Dovi Jacobs wrote:
Wikimedia is committed to free software and free
content: All of our
projects are provided "free as in beer" and licensed to be used
freely (as in "free speech"). We are also committed to "free speech"
in the traditional sense, namely that fear or threats of censorship
will not be allowed to interfere with the development of any existing
or proposed Wikimedia project."
I agree with you, and I think you've been mostly right about everything
that you've said.
The reason it took me so long to answer this thread (in addition of
course to being insanely busy day and night with everything) is that I
have been thinking about it slowly and carefully. It's really important
and in my opinion it is really really difficult.
I want to state a hypothetical and then at the end of this letter, I
will also talk about what happens when the assumptions in my
hypothetical are not true. So read to the end before responding to my
Imagine for a moment that we knew with absolute certainty (we don't)
that starting a Chinese language Wikinews would result in complete and
total and permanent censorship within mainland China of all Wikipedia
projects. Remember, all of Wikipedia is currently accessible in China
and Wikipedians in China are doing a wonderful job of building a
This is something very important -- if I remember correctly even the BBC
is routinely blocked in China.
Now, imagine that we start Chinese Wikinews anyway, out of a strong
desire not to bow to fear or threat of censorship. Suppose we start it,
indeed, with a majority of mainland Chinese Wikipedians opposing it, and
only a slim majority of non-mainland Chinese Wikipedians supporting it
(hypothetical assumptions, again).
And then suppose that all of Wikipedia is, as per the hypothetical in
which we are operating, blocked permanently from China. The Mainland
Chinese Wikipedia community would effectively be destroyed. Chinese
Wikipedia(s) would continue to grow, but much more slowly, and 1 billion
people would be deprived of the opportunity to learn about it.
We would be lauded as heros in the western media. I'd have my face on
the cover of Time Magazine and Der Spiegel and so on. "Wikipedia shut
down by the Chinese government" -- an exciting story! We feel great
about ourselves for fighting against censorship!
But would we really have done anything useful? Not really. We would
have ruined the chance to get free content into China by fighting for
something not even supported very strongly by the Wikipedia community.
Do you agree with me that *if* the conditions of this hypothetical were
true, then as a matter of _tactical_ wisdom in our fight for freedom of
information, it would be a suicidal battle to engage in?
Fighting a war is a bad analogy for what we are doing, but it does
illustrate that not every retreat or avoidance of the enemy is a moral
failing. So long as we remain strongly committed to winning the overall
battle for freedom of knowledge, we can choose our battles wisely -- let
us choose the battles that we will win, not the battles which will lead
us to a ruinous loss.
Now, if you agree with me that *if my hypothetical were true* then we
should avoid this fight at this time, and if you agree with me that if
an opposite hypothetical were true (i.e. that we _know_ that wikinews
won't hurt anything) we should open it, then the remaining question is
how to make a decision under conditions of uncertainty.
There is only one way: careful deliberation and judgment in consultation
with people who know and care about the overall goals.
And that's where we are. We aren't surrendering to Chinese censorship,
we are pausing to evaluate the situation. We are gathering in strength.
We are learning about what to do to ensure freedom in the long run.
I very much agree with this analysis. There is always a need to
maintain some focus on the general goals of the projects. Primarily, it
involves making information freely available to everyone. This kind of
goal has more of the "free as in beer" characteristics. Most of our
core principle focus on providing access to both writers and readers.
Our discussions on intellectual property laws ultimately relate to how
this might be done. Even NPOV focuses on seeing multiple sides of the
story, rather than suppressing opposition.
Freedom as in speech may follow as a natural consequence of NPOV. Just
as the success of Wikipedia in obscure languages will depend on work
done by speakers of those languages so too will free speech in
relatively unfree countries depend on the action of the people
affected. Those of us in relatively free countries can help but we
can't interfere. We also need to accept that freedom in those places
may look quite different from what is familiar to us.
I don't know how tongue-in-cheek Jimbo was when he spoke of the way that
history is taught in the United States. Notably when it leaves the
perception that other countries can be ignored until they go to war
against each other, at which point a poerful outsider needs to go in and
knock some sense into the combatants. As often as not the effect of
that can be that the combatants will then unite, but only to fight
against a common enemy.
Free speech is not gained by free idealists haranguing the unfree from
the comfort of their armchairs.
I think that so far we have had an easy ride in our free-as-in-beer
approach. Phenomenal growth has probably left a lot of people stunned
and wondering how this 10-ton weight ended up on their toes. For some,
like Britannica that already had to adapt to Encarta in 1994, the blow
may be fatal. Others may just be waiting for auditors' reports before
they can understand the effect on the bottom line. We are in the lag
before the reports. There are bound to be some reactions when they
realize that this upstart has undermined their bottom line rather than
attacked it. I can forsee some interesting times ahead, which I hope we
will face without succombing to panic. That is best accomplished by
holding tight to core values. Of the two kinds of freedom, both are
important, but only one is a core value.