Creating Technology for Social Change

In Defense of Wikipedia: The Theory of Change Behind Website Shutdowns

There’s probably a good reason that anything popular runs into a backlash, and it’s probably related to evolution. Whether it’s liking a popular band or enjoying yoga, it might be good for our survival that we never all want to be in the same boat, no matter how great a boat it is. But just because it’s inevitable doesn’t make it right. Half the time, as with that yoga article, the backlash feels forced, even if it raises some good points.

Sarah Lacy’s new site PandoDaily just launched. And as with any blog subsisting on web traffic, they have strong opinions! Her former TechCrunch colleague, Paul Carr, didn’t wait long before going on the attack and taking a contrarian stance against Wikipedia’s action. In multiple posts, he went after Wikipedia for their planned shutdown tomorrow, and didn’t mince words:

For one thing, Jimmy Wales and the rest of the Wikimedia Foundation have spent the past few months pleading with users from around the world to donate money to keep their service up and running. Shutting down Wikipedia voluntarily, even for a day, makes a mockery of that entire appeal.

Arguing that a one-day closure reminds everyone of the importance of net freedom is like burning down one church to underscore the importance of the First Amendment for all of the others. Even if the shut-down did send an effective message, it’s still not Wikipedia’s call to make. If you ask the entire world for money to stay live, then you owe the entire world the courtesy of staying live, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

…to shutter Wikipedia — a crowd-funded international encyclopedia — in protest of a single national issue is even worse. It’s idiotic, it’s selfish and it sets a horrible, horrible precedent.

Besides the fact that mock censorship of a website for 24 hours is not like burning down a church, this backlash to the SOPA backlash makes three specific points:
1. Wikipedia asked users for donations to keep running, and therefore voluntarily shutting down is a violation of trust
2. Wikipedia asks its editors to honor strict neutrality guidelines on articles ranging from abortion to torture, and here they are taking sides on a piece of legislation
3. SOPA and PIPA are a national US problem (concurring with Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter, although also taking his tweet out of context)

Point one is almost moot. A nonprofit can (and most do) accept small donations without then basing every critical organizational decision on the perceived intent of those donations. Nowhere in Wikipedia’s donor appeals did they mention 100% uptime, or offer to compromise the organization’s most cherished values (an open web where knowledge can proliferate) because of an annual pledge drive. Yes, some of their donors could get pissed off by this move. Many more will support the organization taking a bold stand. That’s actually what taking a stand is: risking pissing some people off, even people you like, over something that’s more important than any of you. (According to Wikimedia’s press release, support has been overwhelmingly positive within the 1,800 Wikipedians who have discussed the action).

Point two is a stronger argument by Carr, but conflates Wikipedia, the online resource, and Wikimedia, the nonprofit organization that runs it. Wikipedia, the encyclopedia, enforces neutral language in all of its articles so that they’ll provide the best reference material possible. That’s not the same thing as Wikimedia, the organization, which is free to make decisions like this, especially as the decision doesn’t affect the quality of the reference material itself. If Wikimedia feels these bills are a threat to its very existence, a 24-hour shutdown has nothing to do with violating the ethics of authorship on the site. The SOPA and PIPA pages will be held to the same neutrality language as all of the other pages. While I’d imagine that’s been a challenge of late, I’m sure the same pro-SOPA comment guys are carefully watching that page for biases.

Update:Wikimedia’s official release says essentially the same thing I just wrote on the point above, and gives more background on how the decision was made.

On the point that these bills are “a single national issue,” Carr and Costolo are dead wrong. First, the US has crazy disproportionate power, hard and soft, over the workings of the global internet. Second, it’s not like the same battle isn’t going on everywhere else, too. Third, this bill would specifically allow the US to essentially shut down foreign-hosted websites. It’s about as international as it gets. And fourth, this “idiotic, selfish” move will only impact the English-language version of the site tomorrow. Of course, Carr also hyped Costolo’s tweet into more than it was. It was a direct response to a question about Twitter shutting down for the day. Twitter will remain up, and likely take some form of action against PIPA.

Converting Inconvenience into Action

As I wrote two months ago, it’s critical that the consumers around the world who value the internet’s openness understand that everything they love about the web is under attack. It’s critical that they be educated and given channels to rally to the web’s defense, or else the traditional forces of money and power win in the halls of Congress yet again. So critical that it might even be worth a day without Wikipedia.

Website shutdowns are a valid method of protest, in this case, because that’s where anti-SOPA forces are going to find millions of sympathetic allies. Whether it’s a complete site shutdown of protest, as Wikipedia is doing, or a friendly link on the most popular homepage in the world, which Google will provide, the end result is the same: average internet users confronted with the nefarious plans of the people who want to break the internet. These shutdown actions, in addition to a likely flood of phone calls to a universally despised legislature, will educate millions more Americans about the bills and about the tenuous nature of the openness of the web that we’d love to take for granted, the very openness its architects tried to enshrine.

Outside of the protest, this will day of action can, of course, be seen for what it is: an incovenience. It’s no different than your commute to work being blocked by people marching in the streets. How annoyed you become depends on whether you support strikes / Occupy / the revolution, but the protesters have already succeeded in getting your attention where they wouldn’t have otherwise had it.

Within protest movements, you invariably come across someone whining that “The vast majority of Americans don’t care because they’re too busy watching American Idol” (the specific TV show referenced changes based on the popular-but-shallow series du jour). Usually, the media is also blamed for failing to convey the severity of what is going on. And while the media has, in this case, failed to communicate the dangers of a bill their bosses are supporting, the average person probably doesn’t yet care, because caring is exhausting and there are just so many things to care about these days. It is the job of the organizer to make their issue relevant to the people who would otherwise not pay it any attention. In this way, organizing does involve a degree of marketing.

That’s why this method of protest, is, in this case, brilliant. If Americans are anything like Egyptians, or Wikipedians are anything like Tumblrers, a day of censorship of popular websites will quickly generate pressure on Congress (and even free up a little pocket of time to make that phone call. I’m guesing from previous advocacy that there will be some busy signals). The sites with the users most likely to participate are the very sites signing up to participate. In this way, many of those incovenienced will actually feel united with the movement, unlike the guy whose commute is disrupted by a protest he doesn’t care about.

Which begins to answer the next inevitable point of backlash: “Why didn’t these sites shut down for [insert other issue here]?” Carr makes this point, worried about the precedent being set, and others will voice it soon, if they haven’t already. The answer is because these bills directly involve these users of these websites. Studies about Twitter spread like crazy on Twitter. People protesting changes to Facebook find thousands more like them on Facebook. When the Massachusetts ballot included a resolution to lower taxes on liquor, every liquor store in the city displayed some sort of support in their windows and at their cash registers. It’s not that they don’t also care about veterans benefits or starving children, this is just the most obvious place to have this conversation. One commenter on Carr’s post made the important point that we have the right to freedom of speech, not obligation of speech. Speaking up for one issue does not obligate you to speak up for every issue, even if you’re sympathetic.

Finally, traditional broadcasters have yet to give SOPA much play on the evening programs, where most Americans still get their news. I’m going to wager that these shutdowns compel the broadcasters into covering the issue.

Updated to clarify that Carr has taken a contrarian stance against Wikipedia taking action against SOPA and PIPA (not a contrarian stance in support of the bills).