The Internet has changed the world – and it is still changing it, and with it we have changed. For some people virtual reality became the only worthy reality. Without it we feel cut off and ineffectual. Is it for the better, or for the worse? Today we ask these questions to the co-founder of one of the well-known websites in the World Wide Web. Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Our guest today is Jimmy Wales, free speech activist, entrepreneur and, as he is best known, co-founder of Wikipedia. Mr. Wales, it’s great to have you with us today.
Jimmy Wales: Thank you for having me.
SS: All right, so I’m going to start with a quote: “The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen.” These are the words from Julian Assange from his book: “Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet.” Do you believe there is any freedom left online?
JW: Yes, I do. I think there’s significant freedom left online, and I don’t agree with Julian Assange’s quote. Obviously, we should be quite concerned about a lot of the recent revelations about spying and so forth. The internet remains the most powerful tool for the spread of freedom in the world today.
SS: In your estimation, how much of the internet is being controlled right now?
JW: Virtually, none of it. In general, the internet is a very open place where everyone is able to communicate and talk to each other. Governments try in various ways to control it but are almost completely unsuccessful.
SS: How are they unsuccessful if all of your personal data is actually being transferred to government agencies? I mean everything you write on Facebook or any social media is not just yours or your friends to share with, but it’s also shared with the NSA and rest of the world…
JW: Well, I don’t think that’s true. Certainly, we should be concerned about the amount of data that the NSA is collecting, but in terms of what they’ve done with it so far – it’s very minimal, it’s more of a potential danger than… that they’ve actually done anything. For ordinary people, you still have the ability to communicate, to talk with others and to organize, in fact to organize to demand that NSA stops doing this.
SS: The US has long put itself forward as a champion of free internet, but Snowden, as we know, unearthed the truth on the matter. China, on the other hand, has been blamed for censorship, but it has done it very openly. Is there a third option – you know, between dictatorship and hypocrisy?
JW: Of course there is, and that’s freedom. I would say that it’s very important that we continue to condemn all the countries that are involved in censoring the internet, and that is a fairly large number of countries at this point, and we also need to condemn unnecessary and invasive snooping into people’s privacy.
SS: But how do you do that?
JW: How we do that? Well, it’s a democratic country, it’s a democratic process. I think it’s time for us to demand change – I mean, if you look back just two years ago, we did a protest against proposed internet laws in the US – SOPA, PIPA – and we had over 10 million people contact congress that day, and it killed the bill in its tracks. I think that it’s entirely possible for the public to band together and say, “Actually, it’s not OK, these programs are intrusive and they are unconstitutional and it’s time to shut them down.”
SS: But also, is it doable to walk the line between keeping the internet free and preventing threats and abuses?
JW: Yeah, absolutely – it’s not even difficult. Most of the things we are talking about have absolutely nothing to do with threats and abuses. We’re talking about, you know, large-scale wholesale spying. Meanwhile, things like credit card fraud, I mean real crimes are going on and the governments have diverted almost no resources to actually combating this. To me this is an obvious thing… if you want to spend money making the internet a safer place, you don’t spend money spying on everyone, you spend money seeking out criminals and prosecuting them.
SS: You know, it’s very funny, because recently I was speaking to Richard Stallman – I’m sure you know who he is, he came out with the free proprietary software, and he strongly believes there is no freedom left in the internet. Do you completely disagree with him?
JW: Yeah, completely.
SS:You are also an unpaid consultant in public politics and openness with the British government, right? What did you advise the UK government following the leaks that they were spying on the Russian president and actually on everyone else, and transferring data to the US afterward?
JW: My very, very tiny little role advising the UK government is really about open access to research, so it’s about academic research and how to publish that, so I don’t have within my sort of direct responsibilities to advisethe UK government or anyone else on how they should handle this kind of thing. At the same time of course as a public figure I do advise them quite a bit that this kind of spying is inappropriate and undemocratic.
SS: What else do you advise them on? I mean, I just wonder, because for many these leaks… you know, we were suspecting that we were listened to, but these leaks really came as a shocker, so for someone in your position – I mean, of course, its undemocratic and it’s better not to listen to people and everyone, but what else did you advise them, because it was huge, a lot of people got really disappointed.
JW: Certainly, as someone who travels the world and advises the governments all around the world whenever I have the opportunity, that they need to respect the freedom of speech online, they need to respect people’s privacy online. It was always wonderful to be able to point to the stated policies in the US, saying, “Look, there is a better way, there is a right way to do it,” and find out that in many ways they are not living up to their stated policies. It’s a huge disappointment and to some extent it gives a green light to people in very repressive countries to say, “Of course we spy on everyone in our country – so do the British, so do the Americans.” It’s not completely accurate, but it’s a statement that people are making and it’s very difficult to rebut, when you’ve got this wildly inappropriate programs going on.
SS:Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and now Snowden – they actually made a huge sacrifice. Do you understand their position or is it something weird for you?
JW: No, I do understand their position. I don’t agree with everything that different people have said or done, I don’t want to give a blanket endorsement – but I absolutely do understand. There is a time when heroic people have to take a stand and say, “I have information of wrongdoing, evidence of wrongdoing, and if I go forward, and I go public with it, I can bring about positive change in the world.” It’s a very courageous thing to do and it’s something that we should all be thankful for.
SS:Do you think Snowden will see the change he hoped for? Will people stand up against programs like PRISM?
JW: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s having an enormous impact and we’re going to see it in the next few election cycles, as politicians begin to really understand that this is not something they can get away with anymore, that the public is quite united in opposition to these things.
SS: A huge attack on privacy was not even that much government-motivated but also sales-driven. Corporations want our information because they want to sell things to us – can that be resisted, when big money is involved?
JW: Yes and no. Parts of that are completely harmless. I mean, certainly, if I’m using a service, and it’s a free service and they monitor what I’m doing on that service and they use that to deliver better quality advertising to me, so these things I’m actually interested in, I think most of the people don’t have a problem with that – that’s not really an issue people should be all that concerned about. Some people are of course, but that’s very different from having all of your e-mails collected by the government because governments are very, very different from private businesses. The government can throw you in jail; a private business can just try and sell you something.
SS: Also, in recent years we witnessed a dramatic technological landscape change with the arrival of online video, all kinds of social networks, mobility of information – what will be the next wave of innovation, in your opinion?
JW: I think mobile is really where a lot of things are happening right now, and particularly when we look at the growth of the internet, particularly on mobile, in the developing world, we’re about to see next billion people come online from some of the poorest places of the world, and I think that’s going to have a really substantial impact on global culture.
SS: But also, culturally, social media has grown into more than just an internet service. It’s almost like if you aren’t on Facebook, you don’t exist. Who would have expected that actually, are you on Facebook, do you like that fact?
JW: I think I’m just like any other user of Facebook – I’m on Facebook, but I try not to use it too much, because it can be quite addictive, looking at all your friends’ pictures and so forth – and it’s quite a useful service in many ways.
SS:Is that a good thing or a bad thing, because people stop seeing each other when you can just drop a note to someone? I’m just trying to figure out – is it a good thing or a bad thing? What do you think?
JW: I think it’s a good thing, and I don’t think people stopped seeing each other, I think people see each other more often, they keep up with old friends, they keep up with family. It brings us together as a more interconnected society. It allows us to know people all around the world as people, not just as a vision of something. You know, when I grew up in a small town in Alabama, our idea of Russians and what Russians like was so far from the truth, but today this wouldn’t happen to people, because they would say, “Oh yeah, I actually know some Russians online, we’re playing this game together,” or “We chat,” or so forth. It’s allowing the globe to come together and view each other as human beings in a new way. There’s almost no downside to that.
SS: It’s good to see someone who’s optimistic about it, actually. What’s your new project, is it still Wikipedia, or do you have something else coming up?
JW: Wikipedia of course is now No. 5 website of the world; Wikia, my for-profit company, is No. 30 website, so those two things keep me very, very busy, so that’s what I’m working on right now.
SS: They say the internet keeps no secrets and if people want things to remain private they shouldn’t put them online, in any form. But why do people keep doing that and then they are surprised and upset that get in trouble?
JW: I think in general people use the internet to communicate with friends, to communicate with family. Certainly, young people are sometimes not fully aware of all the implications of that, but in general most people find it far more valuable and rewarding in their life than those small downsides.
SS: Wikipedia carries out cross-national fundraising. Has it proved effective?
JW: We are organized as a charity, so we are a non-profit organization; the bulk of the money that we get comes from small donors, giving small amounts of money from all over the world. Over a million people a year donate some small amount of money to Wikipedia, and yeah, it’s working for us. We always have to be very serious about fundraising, it is important, but we do get enough and so we are happy with our current model.
SS: Why did you choose that strategy to start with?
JW: Wikipedia is something different. We think of its being as a library or public park, school – it’s not a place for commercialism, it’s a place to go and think, and learn and study, and reflect. It just has a very different nature, driven by a very strong community of passionate authors who like to share their knowledge with others. Well, it’s just who we are and we’ve always been.
SS: Will you ever allow advertising?
JW: We have no plans whatsoever to do that. We don’t see any reason why we ever would, and certainly it’s something I’m deeply opposed to myself.
SS: So you are not money-oriented, right?
SS: Can I ask you something – you don’t want to go with advertising, because you think it’s evil?
JW: No, I don’t think advertising is evil. Generally, my for-profit company Wikia is advertising-supported wikis, and I think that advertising is a great way to cover the costs of different kinds of services and so forth, and its also just a great way to… you know, you get online and you go buy things and normally you can get quite a good deal. All of that is perfectly fine and normal and wonderful. What I always say is if you go to a library and you’re trying to study or learn something and someone is blasting commercials in your ears – it’s just not a right time or place for it. Even though I don’t think advertising is evil, I think that it’s better suited for some venues than for others, and in some parts of life we don’t need to have advertising. It’s certainly not necessary in Wikipedia.
SS: But isn’t it annoying to be asking money all the time?
JW: No, I don’t think so. Certainly, this year we’ve optimized our request process so much that we’re not even going to have to run our annual end-of-the-year giving campaign. People donate throughout the year in small amounts, most people hardly ever see a notice about it, and so we think it’s really great that we’re able to bother people as little as possible and still keep enough money to run.
SS:So cross-national fundraising – can it become a standard way of funding new developments?
JW: In some cases, yes. Certainly, we live in a world that is increasingly global and so people are able to contribute to different kinds of projects all around the world. Sometimes it might take a form of donation, like with Wikipedia, but just as interesting is the form of crowdfunding, with people pre-buying something that’ll be produced if enough people buy using Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, or sites like that, whose customers might be all over the world. And so maybe only a thousand people in the world care about some particular thing being made, and they can all sign up and say, “Yes, I’ll buy it when it’s finished.” Then the person who might not have known if there was a market for that good or not will be able to prejudge that market and then go ahead and produce the item. So that kind of thing where we use the tools of technology in a more global world means that people can do much more individualized things.
SS: Russia recently tried to block Wikipedia for a description of drug-consumption techniques in a Russian-language article on marijuana. Should there be forbidden information, something which shouldn’t ever be published in Wikipedia?
JW: There are lots of things that we would deliberately not publish in Wikipedia, just because they don’t belong to encyclopedia. We don’t publish funny cat videos and we don’t publish the full-length works of Shakespeare, or something like this. But, for basic information, to say, “Look, people do use marijuana and these are some of the ways that they use it” – I think it’s completely foolish to imagine that blocking the Wikipedia entry is going to stop people from learning that kind of information. Instead, they are going to learn it from much less responsible sources, rather than having a clear encyclopedic description, which would include questions about the dangers and so forth. So, I think that this law… I mean, it’s silly. It’s not going to do anything good, whatsoever.
SS: Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, right? With this in mind, its credibility, I mean the source, is quite low. People would usually laugh if you quote Wikipedia, however much they may be using it in their daily routine – is it possible to bring credibility level to what, let’s say, Britannica enjoyed, when it was the most-quoted encyclopedia?
JW: Yes, and already we have the best academic studies that have been done into the quality of Wikipedia, that show that it’s quality is very much similar to that of a traditional encyclopedia. This idea that people would laugh if you quote Wikipedia is really five years old. Certainly today, Wikipedia is at highest quality it has ever been, but even now we’re not satisfied. We want to be better than that, we want to be far better than we are today.
SS: How do you know that today it’s at the highest quality it has ever been? How do you access that?
JW: You can access it for yourself – go to any 10 random Wikipedia entries and if you click on the “History” you can see what it looked like and go back one year, two years, five years ago, and you’ll see the dramatic improvements over time.
SS: Some say that easy access to information in Wikipedia teaches people simply to copy and paste Wikipedia articles instead of spending their time reading books in the library – what impact does Wikipedia have on reading books?
JW: The most important thing to understand about Wikipedia is that easy access to information is driving more readership of books, more scholarly work, by very young people. We see some amazing examples: a young man recently was featured in the news who had developed a new test for cancer that was 5,000times cheaper than the previous test, and he had done it by starting his research on Wikipedia and then he went on from there, following the links to academic articles and studies and he was able to do this because he had that start, he had an encyclopedia start that was free and easily accessible to him. This idea that people used to go back and go and read books in the library and so forth and they don’t do that anymore, it’s just false.If you look at the empirical data, readership of all kinds is dramatically up across the board and a lot of is driven by the fact that young people in particular are obsessively learning and reading and doing things on the internet in a way that they never did in the past.
SS: But, so, who are the moderators of the source? Because I know that anyone can do the editing, but who monitors it actually?
JW: We have a community and the moderators are elected from the community, they are people who have shown experience in editing, level-headedness, adherence to neutrality policies, and so they tend to be quite geeky, they are mostly tech geeks, people who are obsessive about knowledge and information. You can imagine what kind of person thinks of writing this encyclopedia as their main hobby. They tend to be very passionate about knowledge and information. That’s who they are, it’s really quite an intelligent group of people.
SS: I looked myself up in Wikipedia before I was going to do this interview, just to see if was there, and turns out I’m there. There was a bunch of false facts about me and my life, which I edited, because editing is pretty easy, but it can come back tomorrow – I mean I won’t be able to follow it every day, I’m not going to go on Wikipedia every day and see if someone put something wrong about me and my life, so how does that happen – how [can we] control that?
JW: Generally what happens is that the community, if there’s a problem biography, they all place it under semi-protection so that it can’t be edited by just anyone, it can be only edited by people who have had an account for a while. And then, if anybody has a problem with anything in Wikipedia you can just send us an e-mail and a team of people will look at it and try to solve the problems. One of the things that we really focus on a lot is the need for reliable sources, and so if something is in Wikipedia that doesn’t have a source, anyone can take it out immediately.
SS:Do you think Wikipedia will ever be accepted as a valid academic source for scientific research and reference?
JW: No, I don’t think so, and I don’t think we should try to be. That’s not a question about quality; it’s the question about what is the role of an encyclopedia in the research process. You would never be able to cite Britannica for example in an academic paper at university level. Maybe, for younger children we should be happy if they wrote something and cited anything, but once you’re at the academic level of university the role of encyclopedia is to help you get oriented, to give you background information, to fill in gaps of your knowledge, and to show you the road to go and find deeper materials and other materials for further study. An encyclopedia is always going to be a basic summary of human knowledge, not an in-depth study. In that capacity it’s not the type of thing that you would cite in an academic study.
SS: Different nations have different views on history, and it’s not rare that the same historic event is described differently in Wikipedia if you flip through different languages, because I speak many languages. Is it possible to find a neutral version – is there such a purpose, at all?
JW: Yeah, it’s something that we are very passionate about, and of course human beings are human beings and people do come with the knowledge that they have or what they’ve been taught. One of the great things that happens in Wikipedia is that people meet other people, they discuss things with a wide variety of people and they really do seek out that kind of neutral presentation. Neutral presentation doesn’t mean that we always tell you the ultimate truth, we tell you that there are diverging views on this particular event, and this groups of historians say this and this group of historians say that, and they’ve put forward this evidence and that evidence for each view. So in the end of it, when you finish reading something like that, what you should come away with is a broad understanding of the controversy itself, of what is in dispute and how that works. Of course, it’s not a perfect process, it can never be – human beings are human beings at the end of the day – but we do try very hard to make sure that we present things in a neutral and fair manner to the maximum degree possible.
SS: All right, we have to leave it at that, thank you very much. That was Jimmy Wales, a free-speech activist, and Wikipedia co-founder here with us. Thanks for watching, we’ll see you in the next edition of Sophie&Co.