Wiki man: Jimmy Wales. Image: Dan Murrell
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Mr Knowledge: Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales

The founder of the online free encyclopedia on Turkey’s Twitter ban, the perils of clicktivism and what Star Trek can teach us about democracy.

Is technology a force for good?

Overwhelmingly, it is. We can point to various ways in which technology is used, or can be used, for bad purposes, but all of these are dramatically outweighed by the ways in which technology is changing the world for the better. Today you can buy a smartphone in Africa for less than US$50 and in areas where we have negotiated agreements with cell carriers you can access Wikipedia for free – no data charges. So you have a massive source of information in your pocket for a very low cost.

 

Is access to information a human right?

Yes, it is. Think of it as the direct implication and corollary of our rights to freedom of expression. Just as the right to freedom of expression doesn’t imply that other people must supply you with a printing press, the right to access information doesn’t mean that other people must supply you with either the tools or the information. What it does mean is that the state has no role to play in preventing people from communicating with each other.

 

Can online activism be effective?

Yes, and I think the best evidence of this has unfolded recently in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan acted against Twitter and YouTube not because they are ineffective – but because they are effective.

Having said that, it is important that we are not naive about the possibilities. Yes, we can use online tools to educate others and to organise to demand positive change. But real activism also necessarily involves going physically to make demands, and that’s inherently risky and requires great courage.

There is something to the charge that people sometimes engage in “clicktivism” – the lazy approach of hitting “Like” on a petition and feeling that we’ve done something useful. But that doesn’t change the fact that online communities can have very deep and meaningful impacts on people’s lives.

 

Are there things you don’t want to know? Are there things we shouldn’t know?

Yes, there is quite a lot that I don’t want to know, and things that I think we shouldn’t know. I’ll talk about two important categories, but there are more.

First, there is a need for the recognition of the importance of privacy in a civilised world. Breaking into someone’s phone or computer to gain access to their personal information, as we’ve seen in the phone-hacking scandal in the UK and similar scandals elsewhere, is a very serious matter. Rather than spending their vast resources in spying on us themselves, I’d like to see organisations like GCHQ and the NSA more focused on investing in helping us to prevent such spying by encouraging the use of strong encryption everywhere.

Second, there are military and government secrets that are perfectly valid. I don’t think we need to know the exact details of every single thing that the government is doing in terms of spying. This is where I think Edward Snowden has been so powerfully effective: rather than releasing details of particular government operatives and operations, he’s released highly abstract information that gives the public the details we should have been given all along, so that we can have a proper, rational debate about the limits of state surveillance.

 

Is Silicon Valley in bed with the security services?

I don’t think so, but I trust some companies more than others. There’s an additional factor here most people haven’t considered: the engineers of Silicon Valley are virtually unanimous in viewing attacks on their infrastructure as horrific human rights abuses that should be countered with every effort they can muster. It would be impossible for any major internet company to issue an order from the top to build in back-door infrastructure to help the NSA. The engineers would leak it, and they know how to do so without getting caught.

That doesn’t mean that the NSA isn’t infiltrating these companies with people who are doing things that the rest of the staff would be horrified by, of course. It just means that it is pretty implausible that the companies themselves are directly “in bed” with the security services.

 

How have you resisted monetising Wikipedia?

We are a non-profit charitable organisation. We’re very mission-driven. For me personally, I feel sure that in 500 years, when people look back on this era, they’ll point to Wikipedia as something remarkable and good. I’m a big fan and user of WhatsApp, which recently sold to Facebook for $19bn, but I doubt if anyone will remember it in 50 years, much less 500.

 

Is net neutrality that important?

I differ from many of my colleagues, in that I don’t think net neutrality is super-important. The fear is that companies which control the “last mile” to the consumer will leverage that choke point to stifle innovation (unless they get paid extra for it happening). And that’s not an entirely crazy thing to fear, particularly because much last-mile infrastructure remains under inappropriate, government-granted monopoly privileges – or derived from those privileges in the first place years ago.

But if we are worried about a handful of companies getting control of a choke point and using it to squeeze out competitors and make massive profits, we don’t need to look at the layer of network infrastructure and network neutrality. We just need to look at the Apple App Store (and similar), where everything that runs on your iPhone or iPad has to be approved by Apple, with them taking a huge cut of the revenue at every step, with no real competition in sight. Consumers should be very worried about that.

Can you imagine the outcry if 20 years ago Microsoft had decreed that no third-party software could run on Windows without being approved by them, and bought through their proprietary stores? Yet today we accept this model on mobile devices (and soon, I fear, on our computers) without blinking.

 

Would you choose a benign dictatorship, or dysfunctional democracy?

Like the true geek I am, I can only answer a question like this by referencing Captain Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru.

In Star Trek lore, the Kobayashi Maru is a test at the Starfleet Academy with a “no-win” outcome. Kirk took the test twice and had his ship destroyed, so before trying a third time he hacked into the system to change the outcome. If our only choices are benign dictatorship or dysfunctional democracy, it’s time to hack the system and change the rules.

 

Where do you stand on piracy?

Commandeering and robbing vessels on the high seas? I’m totally against it.

Ha, you’re really asking about file-sharing. I think here the key is that we are finally seeing the argument move on from a rather useless debate about how to stop it by using the law (you can’t) into a recognition that, more than anything else, a business-model shift is the most successful way forward for creators of creative entertainment. We know that piracy falls dramatically when studios actually make things available for sale. Spotify, Netflix, iTunes, etc are the solution and are working very well.

Yes, some flat-broke teens are going to find ways to copy things that legally they shouldn’t. That has always been true. When I was that age, teens made cassette tapes for each other.

That’s not really the issue. Large-scale commercial piracy is a different matter and existing law seems to be handling that reasonably well. Minor tweaks are always possible, but perennial proposals to lock down the internet or give ridiculous powers to state censors are neither needed nor likely to be at all effective.

 

Do you vote?

I believe in principle in voting, but I live mostly in London, where I don’t (yet) have the right to vote. In the past I have voted, although I’ve also avoided registering to vote where it seemed to require me to make public my home address. It turns out that collecting “all the world’s knowledge” draws the attention of a fair number of threatening cranks, and I prefer for my family’s safety to keep a relatively low profile at home.

 

Are we all doomed?

The Onion is my favourite humour site, a parody of news. And one of my favourite headlines in the Onion was “World death rate holding steady at 100 per cent”. So yes, in that sense, we’re all doomed. 

Jemima Khan tweets at: @Jemima_Khan

Jimmy Wales will speak at the NS and Latitude Festival event Should We Know How Far Surveillance Goes, along with Luke Harding (the Guardian) and David Omand, former director of GCHQ. At King's College, London WC2 on 3 June. Tickets: newstatesman.com/events 

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times