Jimmy Wales on Censorship in China

In this photograph taken by AP Images for Hult International Business School, Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, speaks at Hu
In this photograph taken by AP Images for Hult International Business School, Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, speaks at Hult International Business School's Executive Speaker Series in San Francisco, CA on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012. (Ryan Anson/AP Images for Hult International Business School)

On May 19, 2015 both the encrypted and unencrypted Chinese-language versions of Wikipedia were blocked in China, ending what has been a complicated censorship situation for the world's most important online resource.

We have been critical of Wikipedia's approach to censorship in the Middle Kingdom. In a recent piece, I lamented the loss of Wikipedia in China. The encyclopedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, who is also a staunch and public anti-censorship champion, reached out to us on Twitter. Jimmy agreed to publish our unedited exchange on the difficult nature of dealing with censorship in China.

Q: What is Wikipedia doing to combat censorship in China and elsewhere?

A: Wikipedia opposes censorship worldwide. We have a very firm policy, never breached, to never cooperate with government censorship in any region of the world. It is my view that access to knowledge - particularly factual encyclopedic knowledge of the kind put forth by Wikipedia - is a fundamental human right, a corollary to the right of freedom of speech.

I have personally worked to lobby governments around the world to change their policies. And the Wikipedia community has at times successfully gone on strike, turning Wikipedia black for a day in various languages, in order to protest against censorship. Q: In 2012, you threatened to make Wikipedia HTTPS by default in the UK in an effort to derail the Snooper's Charter. The Communications Bill would have allowed the UK authorities to track their citizens web and phone use. You suggested that this kind of activity was something you would expect in "Iran or China". Why did you not threaten China in the same way?

A: We didn't just threaten - we did it. Wikipedia is now HTTPS everywhere. We have been 100% consistent in our principled approach to the opposition of spying on people using technology. We have known for a long time that there was a problem with clear text transmission of Wikipedia, but like many people, we didn't realize how bad the situation had gotten until Ed Snowden's revelations about the actions of the NSA.

Moving to HTTPS everywhere was a technical challenge for a number of reasons. We did it in stages, and we have always understood that it would likely lead to the complete block of Wikipedia in some countries.

Q: We believe that you would never voluntarily practice censorship. However, allowing the Chinese authorities to censor individual content is very similar to the strategy of some media organizations, i.e. they build a full version site and also a "clean" site which results in the full version getting blocked while the clean version remains accessible.

Whether this approach can be seen as technically self-censorship is up for debate, but the end result is that Chinese get a version that complies with the Chinese censorship standards. Was this the thinking behind the China strategy?

A: We do not allow the Chinese authorities to censor individual content. So this is a silly thing for you to say.

That is not up for debate - it's an entirely silly notion. Someone who steadfastly refuses to comply with censorship and moves forward aggressively to combat censorship in every venue can hardly be said to be "self-censoring" when China is the one doing the censoring.

The thing you should understand is that such debate tactics are sad. Rather than championing and supporting people working hard - both publicly and behind the scenes - to champion freedom of information, such silly arguments merely make people inclined to just not listen to you.

One aspect of this whole thing that is different for us from just about any other website is that we are very strongly community-driven. So when we think about what are the exact best tactics for us to advance freedom of speech in China, we think about and respect the views of our community members inside China. Ultimately we might be forced to overrule them, but they are passionate about the issue of free and open access to Wikipedia and for us to authoritatively bumble around based on pressure from activists *rather than* engage in a slow and thoughtful consultation with community members about the best way forward would be a mistake. Q: So community members in China were against moving to an all-encrypted version of Wikipedia before because they feared that the site would get blocked? What is the reaction of the community now that the site is blocked?

A: In any community discussion, there will be voices on various sides of an issue. The community has been very supportive of our move to HTTPS, even though the resulting current situation is that Wikipedia is likely to remain blocked for a long time.

Q: What do you think is the future of internet censorship in China? Do you think we will ever seen a loosening of restrictions or will things only continue to get worse?

A: It greatly depends on the world reaction to what is happening in China. If the western world stops turning a blind eye on censorship in China and invoke pressure on the Chinese authorities to allow more freedoms, things will change positively. This is one of the things I am thriving to achieve through the Jimmy Wales Foundation. We all must take responsibility and raise our voice for change.

Q: If you sat down with China's cyber czar (Lu Wei, the head of the Cyberspace Administration of China) what would you say to him?

A: The same thing I have said to his predecessor's and to similar authorities in other countries around the world: you are on the wrong side of history.

Actually, in China, because the usual excuse for censorship is that it promotes a harmonious society, I tend to lead with a discussion about how the censorship program leads to disharmony. I want to push them to rethink their principles from scratch.

Q: If Lu Wei told you that he would not unblock Wikipedia unless you censor content or disable encryption by default, how would you respond?

A: We will never compromise. I'm more patient than they are.

Q: What would be your advice to a foreign internet firm dependent on user-generated content that is looking to enter the China market?

A: I am afraid that I wouldn't have any specific advice, other than to warn them that it will be difficult.

Q: Which foreign firms are "doing it right" in China, in your opinion?

A: It's not really appropriate for me to comment in detail. In some cases I know privately what some companies are doing to help users defeat censorship, but if I talk about that, it will cause those efforts to fail.

But I also think that free speech activists should back off from tactics that involve naming and shaming people who are trying to do the right thing. There are different strategies that may work at different times and for different companies. Sometimes when companies say that the Chinese are better off by having access to their service, even if it is filtered, they are just being weak on human rights - but sometimes that argument can make sense.

If a company is in a complex situation of compromise and offers the defense that they are working to improve matters in China, then it is appropriate to ask them: how are you trying to improve matters? Have you hired lobbyists to try to argue for changing the law, etc.?

Q: If you could turn back time, what would you change about Wikipedia's approach to China, if anything?

A: I think our approach has been better than anyone's. I could say that I wish we had done X or Y differently - things haven't always gone perfectly, and Wikipedia has been blocked for long stretches more than once - but it isn't clear that if we went back and tried a different approach that it would have worked better. History doesn't work that way!

I am most proud that we have always been 100% uncompromising, and better than any other major website on these issues.