Jimmy Wales, the founder of knowledge-sharing and curating website Wikipedia, sat down with the Wall Street Journal for an interview over the weekend. One of the topics he touched on was how he would rather have no Wikipedia in China at all, than adhere to the harsh censorship laws of the country.
Wales said that to the WSJ that the company would always refuse to comply with government requests to restrict information, and he also called access to knowledge and education a basic human right.
So it’s not surprising that Wikipedia has stood strong against Chinese censorship, given the views of its co-founder. But what it is surprising is the small minority that Wikipedia finds itself in. A study by the Alexa website disclosed how the top ten foreign websites comply with Chinese restrictions.
Google China, which is the top website, formally complies with the censorship laws of the country. They do not surface banned pages, and back in January, Google removed a feature that told users when their results were being censored. However, a report in China Digital Times points out that Google redirects users from Google.cn to Google.hk, which helps users avoid mainland filtering.
Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Blogspot, which are at spots three, four, nine and ten respectively, are all inaccessible in China. Yahoo, at fourth place, not only cooperates with censorship but also discloses user information, which is what led to the imprisonment of four dissidents in 2006.
Amazon, Windows Live and LinkedIn also cooperate with China’s censorship laws. In 2006, Windows Live released a company statement which explained that the company believed that some internet access was better than none at all. “National law and policy set parameters in every country in which we do business, and private companies are required to give them due deference as a condition of engaging in business there,” said the statement.
With about 7,15,000 entries in Chinese, Chinese is the twelfth most popular language on Wikipedia. “The mainland had nearly 600 million internet users as of the middle of last month. Yet there are only 1.4 million registered Chinese users on the site, and only 7,500 were active on Wikipedia as of last month – most of them from Taiwan and Hong Kong,” says this article in the South China Morning Post newspaper.
Growth on the website has been blocked four times in the last ten years, including a two-year long blackout between October 2005 and June 2007. This blackout resulted in many ‘copycat’ sites, such asBaidu and Hudong’s encyclopedias, which have gone on to go exceedingly well.
On May 31, Chinese authorities began blocking access to the secure (https) version of the site. The site was still accessible in its non-secure version, which is vulnerable to keyword filtering, allowing individual articles to be blocked.
Wikipedia also offers an encrypted version of the site to help users evade the smaller firewalls. Articles on topics such as the Tienanmen Square protests are blocked, but the articles are freely unblocked on Wikipedia’s unencrypted mobile site. There’s even a WikiHow article on how to access the site – tips include proxy servers, mirror sites and different connection tools.
For Wikipedia, one of the reasons it chooses not to engage with the Chinese censorship rules is that it has nothing to gain from the market, financially speaking, since it is a non-profit organisation. It can afford to take a principled stand, even as other US websites come under fire for prioritising their profits over human rights. But it remains unlikely that they will ever follow in Jimmy Wales’ footsteps: the Chinese market remains much too valuable.