Wikipedia 24-hour blackout: a reader

The who, what and why of Wikipedia's plan to shut down in protest of anti-piracy legislation.

Q: What is happening?

A: Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, will blackout its English version website to all global readers for 24-hours from tomorrow (18 January). On Monday 16 January, the non-profit, 501(c)(3) charity that operates Wikipedia -- the Wikimedia Foundation -- issued a press release announcing that 1,800 members of the Wikipedia community had together reached the "unprecedented decision" to temporarily shutdown the site after 72 hours of consultation. Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, also released a statement.

Wikipedia attracts 25 million global visitors a day, is available in 282 language versions, and contains over 20 million articles created, contributed to and edited by an international community of 100,000-plus volunteers. According to comScore, Wikipedia and its sister sites receive over 474 million unique visitors each month. As of January 2012, Wikipedia is ranked the 6th most popular website in the world by Alexa Internet. The Wikimedia Foundation is based in San Francisco, California, and its Chairman Emeritus and co-founder is Jimmy Wales.

Q: When is it happening?

A: Wikipedia's English-language site will be unavailable from 05:00 GMT on Wednesday 18 January. That's 5am Wednesday morning in the UK; Midnight Tuesday/Wednesday on the US east coast (Wednesday 00:00 EST); 9pm Tuesday evening on the US west coast (Tuesday 21:00 PST). The website is expected to return to its usual operations after exactly 24 hours.

Q: Why is it happening?

A: In October 2011, a bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced to the US House of Representatives, following the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) bill introduced to the US Senate in May.

The two bills propose laws that would expand the ability of copyright holders -- along with law enforcement, the US Department of Justice -- to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods through court orders. Depending on who had made the request, court orders could include:

  • Bars on search engines from linking to websites "accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement"
  • Bars on online advertising networks and payment facilitators -- e.g. PayPayl -- from doing business with accused websites
  • Forced blocking by internet service providers of access to accused websites

The Stop Online Piracy Act would also make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content a crime, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

The SOPA bill is currently being debated by the House Judiciary Committee and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has scheduled a vote on the PIPA legislation for 24 January.

The Wikipedia Foundation stated that the "overwhelming majority" of its participants were behind action that would encourage the public to respond to the Senate and Congress bills. It said that "Wikipedians around the world, not just from within the United States" showed broad-based support for action; "that roughly 55 per cent of those supporting a blackout preferred that it be a global one, with many pointing to concerns about similar legislation in other nations." Addressing the political dimension of the decision to act, the Wikipedia Foundation said:

Although Wikipedia's articles are neutral, its existence is not . . . Wikimedia projects are organizing and summarizing and collecting the world's knowledge . . . But that knowledge 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 Wikimedia . . . We believe in a free and open Internet where information can be shared without impediment. We believe that new proposed laws like SOPA -- and PIPA, and other similar laws under discussion inside and outside the United States -- don't advance the interests of the general public.

The blackout by Wikipedia co-incides with similar action by other websites, and goes ahead despite signals by the Obama administration that it was aiming to make changes to anti-piracy legislation. In a statement last weekend, three White House officials wrote:

While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.

In a statement from Wikimedia UK, chair of the UK chapter Roger Bamkin explained why British users would be affected by tomorrow's shutdown of English language pages:

Wikimedia UK is the UK chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation. We regard the SOPA and PIPA legislation in the United States as a threat to the current operation of Wikipedia. This could also affect Wikimedia's other projects operated under U.S. law.

The members of the Wikipedia community have been balloted to determine whether they wish to blackout Wikipedia on Wednesday and agreed that this should happen.

Wikimedia UK is an independent British charity that defends the decision of our membership.

Q: Who is supporting Wikipedia's decision?

A: Wikipedia is urging all of its readers around the globe to speak up on SOPA and PIPA: their press releases have invited US residents to visit the following website and contact their elected representatives in Washington; non-US readers are urged to express their opposition to the bills to their own State Department, Minisitry of Foreign Affairs or relevant branch of government.

Jimmy Wales has repeated the call today on Twitter -- @jimmy_wales:

All US Citizens: #WikipediaBlackout means nothing unless you call your Senators. Do it now! Give friends the number too!

Co-inciding with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, yesterday Wales quoted the civil rights leader on Twitter:

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed, MLK. On Wednesday, Wikipedia demands

Deputy Chair of the Labour Party and Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee member Tom Watson took to the social networking site to show his support -- @tomwatson:

I'm with @jimmy_wales on SOPA (it would affect Britain), http://bit.ly/wd2zXI Worth letting Twitter boss @dickc know your views

Actor and technology enthusiast Stephen Fry shared the sentiment with his 3.7m Twitter followers -- @stephenfry:

Good for Wikipedia. Ashamed to work in an industry many of whose leaders have tried to push this revolting law through.

Other websites taking similar action to Wikipedia include Reddit, the user-generated social news site; Boing Boing, the zine-turned-group blog; and Cheezburger, the network of comedy image blogs. Wikipedia lists as other participants: A Softer World, Cake Wrecks, Destructoid, dotSUB, Free Press, Good.is, Good Old Games, little-apps.org, Mojang, MoveOn.org, Mozilla, Rage Maker, stfuConservatives.net, The Leaky Wiki, This is Why I'm Broke, Tucows and TwitPic.

Q: Who is against the protest?

A: Among the groups driving the legislation, the Motion Picture Association of America has come out in defence of the bill. MPAA's executive leading the legislation campaign, Michael O'Leary, called the action of Wikipedia and others "gimmicks and distortion," and told the LA Times:

It's part and parcel of a campaign to distract from the real issue here and to draw people away from trying to resolve what is a real problem, which is that foreigners continue to steal the hard work of Americans.

Twitter has declined to participate in the blackout. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo made his thoughts on the protest clear when replying to queries from US technology journalists -- @dickc:

@digiphile @jayrosen_nyu that's just silly. Closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish.

He elaborated in further tweets:

@digiphile Not shutting down a service doesn't equal not taking the proper stance on an issue. We've been very clear about our stance . . . We have been very active and will continue to be very active. Watch this space.

In December, Rupert Murdoch appeared before Congress to lend his support to the two anti-piracy bills. Following the White House statement referring to freedom of expression, the News Corporation CEO tweeted last weekend -- @RupertMurdoch:

So Obama has thrown in his lot withSilicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery. -

Read more about the SOPA protest at sopastrike.com and take action here.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.