“We want you to imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”
This used to be something only a glassy eyed hippy might tell you*, but over the past eight years (it really was only eight years ago) Wikipedia has changed the way that swaths of humanity access and relate to information. As the GPL and BSD License are to software, the GFDL and Creative-Commons licenses are to documents. Governed by the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC-by-SA) License, Wikipedia articles can, in short, be copied and derived from as long as credit is given to the original source and any new works are distributed under the same CC-by-SA license. Wikipedia’s copyleft** makes it not just free to look at; it’s free to retransmit, edit, and download in it’s entirety.
This places Wikipedia in a different category from most of the other large internet entities upon which we now find ourselves (quasi-?)dependent. Of the ten most trafficked websites worldwide, Wikipedia is the only non-profit. It has no trade secrets to protect (even the code the site runs on is open source) and few reasons to block access to its content. When you can’t read a Wikipedia article, it’s likely not Wikipedia that’s blocking you, it’s someone else. This is the case, for example, in China. For a time, Wikipedia was blocked entirely there. Now the site is open, with access to controversial articles blocked. Other countries, and sometimes even schools have attempted to block access to Wikipedia.
“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”***
Whether it’s a damnable injustice or a cultural difference, some are intent on getting Wikipedia and other “undesirable” data to computers behind national firewalls. But for those who lack the appropriate proxy servers, encryption, etc., this task may seem daunting. That’s where something called a “sneakernet” comes in. Though it’s easy to forget, sometimes the best way to move a piece of data is not push it down a wire, but to put it in your pocket****. When you have Internet Police bearing down on you–or you live outside the range of the world’s networks, this may be your only option.
A small project called Information Without Borders (whose wiki homepage is unfortunately subject to constant spam, making me doubt their possibilities for success) is attempting to develop a sneakernet protocol: a program that can be run on computers unconnected by the internet to facilitate data transfer between them. The working plan is to use old cell phones, flash drives, any device whose cost drops after a few years, to carry data payloads beyond the reach of the Internet and behind blockades such as the Great Firewall of China.
Already, people have been using physical means to circumvent virtual roadblocks. In Cuba, there is an underground market for flash drives containing data, videos, anything to which access is restricted. In the United States, other steps are being taken to expand the Internet’s reach. A US project called Feed Over Email will eventually begin beta-testing in Iran and China.
And this is where Wikipedia comes in again: it’s easy to copy and to transport and–within the boundaries of the United States at least–legal too. US developers have already created distributable local storage versions of the encyclopedia that can run on hardware as slow as the iPhone and take up as little as 2 gigabytes of space. In fact, these Wikipedia distributions have already made it onto laptops sent around the world as part of the One Laptop Per Child program. It seems that we are not too far away from a world where the knowledge contained in Wikipedia’s 9.25 million articles (in ~250 languages) can reach and empower you behind any firewall. It just might have to get to you in someone’s pocket.
*Jimmy Wales has freaky-bright eyes
***this one was brought up by Ben Somers at CPSC183:day 1
****”The moral of the story is: Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.” Andrew S. Tannenbaum, Computer Networks (2003). Also, don’t underestimate pigeons.
2 thoughts on “Where No Wikipedia Has Gone Before – by “Drew W””
Nice post – I had no idea people were doing that.
It reminded me of a conversation I once had with a Chinese language professor. He was a pretty pro-Chinese government kind of guy, but it made an interesting point about censorship. His point was that a lot of what Westerners perceive as freedoms of information are perceived as types of imperialism. He shocked me by mentioned how foreign journalists reporting on the Tibet crisis will exaggerate or misinterpret situations. He mentioned how a picture in the NYTimes of a Tibetan protester being dragged off by the Chinese police was actually not a Tibetan protester at all. He insinuated that Western journalists often act as foreign agents, working to destabilize the Chinese government.
While he may be biased (I definitely took a few steps back when I first heard these arguments), I think he still has some valid points. Projects like these definitely come off sounding like Western cultural imperialism to Chinese ears. Wikipedia may be open to modifications by anyone, but clearly a coterie of admins have established its basic cultural norms. And clearly those norms are rooted in American values.
Many may say that things like Wikipedia are not propaganda – they provide information, not espouse values. But Christian missionaries of the past century didn’t necessarily try and subvert the government either – they simply tried to spread information about their religion. And for almost all of them, they had good intentions. But more than a few countries still see them as imperialists in their own right. Afghanistan’s kidnappings and killings of Korean missionaries are clear indicators.
This idea is especially interesting after learning about just how delicate the current internet’s freedoms really are and how easily the ‘generative Internet’ might be damaged just by our switched to tethered appliances. Information Without Borders clearly believes that freedom of information is a value within itself, especially in trying to design a “sneakernet.” However noble information may be, they are trying to develop a black market and circumvent the local government. Imagine if China tried to develop black markets for, say, its paint here in America. Maybe it’s even just giving it away, so it’s clearly not profiting from it. Obviously, we’d find this objectionable, because it represents China trying to subvert the American laws that govern import export. Black markets are cute, but they are never good in the long run, because they tend to have unfortunate side effects and serve to hide problems from public awareness and discourse.
Information may be great, but I feel that just saying “whether it’s damnable injustice or cultural difference” really brushes over a lot of important issues. The internet is not an universal good, nor is it an inevitable trend, just like the capitalism or democracy before it. And trying to force both into a country like China may result in a harsher clampdown or worse, a splintering of the internet (with the Chinese accessing a Chinese-only internet). And I doubt that’s what anyone wants.
I like the idea of creating local copies of Wikipedia that can be distributed on flash drives, etc. Sure, it’s pretty useless for the Western world with our constant connection to the internet, but in third-world countries where internet access is limited, it seems like a good idea. Perhaps there is a use for the WikiReader after all (although it’s probably too expensive to distribute in these areas; compared to putting the 2 GB of data on a DVD or flash drive).