Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What If The Government Takes Over Wikipedia?

article by: Gongalo Lira

As most people know, Wikipedia will go offline on Wednesday—in protest over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). The Financial Times has a brief but fairly comprehensive overview of what’s going on here.

A lot of people online—myself included—are against both SOPA and PIPA. And for one, I fully support what Wikipedia is trying to do: Shut itself down—the sixth most visited website on the planet—and thereby get those 234 million daily users to read its statement opposing SOPA and PIPA.

Knowing the editorial judiciousness of Jimmy Wales and the Wikipedia team, I have no doubt that, one, their opposition has been carefully thought through; and two, this unprecedented step of shutting down the site is extraordinarily serious—and thus emphasizes how seriously Wales and his team take the measures in SOPA and PIPA.

In other words, Wales and his team aren’t fucking around—this is a big deal.

But I couldn’t help wondering: The U.S. government must also recognize that this isn’t a temperamental teenager throwing hissy-fit—Wikipedia is seriously respected in the online community. Wikipedia’s shut-down is a big black eye to SOPA and PIPA—and to the people who are pushing it, especially Barack Obama’s White House.

So what if the U.S. government were to decide to take over Wikipedia? Prevent it from going offline? With the excuse that they’re taking it over and keeping it online “for the good of the American people”?

Let’s face it, Wikipedia is incredibly important to the Internet. Most of us go to Wikipedia first, if a quick Google search doesn’t get us the info that we need. And whenever we want to get the skinny on something complicated, Wikipedia is often the only place we go to.

Thus we are all particularly dependent on Wikipedia: It shapes our knowledge base much more profoundly than we either realize, or would probably like to admit. The fact that it doesn’t advertise, and depends instead on donations alone, gives it even more credibility, and to our eyes makes it that much more trustworthy.

But Wikipedia is an incredibly small, incredibly fragile operation. It’s yearly budget is less than $20 million per year—nothing, when compared to, say, the bailout of Citi.

Just as it declared Citi, BofA, Goldman and JPMorgan “Systemically Important Financial Institutions”, what’s to stop the U.S. government from declaring Wikipedia a “Systemically Important Website”?

And rather than throwing money at them, what’s to stop the government from revoking Wikipedia’s non-profit status? Declaring it a for-profit—and then using the IRS, say, to take it over? Or better yet, prevent it from shutting down by delaring it “Educationally Essential Website”—and putting it under the aegis of the Education Department? Take it over “for the good of the country”? And then maybe start shading and editing the various Wikipedia entries in order to give a “more balanced version of events”?

“Paranoid”, you say? Well, it’s not paranoia if they’re really coming after you.

Famously, Senator Joe Lieberman brought out security, terrorism, and all the other bugaboos when he argued for the U.S. government to have the ability to shut down the Internet—infamously concluding with the line that, “China, the government, can disconnect its Internet—we need to have that here too.”

State control of the Internet: That’s what Sen. Lieberman meant when he said, We need to have that here too. There’s really no other way to interpret what he said.

What if Lieberman or someone of his delicate sensibilities were to say something like, “Wikipedia is a Systemically Important Website. So we need to be able to take it over—for the protection of the American people and to stop them from being ‘misinformed’.”

Don’t think it can happen? Paranoid, am I?

Then why are Jimmy Wales and his team at Wikipedia shutting themselves down for a day? For kicks?

Or because they think that this is real?

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