David Smith and Jo Revill
Sunday September 10, 2006
The founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia written by its users, has defied the Chinese government by refusing to bow to censorship of politically sensitive entries.
Jimmy Wales, one of the 100 most influential people in the world according to Time magazine, challenged other internet companies, including Google, to justify their claim that they could do more good than harm by co-operating with Beijing.
Wikipedia, a hugely popular reference tool in the West, has been banned from China since last October. Whereas Google, Microsoft and Yahoo went into the country accepting some restrictions on their online content, Wales believes it must be all or nothing for Wikipedia.
His stand comes as Irrepressible.info, a joint campaign by The Observer and Amnesty International for free speech on the web, continues with the support of more than 37,000 people around the world. The campaign calls on governments to stop persecuting political bloggers and on IT companies to stop complying with these repressive regimes.
‘We’re really unclear why we would be [banned],’ Wales told The Observer. ‘We have internal rules about neutrality and deleting personal attacks and things like this. We’re far from being a haven for dissidents or a protest site. So our view is that the block is in error and should be removed, but we shall see.’
Wales said censorship was ‘ antithetical to the philosophy of Wikipedia. We occupy a position in the culture that I wish Google would take up, which is that we stand for the freedom for information, and for us to compromise I think would send very much the wrong signal: that there’s no one left on the planet who’s willing to say “You know what? We’re not going to give up.”‘
Wikipedia’s entry on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 includes the government’s official claim that 200-300 died and the Chinese student associations and Chinese Red Cross’s estimate of 2,000-3,000 deaths.
Wales said: ‘I think it’s an interesting question whether they’re prepared to understand the difference between advocating one set of figures or another versus simply reporting on what the controversy is. I can understand that they would be upset – although of course I still don’t think they have any moral right to ban anything – if we were pushing one set of figures in contrast to their objections, but if we are reporting both, to me that’s exactly what an encyclopaedia should do and they should be comfortable with that.’
Wales will meet senior Chinese officials in an attempt to persuade them to allow the website’s 1.3 million articles to appear there uncensored.
‘One of the points that I’m trying to push is that if there’s a small town in China that has a wonderful local tradition, that won’t make its way into Wikipedia because the people of China are not allowed to share their knowledge with the world. I think that’s an ironic side-effect and something the people in the censorship department need to have a much bigger awareness of: you’re not just preventing information about Falun Gong or whatever you’re upset about getting into China, you’re preventing the Chinese people speaking to the world.’
The Irrepressible.info website will allow visitors next week to access and distribute censored content.
Since Amnesty International launched Irrepressible.info with The Observer on 28 May 2006:
· More than 37,000 people around the world have signed the pledge calling on all governments and companies to ensure the internet is a force for political freedom, not repression. They include Coldplay’s Chris Martin, dotcom entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox, Bob Geldof and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
· The House of Commons foreign affairs select committee has condemned Google, Microsoft and Yahoo’s co-operation with the Chinese government as ‘morally unacceptable’.
· Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has said that the company compromised its principles by accepting Chinese censorship. He said it was ‘a set of rules that we weren’t comfortable with.’
· Members of the US Congress have championed the Global Online Freedom Act in a bid to stop major internet companies co-operating with regimes that restrict free expression, including Belarus, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos, North Korea, Tunisia and Vietnam.