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 (s nws) 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:
@hakantee The encyclopedia will always be neutral. The community need not be, not when the encyclopedia is threatened!
— Jimmy Wales (@jimmy_wales) January 17, 2012
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.