Angola’s Wikipedia Pirates Are Exposing the Problems With Digital Colonialism
Angolans have found a clever way to share files using Wikipedia Zero and Facebook’s Free Basics, but what happens to the existing Wikipedia community?
Image: Getty Images
Wikimedia and Facebook have given Angolans free access to their websites, but not to the rest of the internet. So, naturally, Angolans have started hiding pirated movies and music in Wikipedia articles and linking to them on closed Facebook groups, creating a totally free and clandestine file sharing network in a country where mobile internet data is extremely expensive.
It's an undeniably creative use of two services that were designed to give people in the developing world some access to the internet. But now that Angolans are causing headaches for Wikipedia editors and the Wikimedia Foundation, no one is sure what to do about it.
In 2014, Wikimedia partnered with Angolan telecom provider Unitel to offer Wikipedia Zero to its customers. Wikipedia Zero is a somewhat-controversial program that "zero rates" Wikipedia and other Wikimedia properties (such as image and video database Wikimedia Commons) on mobile phones in developing countries, meaning customers don't have to pay for any data use on the Unitel network, as long as the data use is associated with a Wikimedia domain.
The Radio Motherboard podcast explored the issue of zero rating earlier this year. Radio Motherboard is available on all podcast apps and on iTunes.
The argument in favor of zero rating is that it gives people access to information who would otherwise not be able to afford it (Unitel normally charges $2.50 for 50mb of mobile data; the median Angolan salary is $720 annually, according to Freedom House). The argument against zero rating is that by providing people with a closed ecosystem, you're creating a tiered internet system—people who can afford it get the "real internet," people who can't are stuck with Facebook, Wikipedia, and a couple other services, and may never get the chance to upgrade to the full, open internet. Facebook's program, called "Free Basics," has come under fire—and was banned in India—because some see it as a user grab technique for Facebook, but Wikipedia Zero has gotten less flak because Wikimedia's a nonprofit organization and its sites often skew to be purely informative.
If the developing world wants to use our internet, they must play by our rules, the thinking goes
The controversy usually ends with those two arguments—rarely does anyone ever consider what happens if creative people find loopholes in these zero rated services.
That brings us to what's going on in Angola. Enterprising Angolans have used two free services—Facebook Free Basics and Wikipedia Zero—to share pirated movies, music, television shows, anime, and games on Wikipedia. And no one knows what to do about it.
Because the data is completely free, Angolans are hiding large files in Wikipedia articles on the Portuguese Wikipedia site (Angola is a former Portuguese colony)—sometimes concealing movies in JPEG or PDF files. They're then using a Facebook group to direct people to those files, creating a robust, completely free file sharing network. A description for a Facebook group with 2,700 members reads: "created with the objective of sharing music, movies, pictures, and ANIMES via Wikimedia." I was not admitted into the Facebook group and none of its administrators responded to my messages for an interview.
Wikipedia's old guard, however, are concerned with this development. Wikipedia has very strict copyright guidelines and some editors of the site say they're tired of playing whack-a-mole.
"I am reporting a possible misuse of Wikimedia projects and Wikipedia Zero to violate copyright," one editor wrote on a Wiki discussion forum. "I am not sure if users are doing it in bad faith, but they have been warned and keep doing it. I don't think that Wikipedia Zero should stop existing there of course, but maybe something could be done, like preventing them from uploading large files or by previously instructing them in local language about what they can or [can] not do."
In several cases, wide swaths of IP addresses suspected to belong to Angolans using Wikipedia Zero have been banned from editing stories on Wikipedia, which has had the side effect of blocking Angolans who are using Wikipedia Zero to contribute to Wikipedia in a more traditional way. (In one case, IPs were unblocked because a Portuguese Wikipedia editor decided that an Angolan amateur photographer's photos were "of immense value.")
In an email thread on the Wikimedia-L listserv and on Wikipedia talk pages, users in the developed world are trying to find a compromise.
Few seem to agree that actively blocking Angolans from editing Wikipedia articles is a good solution, but other editors say they are sick of manually deleting pirated content from Wikipedia articles and suggested that those using Wikipedia Zero should only be allowed to read Wikipedia, not edit it or upload files.
Adele Vrana, head of the Wikimedia Zero program, told me in a phone interview that the foundation has been aware of the situation since at least last summer, and said that blanket bans or alterations of the Wikipedia Zero are "not on the table." She wrote in an email to the listserv that the Wikimedia Foundation is as stumped as its editors.
Angola's pirates are furthering Wikipedia's mission of spreading information in a real and substantial way
"We would prefer to catch it much earlier or simply prevent it outright (without significant limits being placed on good faith editors). Last fall, we had internal discussions on finding technical solutions for this problem," she wrote. "We understand that it's challenging for our existing editing community to handle a sudden influx of new editors. This seems to be a crucial and important conversation for the movement at large to have. I hope we can figure out a way to turn this moment in Angola into an opportunity to learn how to deal with new readers and editors."
I spoke with experts at three different digital rights groups that have all weighed in on international zero rating in one way or another. None of them were willing to say on the record whether they thought what's going on with Angola and Wikipedia Zero was a good or a bad thing. But one line of reasoning came up in one of the conversations that made a lot of sense: In many ways, this debate is about what Wikimedia—a community and organization that prides itself on the free transfer of information—fundamentally wants to be.
Vrana told me that Wikimedia is "looking into the legal aspects and understanding local legislation and how copyright might work in Angola," but Juliet Barbara, a spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation, said that for the time being Wikimedia will use the community-developed framework to remove copyrighted material.
"With the existing framework, what we have to go on are policies developed by volunteers about the information that appears on Wikipedia," Barbara said. "Those are pretty specific about the information being knowledge oriented information rather than personal. I'm not saying that's always going to be how it is, that's just the restriction we're working with."
Many on the listserv are framing Angola's Wikipedia pirates as bad actors who need to be dealt with in some way so that more responsible editors aren't punished for their actions. This line of thinking inherently assumes that what Angola's pirates are doing is bad for Wikipedia and that they must be assimilated to the already regulated norms of Wikipedia's community. If the developing world wants to use our internet, they must play by our rules, the thinking goes.
But people in developing countries have always had to be more creative than those for whom access to information has always been a given. In Cuba, for instance, movies, music, news, and games are traded on USB drives that are smuggled into the country every week. A 20-year-old developer in Paraguay found a vulnerability in Facebook Messenger that allowed people to use Free Basics to tunnel through to the "real" internet. Legal questions aside (Angola has more lax copyright laws than much of the world), Angola's pirates are furthering Wikipedia's mission of spreading information in a real and substantial way.
"In general, it's better to allow people more openness and freedom to use Internet tools because you never know what ends up being useful"
"When users are faced with a choice of partial access to internet services but not to the entire internet, they might come up with ways to use that partial internet in creative ways that might negatively affect the entity giving it to them," Josh Levy, advocacy director at Access Now, told me. Facebook Free Basics was criticized widely, but Access Now is one of the few groups that has said Wikipedia Zero is a bad idea because it creates a tiered internet.
While the "misuse" of zero rated systems is a new problem, it closely mirrors ones that have been going on in the wider internet for decades, and the smart money is on allowing Angola's burgeoning internet community to develop without our interference, even if it means growing pains for Wikipedia. Proposed copyright protection laws such as the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have censored sites that hosted pirated content, was widely believed to be one that could have fundamentally ruined the internet; limiting how Angolans (or anyone else using Wikipedia Zero) access the site could have detrimental impacts.
The Wikimedia Foundation, for its part, seems to have good intentions with its wait-and-see approach. The foundation gives no money to Unitel as part of the program; a good solution here, probably, would be cheaper or free access to the entire internet. While Wikipedia editors in Portugual can simply go to another website to download or share pirated files, Angolans don't really have that option
"This is the type of thing that reflects larger battles that have gone on about the internet overall," Charles Duan, a copyright expert at Public Knowledge, told me. "In general, it's better to allow people more openness and freedom to use Internet tools because you never know what ends up being useful."
Angolan's pirates are learning how to organize online, they're learning how to cover their tracks, they are learning how to direct people toward information and how to hide and share files. Many of these skills are the same ones that would come in handy for a dissident or a protestor or an activist. Considering that Angola has had an autocratic leader in power for more than 35 years, well, those are skills that might come in handy one day.