The decision by Wikipedia and scores of other sites to go dark for a day earlier this year in protest of a pair of controversial copyright protection laws working their way through Congress has been heralded as a milestone in online activism. But Jimmy Wales, founder of the online encyclopedia, hopes that the Wikipedia community won't opt to take that drastic step again save for what it views as the most serious threats to online freedom.
The copyright bills in question -- the House's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate's Protect IP Act (PIPA) -- galvanized opposition on the Web to provisions that critics, including prominent companies like Google, warned would empower authorities to shut down legitimate sites in the name of combating copyright infringement.
So for Wales and like-minded activists, it became a matter of free speech, an issue core to the ethos of sites like Wikipedia. And thanks in no small part to the groundswell of opposition that arose online, capped by the day of Websites going dark, SOPA and PIPA never made it to a vote in their respective chambers.
But that blackout will stand as an exception, and perhaps a one-time only event for the English-language Wikipedia site, Wales said on Thursday at the Wikimedia Foundation's Wikimania conference.
"I hope that we never have to do it again. I don't want us to become a site that goes on strike every six months over something. I think it should be reserved for only the most serious things that directly impact our work," Wales said in remarks before an auditorium packed with Wikipedia editors from several dozen nations around the world.
"I also think that we have to be very, very careful about our political neutrality. I think there are many issues that many of us feel very, very passionate about," he added. "I think it would be very risky for us as a community to start getting involved more and more in different political issues."
He said that he only knew of two other instances when a Wikipedia site went dark. In October 2011, the Italian Wikipedia blacked out articles in protest of a wiretapping measure being debated in Italy's parliament. Earlier this week, the Russian Wikipedia staged a protest against a bill authorizing the government to shut down objectionable Websites. That measure passed the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, on Wednesday.
Given that the Italian and Russian protests concerned government efforts to exert greater control over the Internet, both cases would seem to meet the criteria for a blackout that Wales described at the Wikimania conference.
But he is adamant that Wikipedia remain as close to a pure democratic community as possible, and suggested that the community open a free-ranging discussion about parameters for a blackout protest that would aim to formulate guidance for when such a measure would be appropriate.
"I think that's something that we need to develop principles around so that when we do it, we know we're doing the right thing so that we really have the support -- the full support -- of as broad a population of the community as possible to know that we're doing something sensible and thoughtful," he said.
SOPA and PIPA, though they were roundly condemned by Wales and many other open Internet advocates, were nonetheless offered as a solution to what he admitted is a legitimate problem. Websites that exist solely to profit from the unauthorized distribution of the intellectual property of others are rightfully subject to law enforcement activity.
But Wales suggested that there are existing legal remedies to combat infringing sites, pointing to the still-unfolding criminal case against the founder of the site Megaupload.
At the same time, he acknowledged that the legal mechanisms in place to combat online piracy may not be perfect, but warned against what he described as a heavy-handed effort by members of the entertainment industry to put in place a framework that would reach well beyond their own intellectual property interests and interfere with the lawful exchange of content on the Internet.
"I wouldn't be opposed to maybe some adjustments and some tweaks as to how these things are dealt with," Wales said. "But in doing so, we cannot accept sort of absurd, technologically incompetent, draconian policies that will impact everyday users in a negative way. I think we have to really be on the lookout for power grabs in the guise of solving what I think most people would agree is an actual problem."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
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