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Jimmy Wales: 'There's Really No Excuse' Not to Use Encryption

Wales addresses security and encryption at London’s IP Expo.

Victoria Turk

Victoria Turk

Image: Sage Ross/Flickr

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is clearly looking forward to the encryption revolution, and in his view it's already firmly underway.

"There's really no excuse to have any major web property that's not secure," Wales said in his keynote speech at the 2015 IP Expo Europe IT conference.

Speaking specifically about Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), which encrypts connections between websites and browsers and is present in websites that use the HTTPS protocol rather than just HTTP, Wales noted a huge uptick in adoption.

"There is a massive trend on the internet towards SSL—secure connections," he said, drawing on figures from internet company Sandvine that show nearly 30 percent of web traffic was encrypted as of April 2015, with almost 65 percent projected to be by 2016. Wales expects the trajectory to continue. "My expectation is that this is going to narrow; over the next couple of years, [unencrypted traffic] is going to end up being a five or six percent slice," he said. "All major traffic is going to be encrypted very very soon."

"We knew for many years that Wikipedia was easy to spy on and we were too complacent."

That's a massive change, and it has to be pointed out that those figures are hugely influenced by Netflix's transition to HTTPS—the figures are based on number of packets, and streaming video accounts for much more than other sites. But Wales insists it's also a sign of a shift in public demand—especially after the Snowden revelations as well as high-profile data breaches—and pure technological advancement.

Back in the day, he explained, this kind of encryption was cost-prohibitive. "To encrypt every page of Wikipedia in the early days of Wikipedia would have cost us a lot of servers."

Thanks to the ongoing march of Moore's Law, times have changed. Wikipedia announced it was switching over to HTTPS by default in June this year, and Wales's latest venture, phone-operator-cum-social-network TPO, was HTTPS from launch.

In a media session after the keynote, Wales acknowledged that he and Wikipedia were not immune to criticism regarding the slow uptake of encryption. Wikipedia was included in a leaked NSA slide that suggested it was one of many easy targets precisely because it used HTTP. "We knew for many years that Wikipedia was easy to spy on and we were too complacent," he admitted.

"The genie's out of the bottle; the math works."

Now he is a vocal supporter of encrypting communications in order to safeguard privacy, and that was his major concern with TPO. "Why encryption from day one? The answer is we'll soon have private messaging," he said.

He expressed disbelief at UK Prime Minister David Cameron's widely-reported statements against any kind of actually private personal communication. In any case, as Wales put it, "The genie's out of the bottle; the math works."

"It is not feasible in any sense of the word for the UK to ban end-to-end encryption," he continued. "Not only is it not feasible, it's a completely moronic stupid thing to do."

But the UK is far from the most meddling country when it comes to checking up on people's online behaviour. Wales is continuing efforts to bring Wikipedia to a place well-known for draconian ideas on censorship: China.

"We will never cooperate with censorship of Wikipedia."

Wikipedia has a colourful history of varying degrees of censorship in China, but authorities loosened their grip in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Politically sensitive articles, such as entries on Tiananmen Square protests or artist Ai Weiwei, remained individually blocked.

But since May 2015, around a month before Wikipedia went HTTPS by default, its Chinese version is completely blocked.

Wales said he'd met with Chinese authorities to discuss the issue and he's going to visit them again in the next couple of weeks. On one point, he's firm: "We will never cooperate with censorship of Wikipedia," he said.

To Wales, access to "human knowledge"—which it's Wikipedia's goal to collate—is a corollary of freedom of expression (though based in London, Wales is American).

On top of his personal battles over Wikipedia censorship, he's involved with other efforts to combat censorship and human rights abuses. Following his appearance on Newsnight on Tuesday, he criticised the UK's involvement with the Saudi regime which saw blogger Raif Badawi sentenced to 1,000 lashes for writing against the government.

"It's a funny bit of my career," he said in reference to his upcoming trip to China. "I started as a technologist and now I have to kind of be a global diplomat."

Correction 10/09/2015: A sentence in this piece has been edited to clarify the order of events regarding Wikipedia's censorship in China. The Chinese version is unavailable since May 2015; Wikipedia went HTTPS by default in June 2015.