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.
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.