Thursday, 3 May 2007

Wikipedia is not Thermopylae

The HD DVD encryption key controversy rages on, and while Digg goes out on a slender limb, other user-generated content communities, including the Wikimedia family, are still deciding what to do.

The good news is that the community seems, for the most part, to be taking a sensible course of action and rejecting attempts to put the contents of the key into Wikipedia. There are a few dissenters though, most of whom are beating the "censorship" drum and complaining about oppression of the masses and their rights to free speech.

There's a section in what Wikipedia is not entitled "Wikipedia is not censored", which is often clung to by these people who rail against "the Man". If memory serves me correctly, the section used to be titled differently; "Wikipedia is not censored for the protection of minors" at one stage, and "Wikipedia is not censored for good taste" at another. The latter of these is the better, in my opinion, because the point of the statement is to explain that we can neither guarantee that all content will comply with some standard of good taste, nor will we exclude content that some people find objectionable (encyclopaedic material about sex, for example).

The problem is that some people try to boil that down to a slogan, "Wikipedia is not censored", and get themselves confused. While it's correct to say that we generally don't exclude content for reasons of taste based on social or religious norms, we undoubtedly do exclude content based on our policies and based the laws of Florida and of the United States, where the projects are based.

It also needs to be remembered that while Wikipedia is not censored (for good taste), it is not a whole bunch of other things too. It's not a soapbox, for starters, nor is it an experiment in democracy, or anarchy. It's especially not a tool for experiments in civil disobedience. It's an encyclopaedia.

United States District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan put it well in the case of Universal v Reimerdes:

"Plaintiffs have invested huge sums over the years in producing motion pictures in reliance upon a legal framework that, through the law of copyright, has ensured that they will have the exclusive right to copy and distribute those motion pictures for economic gain. They contend that the advent of new technology should not alter this long established structure. Defendants, on the other hand, are adherents of a movement that believes that information should be available without charge to anyone clever enough to break into the computer systems or data storage media in which it is located. Less radically, they have raised a legitimate concern about the possible impact on traditional fair use of access control measures in the digital era. Each side is entitled to its views. In our society, however, clashes of competing interests like this are resolved by Congress. For now, at least, Congress has resolved this clash in the DMCA and in plaintiffs' favor."

So to all the geeks itching to fight the Man, go write to your Congressman (if you live in the US and have a Congressman of course - if you don't, then I suppose you'd better nag your American friends to do so). And if you want to engage in civil disobedience, don't abuse Wikipedia in order to do so. It's not your farm to bet.


Titoxd said...

There is one entry that I think should be added to WP:NOT:

Wikipedia is not the government.

The government is restricted from restricting your individual rights to speech, press and assembly; but private entities are not. You can go outside to a park and protest a law all you want; if you go to my house, I can kick you out and press trespassing charges if you do not comply. Similar with Wikipedia: the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia community have the right to kick away any user that is behaving in an undesirable manner.

Censorship? No. Because you're not at the park. You're writing text on someone else's servers. They can decide to remove that privilege at any time. What can you do? Several things... but if it boils down to it, you always have the right to fork, and the right to leave.

David Gerard said...

I think painting the Evil Number on the walls of every Hollywood studio in letters fifty feet high is the only sensible response to their idiocy.

But what pissed me off is using Wikipedia as a graffiti wall. Um, NO.

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