Patrice Riemens on Sat, 5 Dec 2009 05:58:12 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Evgeny Morozov: Free Speech and the Internet (- and Wikipedia)

New York Times/ International Herald Tribune Nov 28-9, 2009
Original at:

Free Speech and the Internet

To appreciate the full bouquet of challenges that the Internet is posing
to the modern nation state, look no further than the case of two German
men who are waging a legal battle against the U.S.-based Wikimedia
Foundation ? the charity behind the online encyclopedia ? for violating
their rights to privacy. In 1990 the two men killed a German actor, were
sentenced to life in prison in 1993, and were released on parole a few
years ago. The German law allows them to start afresh; the media has been
barred from mentioning their full names in relation to the crime.

The German-language Wikipedia complied and removed their full names from
its entries. The English-language Wikipedians, after producing more than
60 pages of arguments, persevered. Stopp & Stopp, the improbably named law
firm representing the two men, duly filed lawsuits against the Wikimedia
Foundation in German courts, which prompted accusations of censorship from
the likes of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, a free-speech group.

Striking a balance between an individual?s right to privacy and the
public?s right to know is never easy and is usually the result of intense
national deliberations. Thus the non-compliance by the English-language
Wikipedia has most interesting implications for Germany: As long as
English remains a global language and Wikipedia entries occupy top search
results on Google, many Germans would continue stumbling upon information
that their courts do not want them to see. Limiting access to Wikipedia
does not seem like an acceptable solution: Only very brave (and
impractical) judges would go that far.

Such defiance to authorities is not necessarily a ?bug? in Wikipedia?s
programming: By the same token, Thai courts can?t force Wikipedia to adopt
a deferential attitude to the country?s monarch because of its draconian
lèse majesté laws. Few would argue that Wikipedians should comply with

So what to make of Wikipedia?s rebelliousness? That it has inadvertently
challenged the sovereignty of the German state should not be written off
as just another ironic twist of post-modernity. Germany is not the only
government that has difficulty maintaining control in today?s
decentralized and digitally-mediated environment, which knows no borders
and respects no court orders. How could a modern nation state aspire to
protect local norms if it has lost the ability to enforce the very laws
that follow from these norms? If entire nations are forced to live in
information environments that no longer reflect their own assumptions
about human nature, would all of our legal and social norms eventually
converge to some global lowest common denominator?

We are unlikely to find comprehensive answers to any of these questions
this early into the digital game. But we can try solving them one by one.
The current case in Germany presents a good opportunity to examine
Wikipedia?s rapidly growing power ? and the numerous ways in which it can
be harnessed to right the wrongs that are bound to arise on its pages.

If newspapers produce the first drafts of history, Wikipedians certainly
produce its latest and ? thanks to Google ? most viewed drafts. Wikipedia
has become an extremely powerful platform with tremendous real-world
repercussions for those caught in the crossfire of its decision-making.
For this reason alone, Wikipedia can no longer be run like the favorite
basement project of anonymous 13-year-olds.

The German case illustrates that some of the disputes could be too complex
to be easily pigeon-holed into an intractable body of Wikipedia?s rules
and practices. To resolve such cases in a satisfactory fashion, one needs
a thorough understanding of philosophy, history, law and ethics; having
some hard-earned worldly wisdom wouldn?t hurt either. So far, Jimmy Wales,
a co-founder of the project, has served as Wikipedia?s deity-in-chief,
adjudicating the cases he saw fit. Often, he did make sensible
interventions, including a recent plea to Wikipedians not to disclose the
details of the kidnapping of David Rohde, a New York Times reporter in
Afghanistan. However, whatever Mr. Wales? individual talents, many of
decisions that Wikipediands need to make appear too daunting for any
individual to decide on his own.

Thus, whenever current rules and norms of the project come into conflict,
Wikipedians shouldn?t shun away from asking for help. An external
international panel comprising the world?s most eminent philosophers,
legal scholars, historians and others can prevent challenging cases from
getting ugly before they reach the courts.

After all, there is a reason why newspapers have editorial boards and
ombudsmen; it seems strange that one of the most powerful media sites in
the world hasn?t yet followed suit. There would be little harm in bringing
half a dozen wise people on board, if only to reaffirm Wikipedia?s
commitment to becoming the world?s most respected ? rather than most
feared ? source of knowledge.

Evgeny Morozov is a Yahoo fellow at Georgetown University and a
contributing editor to Foreign Policy. His book on Internet democracy will
be published in 2010.

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