Critics of Wikipedia’s decision to shut the encyclopedia down as a protest against U.S. anti-piracy legislation say the site shouldn’t be taking an advocacy position on such an issue, but if anything, that decision is a great illustration of how Wikipedia functions and why it’s important.

Wikipedia 10 years

Among the websites and services that went dark on Wednesday to protest the anti-piracy bills that are currently making their way through Congress, one of the more controversial is Wikipedia. A number of critics — including some regular contributors to the “open source” encyclopedia — say the site shouldn’t be taking an advocacy position on such an issue, since it’s supposed to represent a neutral point of view. But if anything, it could be argued that the internal process that led to that decision is actually a great illustration of how Wikipedia functions.

Among those criticizing the encyclopedia for its day-long blackout (which the Wall Street Journal said will affect more than 10 million users) was tech blogger Paul Carr, writing for the new site PandoDaily. In his post, Carr argued Twitter CEO Dick Costolo was right when he said blacking out a global business to protest a U.S. law is “foolish,” and Wikipedia was making a grave mistake by taking such a position, especially since the site just spent months trying to raise money from users to pay its bills:

[T]o shutter Wikipedia — a crowd-funded international encyclopedia — in protest of a single national issue is even worse. It’s idiotic, it’s selfish and it sets a horrible, horrible precedent.

Does Wikipedia have a duty to remain online?

Carr contends because Wikipedia is funded by its members and users, it owes the world “the courtesy of staying live, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.” But his main point seems to be the same one other critics have made: Taking a position against a law like SOPA or PIPA (the former is the House version of the anti-piracy bill and the latter is the Senate version) is fundamentally at odds with Wikipedia’s stated goal of remaining neutral. This goal is spelled out in the site’s guidelines, which enforce what is known as the NPOV or “neutral point of view” in articles.

One editor for the site agreed, saying the blackout (which only affects the English portion of the site, and doesn’t affect the mobile version at all) put Wikipedia on “slippery slope,” which could force it to consider protests for all kinds of public issues. “Before we know it, we’re blacked out because we want to save the whales,” Robert Lawton told the Associated Press. Other users and contributors said they were concerned by taking a position on a specific issue, Wikipedia might call into question its neutral position on other things.

Co-founder Jimmy Wales, however, has said the two things are completely separate, and just because the articles themselves are supposed to be neutral on a particular issue doesn’t mean the Wikipedia community as a whole shouldn’t be able to make its opinions known about issues that affect the openness of the Internet:

The Wikipedia founder also pointed out it was not his decision to shut down the encyclopedia for a day, although much of the mainstream media coverage made it sound as though he had unilaterally made that choice. “This was a consensus decision of the community not mine alone,” he said in response to one critic on Twitter. In a note to the public, Sue Gardner — the executive director of Wikimedia, the non-profit foundation that administers the crowdsourced encyclopedia — also discussed the internal process that arrived at the decision, noting it was proposed by several administrators of the site, then voted on by members, the same way other choices are.

Wikipedia’s process was democratic, as it should be

After the site asked contributors and users for their thoughts about what action Wikipedia should take, more than 1,800 people responded and proposed a number of different approaches, including a global blackout and a blackout just for U.S. users (similar to Google, which blacked out its logo for U.S. IP addresses only). According to the protest’s chief proponents — who were identified only by Wikipedia handles such as User:Nuclear Warfare and User:Risker – the vote for a global blackout won by a slim majority of 55 percent. Advocates of that decision said since the legislation could affect global sites and services, protesting it should also be global.

Blogger and Cato Institute scholar Timothy Lee argued on Twitter that criticizing the Wikipedia decision (which SOPA’s congressional sponsor, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), also did — calling it “a publicity stunt”) shows a lack of understanding about how the user-generated encyclopedia works. While it is tempting to think of the site as a service like Twitter or Facebook, where a group of individuals control the company that offers the service and can take whatever action they wish, Wikipedia is run by a community. There are repeated criticisms about the “cabal” that governs the community, or about the influence Jimmy Wales has over it, but the principle it operates on is not in doubt.

As Megan Garber notes at The Atlantic, the discussion and debate around the decision is a fascinating glimpse into how this sprawling and somewhat anarchic global community of info-nerds functions. It may not be pretty, and it may not always work, but the SOPA and PIPA protest doesn’t highlight any of that — if anything, it does the exact opposite.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Klobetime and

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. give me a break. if need be you can disable java in your browser, or even more easily, just pull up the google cache of the page you’re looking for. geez.

    1. Yes, that is true — I think the criticisms are more about the principle than the actual technical aspects of the blackout. Thanks for the comment though.

    2. The cognoscenti have workarounds. The typical person at a public PC at a library today is not as facile at implementing them.

      1. And omg… they’ll not have Wikipedia for 24 whole hours! Of course, the point is to highlight what could happen if SOPA/PIPA were law… not just for 24 hours, but for good. Protests like this are good. Wikipedia’s critics are wrong.

  2. They are going the right thing. The only way for people to realize what is going on are actions like this. The average person does not get it.

    My brother had not heard about any of this and he lives in the DC area. People outside the tech world need to know how they will be affected in the long run. So, yes, this is needed.

  3. Dorian Ruvalcaba Wednesday, January 18, 2012

    Thank you wikipedia, I contributed 350 hard earned dollars to you, and use your site alot of time since I study at the U of A thanks for your support, and I as a regular user support you black out.

  4. I was going to close http://www.MichaelEdits.com for the day but I decided I’d rather have money.

  5. This misses a vital point: Wikipedia’s going dark finally forced the mainstream media to cover SOPA/PIPA.

    1. Good point, Greg.

  6. A “publicity stunt”: is something your opponent does to get some great free media coverage.

    Wikipedia relies a lot on the Fair Use doctrine, which would foreseeably by under much increased stress under these hideous, greedy bills.

  7. Isn’t it a bit ironic that Jimmy Wales, and the Wikipedia community in general, were largely silent when Wikileaks was last year effectively given the SOPA/PIPA treatment by Amazon, VISA et al?

    1. Not really. The treatement of Wikileaks by these companies didn’t threaten Wikipedia like SOPA/PIPA does. Therefore, it wouldn’t really make sense to protest in that case.

  8. Nicholas Cronwright Wednesday, January 18, 2012

    I work as an SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) writer in South Africa and to be honest I would never have realised how much I relied on Wikipedia until today. I get most of my content from the website as it saves me browsing continuously and makes my writing more efficient.

  9. I use Wikipedia every day and I think it’s well worth a one-day blackout to try to fight legislation as potentially threatening as SOPA and PIPA. It’s the least we can do!

  10. Cheryl Baumgartner Wednesday, January 18, 2012

    I guess no one realized that SOPA would severely damage, if not destroy Wikipedia? How many outside links are on a Wikipedia entry? Does anyone honestly believe thay the user building that entry has contacted each of those sites to secure permission to link to them.

    Wikipedia has every right to respond to a proposed law that directly puts it at risk.

    1. While they link to source, i’m not so sure they would be at risk beeing a nonprofit and all. not to mention the PR backlash for going after Wikipedia.
      Wikipedia taking a stand is in my opinion not because they would be threatened, but because it’s the right thing to do.

      Think of it as racism, you might not be a racist, but unless you stick your neck out and oppose racism when it counts you’re a part of the problem, not the solution.

      1. Cheryl Baumgartner Joe Friday, January 20, 2012

        There is nothing in SOPA that says anyone has to profit in order to to be guilty of copyright infringement or infringement of intellectual property. The way it is written any sharing of or linking to anything without express permission from the original source of the content can be labeled as such.

        All it takes is for a link to be created or information shared without the express permission. Let me give you an example of exactly how it threatens Wikipedia.

        I want to do a blog on one of the celebrities here and Wikipedia has linked to information on that celebs official page. Let’s even assume wikipedia got express permission to do so. When I link my blog to wikipedia while it may be ‘understood’ that people can cite wikipedia as a source and link to content here, that does not mean that I have permission from the celeb in question to link to their site. The celeb doesn’t like the fact that I say he is a sorry actor and has a hizzy fit. Because I linked through Wikipedia to this actors site, they can claim copyright infringement on my part and Wikipedia facilitated that by providing the content here.

        Read the text of the bill and reason beyond the surface. Every share on every network is a potential copyright infringement under SOPA and every network would be guilty of facilitating copyright infringement.

Comments have been disabled for this post