Access to information is worth protecting
It’s easy to frame the fight over SOPA and PIPA as Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley — two huge industries clashing over whose voice should dictate the future of Internet policy — but it’s absolutely wrong. The bills are dead, thanks to widespread protest. But the real architects of the bills’ defeat don’t have a catchy label or a recognized lobbying group. They don’t have the glamour or the deep pockets of the studios. Yet they are the largest, most powerful and most important voice in the debate — and, until recently, they’ve been all but invisible to Congress.
They are you. And if not you personally, then your neighbors, your colleagues, your friends and even your children. The millions of people who called and wrote their congressional representatives in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act were “organized” only around the desire to protect the Web sites that have become central to their daily lives.
Change like this needed a fresh set of voices. The established tech giants may have newfound political influence, but their fights are still the same closed-door tussles over minor details. They have been at the table, and they have too much invested in the process to change it. More important, they are constrained by obligations to their shareholders and investors, as well as by the need to maintain relationships with their advertisers, partners and customers.
Wikipedia, its users and its contributors don’t have the same constraints. We don’t rely on advertising dollars or content partnerships. The billions of words and millions of images in our projects come from the same place as our financial support: the voluntary contribution of millions of individuals. The result is free knowledge, available for anyone to read and reuse.
Wikipedia is not opposed to the rights of creators — we have the largest collection of creators in human history. The effort that went into building Wikipedia could have created shelves full of albums or near-endless nights of movies. Instead it’s providing unrestricted access to the world’s knowledge. Protecting our rights as creators means ensuring that we can build our encyclopedias, photographs, videos, Web sites, charities and businesses without the fear that they all will be taken away from us without due process. It means protecting our ability to speak freely, without being vulnerable to poorly drafted laws that leave our fate to a law enforcement body that has no oversight and no appeal process. It means protecting the legal infrastructure that allowed our sharing of knowledge and creativity to flourish, and protecting our ability to do so on technical infrastructure that allows for security and privacy for all Internet users.
We are not interested in becoming full-time advocates; protests like the Wikipedia blackout are a last resort. Our core mission is to make knowledge freely available, and making the Web site inaccessible interrupts what we exist to do. The one-day blackout, though, was just a speed bump. Breaking the legal infrastructure that makes it possible to operate Wikipedia, and sites like ours, would be a much greater disruption.
Three weeks ago we recognized a threat to that infrastructure and did something we’ve never done before: We acknowledged that our existence is itself political, and we spoke up to protect it. It turned out to be the largest Internet protest ever.
The full-time advocates of freedom of information, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge, have been fighting for decades to help create the legal environment that makes our work possible. We cannot waste that effort by failing to speak in our own defense when that environment is threatened.
It’s absolutely right that Congress cares about the content industry, recognizing its ability to innovate, to create wealth and to improve lives. But existing copyright enforcement laws were written in a world in which the information we had access to on a broad scale came from a few established media outlets. The players were easy to identify. They organized into groups with common interests and fought to protect those interests. The “content industry” is no longer limited to those few influential channels.
The laws we need now must recognize the more broadly distributed and broadly valuable power of free and open knowledge. They must come from an understanding of that power and a recognition that the voices flooding the phone lines and in-boxes of Congress on Jan. 18 represented the source of that power. These laws must not simply be rammed through to appease narrow lobbies without sufficient review or consideration of the consequences.
Because we are the media industry. We are the creators. We are the innovators. The whole world benefits from our work. That work, and our ability to do it, is worth protecting for everyone.
JIMMY WALES, the founder of Wikipedia, and KAT WALSH are members of the Wikimedia Foundation board of trustees.