Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales talks China, privacy, media bias

We had a seat at a big table and listened to him talk about China, privacy, censorship, humanitarianism and the media

Jimmy Wales Wikipedia
Jimmy Wales (second from right) speaks to media, including #GNTECH (right)

Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales was in town for the Ericsson Change Makers Forum yesterday. #GNTECH sat next to one of the most influential men on the internet to hear his thoughts on a range of topics. Here are his words.

Wikipedia vs China: “it’s complicated”

China Wikipedia
The Chinese government has had many issues with Wikipedia over the years, and the site is currently blocked in the country

Chinese Wikipedia is one of our very large projects. We’ve had the Chinese version of Wikipedia [seen here in Zhongwen] for many years. The primary language of Chinese wiki is mandarin. There is a Cantonese side project.

We’ve had a mixed situation in China over the years. We were completely banned in the country at one point, then we were accessible just before the Beijing Olympics right up until this year, after which we have been blocked again. The Chinese version is blocked. For the English version we have mixed reports but seems to be mostly accessible. I just went to China to meet Lu Wei [Chief of the General Office of the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatisation] to discuss the issue and we will continue discussions. But it’s a complicated issue.

For a long time a number of pages were filtered. For example, the page for Al Weiwei, the artist who annoys the Chinese government, was blocked. Globally, Wikipedia is encrypted. At the present time China is blocking all of Wikipedia since they cannot see which pages are being blocked. It’s no longer a policy option for governments to filter certain pages – it’s either all of Wikipedia or nothing.

Traffic flows with the news

David Bowie Wikipedia
You can expect traffic to pick up significantly on the David Bowie page today

In Wikipedia, we see patterns in traffic that correspond with major news story. So whenever something major happens, people turn to Wikipedia to not only read about the event but also about the person or place of the event and so we track the news in a normal way. Or, if there is a Tsunami or earthquake or hurricane, we have a great set of people who attend to these sort of things. In terms of infotainment, for example, Taylor Swift’s biography or whoever is popular at the moment [sees traffic].

Wikipedia is also very important for what we like to call the long tail. For example if we’re talking music, people not only look at what is most popular but also what has been popular, such as the history of Beatles. There are a number of pages out there who track what’s popular on Wikipedia.

At 400,000 pages, the number of Arabic-language pages is relatively small. Why?

Arabic Wikipedia
The Wiki Arabic home page. While the current featured topic on the English home page is about Dishonored, a 2012 video game, the Arabic version features an event: the conquest of Mecca

Most of the reasons are pretty straightforward and are being addressed over time. Access to broadband and literacy rates; these kinds of things have a big impact. Normally, what we see is that when people don’t have access to internet or aren’t very well-educated, that segment cannot completely contribute to Wikipedia. We have segments of points of time when people who can contribute are unable to do so in places such as Syria. When in the midst of a dangerous war situation, obviously people are unable to work on Wikipedia. The wars in the gulf diminish participation.

One of the great strengths Arabic has is that it is a regional language. In my speech I talked about censorship as an ongoing issue all around the world. For example, Finnish has no censorship. If they did have censorship, it would be a very big problem since very few people speak Finnish and it’s a language only spoken locally. With Arabic, if, for example, a certain political dissident in Egypt is very difficult for Egyptians to write about, it may be very easy to write about them in another country. So having a political scope means one government can’t suppress political information because it a global phenomenon.

We have a great community. Regional meet-ups are very important – people sharing ideas. Our partnerships with galleries, libraries and museums are very important. Again, it’s much easier when you’ve got a stable peaceful situation.

How an Arab audience can look to Wikipedia as a reliable source

Arabic Wikipedia sources
Jimmy Wales has highlighted the issue of a lack of Arabic sources on Wikipedia’s Arabic pages

One of the barriers to entry, a historical problem, is translation. The number of things translated into Arabic used to be very bad. That has improved now but there is still a long way to go. For the editors who want to find good-quality sources, obviously having a lot of material translated into their own language is very helpful. It’s not always desirable if you write in Arabic and put a reference to something translated in English. It would always be better to have Arabic sources. I can only say what I hear from contributors.

There is a geek culture that transcends national and regional culture, like science fiction and star wars and such. [Contributors] speak of their difficulties, a lack of sources being one of these. Having more contributors is also great.

Privacy in the digital economy and its perception

Privacy as a concern is increasingly clashing with cybersecurity
Privacy as a concern is increasingly clashing with cybersecurity

Privacy is massive issue. All of us in the global society are still learning. People say, “It’s a generational thing and in future people won’t take it seriously. It’s just a fundamental societal shift.” I don’t think that’s true. What we see is, people say, “Oh, the kids don’t look at what they’re putting online” and now, when kids are on Snapchat, people are like “Oh, the kids are so private.” So obviously people do care about their privacy and personal information. We see they want to have control over their personal information.

One of the big issues we’ve seen is security. Making sure our computers [and] the websites we visit are safe. There [are] lots of ways that data can leak; that is inappropriate. We’ve had many cases of companies that have been broken into, usernames and passwords stolen, passwords stolen. One of the most famous ones, was the Ashley Maddison [adultery] website. That one was interesting since the vast majority was not sympathetic to the victims. You take a USB key [and] walk out of a business with gigabytes of data. We haven’t seen it yet, but we will some major breaches. You can imagine the fiasco is someone walks out of Facebook with 4GB of messages and posts it in a malicious manner. The social damage would be tremendous. I’m not talking about cheating. [What] if you’re having a private conversation with your sister about how irritating your mother is being during the holidays? It’s not something evil to do, but it is a private conversation that is expected to be kept private by the company.

It’s really important to keep investing in security. One of the things that I’m a big advocate of, and the trend is in this direction, is increasing internet security [and the] use of encryption. Over 50 per cent of internet traffic is encrypted and that number is increasing substantially. Netflix is about to going to be encrypted. The volume of traffic is massive but the information itself isn’t that important. One problem is that governments are in two minds about this. One part of the government will be saying we really need to harden against cybercrime, [then] we’ve got the spy agencies saying “oh dear, now we can’t spy on anybody”. Obviously, I’m on the side of we need more security.

Will you monetise WikiProject Bridges?

WikiProject Bridges Wikipedia Bridges
Best practice guidelines for articles on bridges have been provided by volunteer enthusiasts and experts

No, we aren’t. I should mention WikiProject Medicine as another [example] that is quite strong. They have a translation group. During the Ebola crisis, they ran a translation section. They got the entry of the Ebola virus translated into 60 languages, and since then they are up to 100. [Members] worked with other language versions of Wikipedia. They did a partnership with a translation company that does a lot of translation in African languages who donated their services at this point. This is a classic example of where, if you think of Wikipedia as an anarchy where anybody can do anything, you’re misunderstanding; it’s actually quite organised. These are all volunteers who are acting for humanitarian purposes.

Does Wikipedia have a very western world view?

Media bias Wikipedia sources
“The idea that you should really try to cover all sides of the story… has eroded to some extent due to the financial pressures on the newspaper industry” – Jimmy Wales

For us this is a really important issue. I often come across people who ask, “Don’t you worry that Wikipedia is written by young white males?”, and I tell them, “You’re obviously not familiar with the Chinese Wikipedia.” So obviously bias is an issue we have to deal with. What we want is for Wikipedia to be neutral. And the idea there is for you to hear all sides of the story. It should also be presented in very careful neutral language. You do see clear examples where large groups of people have a different perspective since they are getting their information from different media. When the sources are different, the opinions are different.

Moving out of the Middle East to give a more contemporary example, [there] is the issue of Crimea. As you read it in the English, Ukrainian and Russian Wikipedias, you find that it is kind of okay, but there are still differences. All three will try to incorporate different perspectives from different media but they do end up with some predominance over the other. We don’t think that’s a good thing but it’s very difficult because people write what they know. So even if the Wikipedia community is trying very hard to [show] both sides and come to different conclusions. There are legitimate disagreements about historical facts. It’s very hard for the media.

One of the things I lament is the weakening of the older journalistic ethic in the US in many cases. The idea that you should really try to cover all sides of the story is not there anymore. It has eroded to some extent dude to the financial pressures on the newspaper industry. Bias from the media can leak into Wikipedia because of the sources.

Recorded and transcribed by Daanesh Kalyaniwalla. Edited for grammar and clarity by Riaz Naqvi