Wikimedia and Facebook have given Angolans free access to their websites, but not to the rest of the internet. So, naturally, Angolans have started hiding pirated movies and music in Wikipedia articles and linking to them on closed Facebook groups, creating a totally free and clandestine file sharing network in a country where mobile internet data is extremely expensive.
It's an undeniably creative use of two services that were designed to give people in the developing world some access to the internet. But now that Angolans are causing headaches for Wikipedia editors and the Wikimedia Foundation, no one is sure what to do about it.
The sharing of copyrighted files via Wikipedia Zero conflicts with Wikimedia sites' copyright rules, and volunteers from Portuguese-language Wikimedia projects (Angola is a former Portuguese colony, thus Portuguese is widely spoken there) recently raised their troubles with Angolan Wikipedia Zero users on the Wikimedia-l mailing list (see the brief note in last week's Signpost issue).
The problems were first brought to the Wikimedia Foundation's attention last summer; they are complicated by the fact that Angola has some of the laxest copyright laws in the world: what Angolan users are doing may, in some cases, not even be illegal in their country. But the Wikimedia Foundation is located in the United States, and a Phabricator task has been created in response to Koebler's article to "prevent Wikipedia Zero exploitation of uploads to share copyrighted media".
Koebler maintains that this kind of situation is a natural consequence of "digital colonialism". In a follow-up article he argues that "Wikipedia doesn't realise it's the developing world's Internet gatekeeper":
Angolans on Wikipedia Zero and the Portuguese Wikipedia editors they are annoying don't have anything resembling equal access to the internet. Wikipedia Zero and Facebook Free Basics are the only services that many Angolans have access to (for the record, this is happening in other countries with Wikipedia Zero, too).
To many Angolans, Koebler says, living in a country where 50 MB of mobile data costs $2.50 and the median annual salary is $720, Wikipedia Zero and Facebook Zero (now renamed Free Basics) have simply become the Internet.
The Wikimedia Foundation sent Koebler a response to his first article, which he posted online. Koebler essentially dismissed the response, and frames the dispute as part of a larger debate about zero-rated services against the backdrop of the Indian government's recent decision to outlaw zero-rated services on net neutrality grounds:
There's an intense debate going on right now over whether zero rating has any role in bridging the digital divide and in connecting the half of the world that doesn’t have regular internet access. What we risk human rights groups like Access Now say, is telling people in developing countries that being able to connect to just a few sites is "enough", an effect that "tips the balance in favor of zero-rated services, effectively salting the earth of low-cost net neutral alternatives in the future." That argument was enough for India to ban Wikipedia Zero, Free Basics, and zero-rating altogether earlier this year.
Koebler quotes Vishal Misra, a Columbia University professor who provided testimony to the Indian parliament in the recent debates. Noting that the Wikimedia Foundation has received less criticism than Facebook for its zero-rated service, Misra says:
Wikipedia is a nonprofit, but that's about it. There hasn't been a backlash but I don't think people who have been arguing this issue with any level of depth have said that Wikipedia Zero is any better than Free Basics. [...] From the response of Wikipedia to your article, it's clear they are not concerned about increasing access. They are concerned about maintaining Wikipedia's popularity and influence. Either you make everything cheaper or you don't have it at all. Otherwise, people find loopholes and it destructs the whole ecosystem. We need to increase access, otherwise you are just trying to keep people hooked on a free service.
TechDirt's Tim Cushing has also weighed in (March 25), saying that "Zero-rating – the nifty trick companies use to edge around net neutrality rules – is being offered to developing countries as a way to provide cheap internet access to their citizens. There's a bit of altruism in the offerings, but there's also a lot of walls surrounding gardens." He agrees with Koebler that there are three possible solutions to the situation in Angola, all of which are unpalatable:
The Wikimedia Foundation could pull the service from Angola – but this would deprive many impoverished citizens of their only access to the internet.
Volunteers could start playing whack-a-mole with content and new Wikipedia/Facebook accounts – but this imposes a heavy burden on volunteers and is really "no solution at all".
Angolan users start to "behave themselves". However, this third solution is actually the worst solution of all, Cushing argues, following Koebler's line of reasoning:
As Koebler explains, this proposed solution is predicated on some terrible assumptions about how people must behave to "earn" internet access privileges.
"Many on the listserv [i.e. the Wikimedia-l mailing list] are framing Angola's Wikipedia pirates as bad actors who need to be dealt with in some way so that more responsible editors aren't punished for their actions. This line of thinking inherently assumes that what Angola's pirates are doing is bad for Wikipedia and that they must be assimilated to the already regulated norms of Wikipedia's community. If the developing world wants to use our internet, they must play by our rules, the thinking goes."
Playing by the rules – which basically means curbing infringement to appease rights holders – may be a bad thing for Angolans in the long run, even if it seems like a plausible short-term solution. The "loopholes" in these zero-rated services aren't limited to spreading pirated content. They could also serve as handy tools for activism and dissent.
"Angolan's pirates are learning how to organize online, they're learning how to cover their tracks, they are learning how to direct people toward information and how to hide and share files. Many of these skills are the same ones that would come in handy for a dissident or a protester or an activist. Considering that Angola has had an autocratic leader in power for more than 35 years, well, those are skills that might come in handy one day."
Shutting down dubious uses of the services will only result in greater local control of internet access, which is the last thing the country needs. The fact that people are using a service in ways it was never intended to be used is a feature, not a bug.
The debate is likely to continue, and it seems certain that both Internet activists and intellectual property rights advocates will closely watch the Wikimedia movement's response.
The edit war at RepRap project, briefly mentioned in last week's "In the media", is the subject of an in-depth report (March 23) in Motherboard by Roisin Kiberd. Conflicts between contributors at the Wikipedia article focused on the fact that much of its lengthy content lacked references to independent secondary sources.
Jytdog, a veteran contributor to discussions at the conflict of interest noticeboard, is quoted at some length in Kiberd's report on the difficulty of editing topics in Wikipedia that people feel passionate about:
Passion is a double-edged sword that way. It drives people to contribute but you only get the fans or the haters, and encyclopedic content goes out the window. [...]
Almost all Wikipedians agree that "advocacy editing" is a really big problem. Advocacy editing is when somebody comes to Wikipedia who is, say, an ardent vegetarian (or meat-eater) and believes eating meat is evil (or awesome), or hates (or loves) some politician or company or product or video game, and adds non-neutral and often unsourced or badly sourced content reflecting whatever their passion is. Advocates tend to behave badly as well.
Jytdog eventually told Kiberd that he would no longer take part in editing the article – as did one of his opponents, CaptainYuge, who declared the effort "a waste of time." Kiberd wondered whether Jytdog had done the right thing in reverting his own changes, which had deleted much unsourced and primary-sourced material. Jytdog responded:
Right or wrong I don't know. What I do know is that I don't much like working on topics where there are mostly low quality sources and active online communities; it just becomes a dramafest.
In many cases, the enduring norms were first written years before Wikipedia grew to fame, and when the population was a small fraction of what it would one day become. Just as the foundational precepts of the United States still govern us today and generate much commentary in the form of Supreme Court opinions, Wikipedia is governed by rules that originated among a small minority.
None of this was planned, of course: no super-user wired these networks together, or later pulled them apart. Instead, dynamic patterns emerged from the actions of thousands of individuals, each with their own idiosyncratic beliefs, working with and against each other to define what it meant to be a good Wikipedian.
The history of Wikipedia's culture, he says, is a "fundamentally social affair" whose evolutionary course no one could have predicted, marked by "turmoil and change – not stability".
Wales in Romania: Romanian English-language business news website actmedia.eu is among many Romanian sites covering Jimmy Wales' recent visit to Romania, describing him as "the genius behind Wikipedia". (Mar. 23)
Women and Wikipedia: The Linklooks at the history of Wikipedia's gender gap. (Mar. 21)