Why we're taking Wikipedia down for a day

A personal explanation offered from a Wikimedia community member.

Over the last few weeks, the Wikipedia community has been discussing proposed actions that the community might take in protest to proposed legislation in the United States called Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) in the House of Representatives, and the PROTECT IP Act (Pipa) in the US Senate.

If passed, these laws would seriously damage the free and open internet, including Wikipedia. With more than 2,000 Wikipedians commenting on this legislation from all over the world, and a clear majority in favour of taking action, this will be the first time the English Wikipedia has ever staged a public protest of this nature, and it's a decision that wasn't lightly made. From midnight on America's East Coast and from 5am in the UK, Wikipedia will go dark for 24 hours.

It was felt that both Sopa and Pipa are pieces of clumsily drafted legislation that are dangerous for the internet and freedom of speech. It provides powers to regulatory authorities to force internet companies to block foreign sites offering "pirated" material that violates US copyright laws. If implemented, ad networks could be required to stop online ads and search engines would be barred from directly linking to websites "found" to be in breach of copyright.

However, leaving to one side the fact that there are more than enough adequate remedies for policing copyright violations under existing laws in most jurisdictions, these draft bills go too far and in their framing. Sopa and Pipa totally undermine the notion of due process in law and place the burden of proof on the distributor of content in the case of any dispute over copyright ownership.

Therefore, any legitimate issues that copyright holders may have get drowned out by poorly-framed draconian powers to block, bar, or shut down sites as requested by industry bodies or their legal representatives.

Copyright holders have legitimate issues, but there are ways of approaching the issue that don't involve censorship.

Wikipedia depends on a legal infrastructure that makes it possible for us to operate. This needs other sites to be able to host user-contributed material; all Wikipedia then does is to frame the information in context and make sense of it for its millions of users.

Knowledge freely shared has to be published somewhere for anyone to find and use it. Where it can be censored without due process it hurts the speaker, the public, and Wikipedia. Where you can only speak if you have sufficient resources to fight legal challenges, or, if your views are pre-approved by someone who does, will mean that the same narrow set of ideas already popular will continue to be all anyone has meaningful access to.

All around the world, we're seeing the development of legislation intended to fight online piracy -- and regulate the internet in other ways -- that hurt online freedoms. Our concern extends beyond Sopa and Pipa: they are just part of the problem. We want the internet to remain free and open, everywhere, for everyone.

Steve Virgin is a Board member and Trustee of Wikimedia UK.

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.