HONG KONG -- At this year’s Wikimania conference, a meeting of hundreds of Wikipedia editors, a prominent topic of discussion was the censorship in some countries that interfere with the site’s mission of providing free, high-quality information to all.
The conference was held this year in Hong Kong, which enjoys speech freedom. Most glaringly, the free encyclopedia faces online filters next door in Mainland China, where issues deemed too sensitive are routinely blocked from Internet users.
Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, said he had met with Chinese officials on several occasions to discuss censorship of the site.
“The main thing we’ve tried to do is to keep open some lines of communication, so we don’t expect Wikipedia to be suddenly blocked overnight without at least talking to us before that would happen,” Wales said to reporters. “But I think we’re at a stable situation for now. We don’t approve of the filtering of Wikipedia that does go on, but there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”
Since 2004, Wikipedia has been completely blocked in Mainland China at least seven times, one of them lasting from 2005 to 2007, while sensitive articles are generally censored. Such filtering has, in recent years, driven some companies -- notably Google -- to exit the country in 2010.
During opening remarks at the conference, Wales also pointed out that other countries like Russia are facing growing threats toward freedom of speech and that vigilance should be maintained against restrictions in any country.
It is not just about making specific information available but also "the deeper principle that access to participation in the creation of the human story is a human right for all of us," Wales said. "It’s not to be dictated to us top down by legal authorities, that we all have the opportunity and the right to participate in that kind of thing."
Right now, there are 120 languages with at least 1,000 articles on Wikipedia. Eight languages have more than one million articles.
There are 718,000 articles written in Chinese, an unimpressive number considering 600 million Chinese use the Internet. Edits to the Chinese site happen largely in Taiwan and Hong Kong, followed in third place by China.
A web of government agencies have a hand in Internet censorship, ranging from top-level departments to local authorities. But foreign sites could face growing hurdles in China, most recently in the form of a law passed in December that will purportedly require all Internet users to register with their real names, which precludes sites like Wikipedia from compliance, since editors are only identified by their user names.
China has its own free encyclopedias online, the largest one run by Baidu, a technology company that operates China’s most-used search engine. But critics say those encyclopedias, which also rely on an army of contributors, do not adhere to high standards of accuracy and impartiality, and, of course, are subject to the same censorship.
According to Charles Mok, a Hong Kong lawmaker with legislative interest in the technology sector who was a keynote speaker at the conference, companies like Baidu are heavily favored by the Chinese government: Having just a few large, government-friendly sites to worry about makes it easier for officials to monitor and control their content.
“The Chinese strategy is actually to encourage local Chinese companies to take over,” he said.
“It’s not just any Chinese company; they want to make sure that they are the big ones. Because if you are the government, and you want to control information, you want to just work with a few of these big companies rather than 10,000 small companies.”
But Mok says access to websites is not as restricted nowadays as a decade ago, as the Chinese government has come to “perfect the system,” letting through more material seen as harmless, in an effort to appear more reasonable.
Moreover, the use of VPN and other methods to get over the firewall is permitted and are widely used by large businesses. But a vast majority of Internet users do not bother.
While most analysts say the Chinese government is unpredictable in its censorship practices, some users hold a hopeful view of the future of information accessibility in China. Deryk Chan, who has been involved with the Hong Kong chapter of Wikipedia in the past, says China's loosening restrictions are a positive sign.
“You can’t keep something secret forever, not for a country as big as China,” he said. “And in the last few years we’ve seen that the attitude of the Chinese government in terms of information secrecy is gradually softening, because they realize they can’t keep everything under the hood anymore.”