Has Wikipedia stretched too far?

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Has Wikipedia set a dangerous precedent? (picture by Octavio Rojas)

Tomorrow, for a whole 24 hours, the English Wikipedia site, alongside Reddit and other high traffic life influencing websites, are to be going offline in protest of the SOPA legislation trying to make its way through the American legal system as we speak. SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, will most likely seriously infringe the limitless freedom that we currently enjoy as we surf to our hearts’ content and definitely infringe on American civil liberties. This is undisputed as far as I am concerned. What is  troubling me about this is the dangerous precedent being set by Jimmy Wales. Do we really want our most often used educational and recreational escapes wading into the political melee on a regular basis?

Don’t get me wrong, I admire that the third largest website in the world is willing to pin its colours to the mast so boldly and to speak up for the common internet geek like myself that have no voice in Capitol Hill, but we cannot ignore the potential ramifications of websites we have come to rely on on an hourly basis being able to strike and drastically alter our lives; especially the lives of students who consume Wikipedia pages as if they were Starmix.

All day I have been talking to people about the imminent suspension: at first I thought nothing of it but the more people voiced concern the more I realised I used Wikipedia. It’s only 3 o’clock and my browsing history tells me I’ve accessed 45 different articles from Robert Boyle to Co-ordinated Universal Time. Put simply, many people across the world live and breathe Wikipedia and other sites like it. They are an amenity that  the youth of today simply cannot do without.

My concern then stems from the freedom with which sites can suspend service. They are not constrained by their management, trade unions or even national governments. As distressing as it is hypothetical, if Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google fame wanted to close down Google for a while in protest of some kind of new super-tax imposition from the U.S. Government then they would be seemingly unable to be prevented from doing so.

The other side of the coin of course is that websites are the new bastions of power for the 21stcentury: uncheckable, unbuyable bodies that can do what they want in the face of injustices. I fully support the Wikipedia blackout, despite its severe ramifications for those of us struggling to meet deadlines without it in our lives for a day. My real concern is in the hands of other, less scrupulous website owners might now be able to wield this precedent for their own ends. Or maybe Wiki-withdrawal has me paranoid.

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5 Comments

  1. To be quite honest I’m very glad that a site as high-profile as Wikipedia has done something as drastic as this. It’s extremely visible and it’ll alert a lot of people to the sort of draconian copyright legislation that gets forced through parliaments the world over. I’m sure Congress will be getting a lot of e-mails today (if only because they’ve got to find some other way to waste time with Wiki and Reddit down…).

    The only annoying thing is that they didn’t do this to help us English folk when the Digital Economy Act was going through parliament!

  2. It’s their website; they can do what they like with it, and I’m glad they did. SOPA is ridiculous.

    The implication in this article seems to be that you feel entitled to Wikipedia content as and when you need it. It’s a tool, not a necessity, and in its absence there are many alternatives.

    I confess to being quite entertained by all the students panicking during the blackout, with comments such as, “If I fail this essay, it’s Wiki’s fault’ etc. To combat this, the BBC helpfully ran an article with ‘alternatives to Wikipedia’ in it. This mainly consisted of the words “Go to the Library”, written in big letters.

  3. It must be remembered that this was not a decision made by Jimmy Wales. This was a decision made by the Wikipedia community, with a huge number of people directly voting, not only on what action to take (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:SOPA_initiative) but even on the design of the blackout page itself (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:SOPA_initiative/Blackout_screen_designs). Not only is Wikipedia edited by the public, it is also managed by us too.
    And the blackout was designed to be easy to bypass, and the mobile site was not blacked out.

    Also, surely university students should not be relying on Wikipedia, as the majority of subjects do not allow it to be used as a valid reference.

  4. What’s more troubling than the blackout of wikipedia is the drive behind this legislation. Individuals and small businesses were not the ones lobbying congress or the senate, big business and money were the force behind this. SOPA and PIPA may have been stopped for now, but with the corrupt system still existing they’ll just come back in a couple of years time with new name. Legislation like this is introduced in the USA every few years. Now with other things like ACTA in the EU gaining prominence there’s still a threat to the freedom of the internet.

  5. Yeah, much more worried about the US goverment being able to censor free speech than wikipedia having too much power.

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