Why Wikipedia decided to turn on encryption, blocking China's selective censorship.
Image: Joi Ito/Flickr
In March, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said he wanted a more secure web, with encryption everywhere.
At the time, however, Wikipedia itself wasn't encrypted by default, leaving the door open for repressive governments to not only spy on their citizens to figure out which pages they visited, but also to do tailored censorship—blocking only certain pages they didn't like, leaving the rest of the site accessible. That's something that, for example, China and Iran had been doing for years.
Then Wikipedia announced that it was going to turn HTTPS web encryption on by default across all its regional versions in early June, leaving those repressive regimes with an all or nothing choice: either they block the whole Wikipedia site, or they left it untouched. Filtering only specific pages wasn't an option anymore.
China, one of the countries that would've been faced with that uncomfortable choice, had already blocked the whole site just a few weeks earlier. But Wikipedia's decision likely reduced the chance that the site would ever be unblocked in the country.
"The resulting current situation is that Wikipedia is likely to remain blocked for a long time," Wales said in an interview with the anti-censorship group GreatFire, published on Friday.
Yet, Wales doesn't seem to regret the decision, and said he wouldn't accept an offer to turn off encryption on exchange for the site to be unblocked.
"We will never compromise. I'm more patient than they are," he told GreatFire's Charlie Smith.
"We will never compromise. I'm more patient than they are."
This episode highlights how hard it is for Western internet companies and organizations to deal with censorship in countries like China, Iran, or even Russia. Enabling encryption and making filtering impossible might sound like the easy choice, but then you go from a situation where citizens at least could access some parts of your site to one where they can't access any part of it.
That's why Smith noted in the interview that some people in China were against Wikipedia moving to HTTPS because they feared that would lead to an outright block. Wales, however, argued that "the community has been very supportive of our move to HTTPS."
For Smith, this change came too late anyway. In an op-ed published after Wikipedia announced the switch to encryption by default, Smith argued that by letting China to do selective censorship for so long, Wikipedia effectively allowed the country to "neuter" the encyclopedia, making it "uninteresting to the average netizen."
Wales didn't address this criticism in the interview, but referred to it indirectly, when he said that "sometimes when companies say that the Chinese are better off by having access to their service, even if it is filtered, they are just being weak on human rights—but sometimes that argument can make sense."
The outright blocking of Wikipedia in China, as Smith argues in his op-ed, proves that China, more than ever, doesn't care about what the West and the rest of the world think. China will censor, and do anything it needs to censor, encryption or no encryption.
"If the censors were ever embarrassed, they certainly are no longer," Smith wrote.
If that's indeed the game China wants to play, the next western website that will ponder whether to turn encryption by default will have to make a really hard choice in China, as well as in other countries that want to have strong grip on information.