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Has Wikipedia broken faith with users by going dark?

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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:

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

33 Responses to “Has Wikipedia broken faith with users by going dark?”

  1. Douglas Crets

    Seems kind of short-sighted for Paul Carr, but advantageous way to help launch PandoDaily. Obviously, PandoDaily couldn’t go dark because it was already dark before.

  2. All things must come to pass

    People complaining about how they donated don’t realize that if SOPA/PIPA passes, there won’t be a Wikipedia… forever. The users who voted for it don’t see a cent of it. It all goes to running the servers and the salaries of the handful of actual employees of the WMF (which number in just around a hundred, a far cry from the millions of Google employees for instance). A donation is a gift, it is not a payment nor a subscription. Neither does it give you the right to dictate what Wikipedia should do.

  3. Anonymous coward

    How can a site remain neutral on an issue that will kill it. Make no mistake, should this legislation be passed in its current form wikipedias remaining life would be measured in a handful of months. It would take one complaint from one person that some of the content might be theirs and wikipedia would be starved of funding.

  4. [F]oxymoron

    Wikipedia’s actions make me want to donate more money. What, you expect Wikipedia to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to some lobbyist here in DC to engage in meaningful conversation?

  5. despairing in china

    wikipedia has become an advocacy group. blecch. and some quasi-democratic selection process make the whole thing ok? BLECCH. next month they will have a democratic debate and decide to black out the site to protest, what, sarah palin? also, if advocacy is such a good thing, why the heck have there been no internet protests about China’s overt, horrendous suppression of free speech? or turkey’s jailing of 70+ journalists in recent months, and without due process. or how about protesting iran and syria gunning down citizens in the streets? but no, that wouldn’t play as well at the coffeehouses, i guess. what a joke

  6. We’re talking about an international threat here; not just a “single national issue.” The controversy surrounds loose-leaf legislation (SOPA/PIPA) that would allow the US government to shut down access to websites without due process. Let’s say Wikipedia becomes one of those websites. How many donations do you think came from the US in 2011? I realize the US is not the center of the universe, but to claim this blackout sets a “horrible, horrible precedent” is laughable.

  7. Michelle K.

    I would disagree with Mr. Carr in his thought ‘that 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.”‘ That would be similar to saying the same about any for-proit (or even not-for-profit) organization that takes contributions. Just because people donate to an organization does not mean that they should have any say in the way that management chooses to run it. If only the same could be said about all people that donated to a politician who later turned out to change his policies…

    Also: “Before we know it, we’re blacked out because we want to save the whales,” That’s simply silly. This bill would DIRECTLY effect Wikipedia. And heavily effect at that. A site that is continuously updated by literally thousands of people every day, Wikipedia, (apart from maybe Facebook) would stand the MOST to lose of any other URL in the internet. I think it makes perfect sense that they would take a stand on this. This argument sounded as ridiculously conclusion jumping as the people would argue that allowing gay marriage would lead to beastiality. I mean, come on.

  8. Aubrey Scarborough

    No no no no, you have it very wrong Gigaom. I am very disappointed in you.
    Twitter didn’t shut down because it’s silly to shut down one of the main communication networks for educating people about SOPA. Don’t take the quote out of context.
    Honestly, this article makes you looks bad and ignorant.

  9. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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?

    • 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.

  13. Steve Tapp

    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.

  14. Dorian Ruvalcaba

    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.

  15. 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.

  16. Wizard Gynoid

    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.