Good intentions or not, Wikipedia Zero has given the community the opportunity to censor the developing world's internet experience.
The Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia editors are trying to stop Angolan pirates from using a free Wikipedia product as a clandestine filesharing service. But the remedies being discussed, some of them in response to a Motherboard report from Wednesday, involve more policing of the platform, a solution that serves only its existing user base in the developed world and ignores the fact that Wikipedia has become many Angolans' only point of access to the internet.
If you're just catching up, Angolans are using free access to Wikipedia and Facebook to trade copyrighted movies, music, and television shows, a development that is decidedly against Wikipedia's rules. The product is called Wikipedia Zero, which "zero rates" all data going to and from Wikipedia websites from mobile phone users in 64 developing countries, meaning the customer doesn't pay any money for it. In Angola, 50mb of mobile data normally costs $2.50; the median annual salary is $720.
At first glance, giving people in developing nations unlimited access to Wikipedia or Facebook's Free Basics program seems like a no-brainer. Some access is better than no access, the thinking goes, and Wikimedia, as a nonprofit corporation focused on spreading knowledge, has gotten less public flak than Facebook has for Free Basics, which critics say serves only to indoctrinate the developing world into Facebook's ecosystem. But the situation in Angola shows that there are problems with zero-rating that Wikimedia's nonprofit status and knowledge-sharing mission can't solve.
The Radio Motherboard podcast explored the issue of zero rating earlier this year. Radio Motherboard is available on all podcast apps and on iTunes.
"Wikipedia is a nonprofit, but that's about it," Vishal Misra, a Columbia University professor who testified before Indian parliament on the issue told me. "There hasn't been a backlash but I don't think people who have been arguing this issue with any level of depth have said that Wikipedia Zero is any better than Free Basics."
The Wikimedia Foundation has lofty goals for Wikipedia Zero: "Imagine a world in which every single human being on the planet has equal access to the sum of all knowledge," the foundation says.
But Angolans on Wikipedia Zero and the Portuguese Wikipedia editors they are annoying don't have anything resembling equal access to the internet. Wikipedia Zero and Facebook Free Basics are the only services that many Angolans have access to (for the record, this is happening in other countries with Wikipedia Zero, too).
In response to my article, Wikipedia editors have set up a task force to "prevent Wikipedia Zero exploitation of uploads to share copyrighted media." Current ideas to solve the problem include monitoring and flagging file uploads, limited IP blocking (which has been done in some cases already), popups that notify Angolans of the rules, and setting up specific data filters, which are all traditional methods used by ISPs and, in some cases, authoritarian governments, to censor and direct internet experiences.
"We need to increase access, otherwise you are just trying to keep people hooked on a free service"
That Wikimedia and its users want to maintain the very successful and useful website it has built is a fair ideal, and it's a laudable goal when you are simply just another website among millions and millions of websites on the entire internet. But the foundation misses the very important point that Wikipedia and Facebook have now become the internet for many Angolans and that it is now a gatekeeper for how they access it.
This isn't just my opinion—surveys of people in developing countries suggest that those who use Facebook's zero-rated service often believe that Facebook is the entirety of the internet.
"From the response of Wikipedia to your article, it's clear they are not concerned about increasing access," Misra said. "They are concerned about maintaining Wikipedia's popularity and influence."
"Either you make everything cheaper or you don't have it at all," Misra added. "Otherwise, people find loopholes and it destructs the whole ecosystem. We need to increase access, otherwise you are just trying to keep people hooked on a free service."
The idea that they are now in charge of the internet experience for a lot of Angolans is getting lost on many Wikipedia editors and maybe on the foundation itself.
One prominent Wikipedia editor suggested calling the pirates "digital brood parasites" who leech off of Wikimedia's servers. Another suggested that Angolan pirates were doing "dastardly things." The task force is currently working on technical solutions that would flag all edits made through Wiki Zero, would warn or notify Angolans using Wikipedia Zero of the rules, or would put a file size upload limit on Wiki Zero users.
"The Wikimedia mission is not to spread information, but to support the sharing of educational content under open licenses with the world"
The Wikimedia Foundation, meanwhile, told me it has "been working since last fall to better understand the scope of the issue and the technical capabilities we have in providing viable solutions."
"We've looked into the introduction of edit filters targeted specifically to Wikipedia Zero users to flag larger files for other editors, or a more technical measure that would detect abnormal images or PDFs that hold hidden files," a Wikimedia spokesperson told me. "We're exploring these options and more as we continue conversations with the Wikimedia community as well as the feasibility of implementing proposed technical solutions."
The foundation took issue with my original article, and sent a lengthy response (published here if you are interested in reading it in full) that focused on potential compromises and solutions that would benefit the existing Wikipedia community and would allow Angolans who have interest in using Wikipedia according to the Wikipedia rules to continue using the service within their specific guidelines.
"The Wikimedia mission is not to spread information, but to support the sharing of educational content under open licenses with the world," the spokesperson wrote. "There are a variety of policies the Wikimedia community has developed to further guide what content is included on the sites."
What Angolan pirates are doing is illegal in many countries (though maybe not in Angola, as it turns out), but with full access to the internet, people have the ability to choose their own adventure, whether that includes breaking the law or not.
Good intentions or not, Wikimedia has backed itself into a corner here, and there are no good solutions outside of lowering the cost and expanding the availability of real, generic internet access for people in the developing world—a mission that would be unreasonable to task Wikimedia with.
Are we ready to trust Wikipedia with the internet access rights of an entire nation? Is it even considering the impact its actions have?
What Wikimedia is faced with are two bad options—censor and monitor the internet or allow Angolans to break Wikipedia's rules and maybe the law—that underscore the fundamental problems with zero rating programs that may have been started with the best of intentions. It's hard to blame the Angolans doing this for not caring about Wikipedia's rules, and it's hard to blame the community for wanting them to follow the rules. But with Wikipedia Zero, Wikimedia has created an uneven playing field and a power dynamic where the needs and whims of the existing community overshadow those in the developing world.
The established community has the power and Angolans are left to engage them in a persistent game of cat-and-mouse to approximate the real internet. If history is any guide, Angolans will continue to find their way around censorship and blocking, but Wikimedia and the community's intent and actions will determine how easy their path to an equal internet is.
There's an intense debate going on right now over whether zero rating has any role in bridging the digital divide and in connecting the half of the world that doesn't have regular internet access. What we risk human rights groups like Access Now say, is telling people in developing countries that being able to connect to just a few sites is "enough," an effect that "tips the balance in favor of zero-rated services, effectively salting the earth of low-cost net neutral alternatives in the future." That argument was enough for India to ban Wikipedia Zero, Free Basics, and zero-rating altogether earlier this year.
Arturo Carillo, a professor at George Washington Law School, says it's more complicated than zero-rating is good or zero-rating is bad. In a recent paper, he proposed reframing the argument as a human rights issue—are services like Wikipedia Zero and Free Basics helping people express themselves, he asks?
"In truth, the better question is whether India, in deciding to prohibit zero-rating, is maximizing the enjoyment by its people of their basic human rights, including freedom of expression, and thus adequately complying with its international human rights obligations?," he wrote about India's recent decision.
Human rights decisions are ones that governments are tasked with all the time. Now Wikimedia and its users find themselves in a similar position of power. Are we ready to trust them with the internet access rights of an entire nation? Are they even considering the impact their actions have?