Wikipedia’s Piracy Police Are Ruining the Developing World's Internet Experience

A bunch of more-or-less random editors who happen to want to be the piracy police are dictating the means of internet access for people who use Wikipedia Zero.

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Apr 27 2016, 5:23pm

Image: Naquib Hossain/Flickr

Wikipedia Zero users in Bangladesh are now being monitored, banned, and threatened by Wikipedia editors who are engaged in a continuous game of whack-a-mole against piracy on the site.

Last month, I wrote several articles about the creative (if illegal) ways that people in Angola are using the free Wikipedia Zero and Facebook Free Basics services to share copyrighted files with each other. Both of these services zero rate data uploaded and downloaded from those sites, meaning users don't have to pay for that data, which would normally be very expensive. Users upload files to the Wikimedia Commons database, link to them in closed Facebook groups, and, bam—free ad-hoc filesharing network.

Turns out Bangladeshis are using Wikipedia Zero for piracy too, and the arms race between pirates and the existing Wikipedia community members who want to stop them is significantly more advanced than it is in Angola.

A task force of editors in the developed world are desperately trying to get Bangladeshis play by Wikipedia's existing rules by closely monitoring and banning people who upload pirated content. They're invading Facebook groups to monitor and determine how and where people are uploading files. They're keeping a running tally of the number and names of accounts that have uploaded content. They've blocked entire IP ranges from uploading files, and have created filters that monitor all uploads that come from Wikipedia Zero accounts and from new accounts in general. Some editors have said that Wikipedia should consider pulling out of Bangladesh entirely.

If you're at all versed in Wikispeak, it's worth checking out just how sophisticated the antipiracy group is and how much information has been compiled on those who upload files and their methods.

"Wikipedia Zero users are thinking that ... Commons is some sort of YouTube," the creator of the task force wrote.

The abuse filter can flag every upload that comes from Wikipedia Zero, regardless of what it is.

The thing is, Commons is YouTube for Wikipedia Zero users out of necessity, not choice. Because they can't afford access to YouTube and the rest of the internet, Wikipedia has become the internet for lots of Bangladeshis. What's crazy, then, is that a bunch of more-or-less random editors who happen to want to be the piracy police are dictating the means of access for an entire population of people.

"As last consequence if this continues—Wikipedia Zero in Bangladesh (and other countries) will shot down," a user named Gunnex wrote on the task force page.

Instructions for how to avoid detection on Wikipedia.

The Wikimedia Foundation told me last month that it has been aware of people using Wikipedia Zero for file sharing for about a year, and says that there are no plans to pull out of any countries because of piracy. But that hasn't stopped rogue Wiki users from suggesting it anyway, and members of the task force have gotten Wikimedia Bangladesh to plead with the pirates to stop contributing to an "increasingly negative perception of Bangladesh in many different sectors."

Screengrab from the task force.

In several filesharing Facebook groups earlier this month, Wikimedia Bangladesh posted messages in Bengali threatening those who have been sharing copyrighted files at the behest of users on the task force.

"Recently we've seen that Wikipedia Zero is being misused to upload copyrighted movies and music videos to Wikimedia Commons, which is punishable not only legally, but has also jeopardized the country's image in the global Wikipedia movement," one of the messages said (I used Google Translate for this message).

Though some Facebook groups appear to have stopped uploading files after Wikimedia Bangladesh got involved, others have simply started using more advanced methods of piracy. Sultan says that there are only a couple people now uploading content, but that they are using many different accounts.

A page that keeps track of active piracy groups.

In fact, the Bangladeshi operations that I've seen appear to be much more sophisticated than the Angolan ones—they have posted specific guides to converting videos to smaller and harder-to-detect file types, have started using Wikipedia test sites, and have started using free sites online that automatically upload YouTube videos to Wikimedia Commons.

Nahid Sultan, a Bangladeshi Wikipedia administrator, has been helping on the antipiracy side, noted that "despite the block of some major ip ranges in Bangladesh and hundreds of accounts, it seems that this painful copyright violation cases aren't ending anytime soon."

Sultan wrote that Wikimedia Bangladesh is "trying our best to prevent any further mess," but there's no simple way out of this situation. When you create two entirely different tiers of internet, those in the second tier will rightly aspire to get into the first tier.

At the beginning of April, Wikipedia editors had detected roughly 70 different accounts that were uploading pirated content; by April 16, they had detected close to 300, though it's unknown how many people those accounts actually belong to. As has been proven time and time again, piracy will always find a way.