something else. The internet is the only entity which is the conduit fo its own purpose and survival, use it for itself.

  • Adam - 2012-01-18 13:23

    The framing of this story is truly sad. Surely, Wikipedia has a right to be biased in favour of its own survival and its users' rights to free speech and access to knowledge? This is another instance of undue corporate influence over legislative processes; the separation of powers has been reduced to something for textbooks, not the real world. The fact that News24 decided to run yet another syndicated news item without any critical reflection of its own is a dire sign of the state of mainstream journalism in the country.

  • ludlowdj - 2012-01-19 11:59

    Wikipedia should be able to survive quiet well, as an open source dictionary updated and changeable by anyone online it is not considered a reliable source of information only a source of general consensus information.

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