Wikipedia Founder Takes on Censorship: Free Information Is Key to Functioning Democracy

Wikipedia founder, in Israel to receive Dan David prize, warns that we must not leave behind the people who are still subject to oppressive regimes.

Jimmy Wales and Orit Kopel
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Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales during a television interview in London in 2011.Credit: Bloomberg
Jimmy Wales and Orit Kopel

The information revolution has changed the face of the world. Knowledge is no longer shared exclusively with the strong and powerful as a tool of control, but widely distributed, acquired and shared globally by the general public. The Internet has become the most fundamental means to achieve and distribute current information, while increasingly diminishing unfair restrictive domination over it.

Wikipedia is one of the most important outcomes of the information revolution. It derives from the recognition that the sum of all human knowledge belongs to the people. Everyone should be allowed to contribute, and everyone should be allowed equal access to contributions of others. Information is no longer designed and controlled by a few, but widely accumulated and shared by many.

Sharing information makes us stronger as a society and weakens the dominance and control of the traditional power centers. For that reason, many oppressive regimes devote expanding efforts to restricting the free flow of information. For centuries, censoring the traditional media has been an effective dark practice to retain governmental control. The development of the Internet, following the information revolution, allowed new ways of challenging the unjustified restriction of information. The world has become a small global village where untold truths can often be communicated anonymously and evade even the darkest and strongest regimes. Unfortunately, oppressive regimes fight back and continue to impose information control, even in the Internet era.

The president of Kazakhstan, for instance, amended the communications law in 2014 to allow his regime to block websites and shut off communication networks without a court order. In the previous year, investigative reporters were restricted from publishing information about the corruption of public officials by an overly restrictive privacy protection law. As a result of the governmental control over the Internet, private bloggers and opposition activists have been practicing self-censorship to evade government reprisal.

Kazakhstan boasts about the increasing Internet penetration rates in the country in recent years. This is without doubt a step forward. However, such achievement must be viewed in light of the expanding censorship and governmental control over the Internet under the current Kazakh regime. Until the Internet users in Kazakhstan are free to express their opinions without fear, flattering statistics of user access should always be perceived with extreme skepticism.

The free flow of information is one of the key elements of a functioning democracy. The information revolution has granted us the opportunity to join forces and increase our collective power by sharing our knowledge. While many of us around the world enjoy the fruits of the information revolution, we must not leave behind the people who are still subject to oppressive regimes and are restricted from freely enjoying it. Ultimately, these are the people who need it the most.

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, is in Israel to receive the Dan David Prize for 2015. Orit Kopel is the CEO of the Jimmy Wales Foundation for freedom of expression.

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