Archive for January, 2012

The Fundamental Flaws of SOPA and PIPA

Imagine a world without Wikipedia

A prosperous society is one that is driven by constant change, continuous growth, and expansive knowledge. These factors can only thrive under conditions conducive to openness and transparency, be they in government, private business, or the Internet. It’s hard to imagine that nearly 11 years ago, Wikipedia didn’t exist. This vast resource, a worldwide tool that’s devoted to preserving, expanding, and disseminating global knowledge, by the very virtue of its nature, is constantly adapting to the same forces that drive change in society. While Wikipedia did not exist 11 years ago, the basic institutional and infrastructural foundations that allowed it to exist as it does today did. These foundations have now under attack from two bills in the United States Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECTIP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate.

A lot has been written about why SOPA and PIPA are bad pieces of legislation, and so it’s moot to go into specifics here, but it’s worth discussing two fundamental flaws that lie at the core of these proposed bills. These flaws undermine the very core of SOPA and PIPA, should they become law as written, and thus set them up to fail in solving the problems they seek to address. Laws designed to solve specific problems or mitigate harmful situations, as SOPA and PIPA purport to do, are only good if they maintain two attributes: one, they must stand on a solid foundation based in good principle and, two, they must propose efficient solutions that do not cause unintended consequences that are significantly more harmful than the problems they are trying to address. In short, these types of laws must be good in principle and effective in execution. Neither SOPA nor PIPA have either attribute.

When it comes to designing laws based on good principles and doing it in an efficient and effective way, it’s important to ask the right question before seeking to get the right answer. Both SOPA and PIPA ask the wrong question, and thus from the start violate both principles of good and effective laws. These two bills were designed to solve the problem of online piracy of copyrighted materials, such as music and movies, that are hosted on foreign websites (companies already have the power to block domestic websites that host infringing content). To address this problem, proponents of SOPA and PIPA asked, “how can we prevent people in the US from accessing information abroad,” and then proposed ways to block access through means that threaten freedom of speech, stifle online innovation, and hinder open access. That’s akin to proposing to solve the problem of nighttime street crime by forcing everyone to stay indoors at night. The problem of copyright infringement is not end-user mediated, and the solutions to this problem cannot treat it like it is.

As an organization dedicated to enhancing worldwide access to global knowledge through free and open resources, we stand on principle against SOPA and PIPA, but we also recognize the grievances of its proponents. Thus, in the spirit of open and transparent government, we invite both proponents and opponents of SOPA and PIPA to an open discussion regarding the appropriate solutions to the problem of online copyright infringement. We are all swimming in the same ocean, and if we don’t work on solving problems together, an undercurrent of discontent will carry everyone far offshore.

Nicholas Michael Bashour
Wikimedia District of Columbia

Official Statement of Wikimedia DC on SOPA and PIPA

WASHINGTON, D.C., JANUARY 18, 2011: Wikimedia District of Columbia (Wikimedia DC) stands firmly with the decision of Wikipedia editors and administrators to shut down the English Wikipedia for 24 hours on January 18, 2012, in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECTIP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate.

Since its inception, neutrality has been a fundamental value of Wikipedia and an essential component of its mission to become a free and accessible resource of global knowledge. However, as SOPA and PIPA threaten to disrupt the very foundations on which Wikipedia is built, over 1800 individuals in the active community of Wikipedia contributors recognized the need to act in order to confront these dangerous legislations. By requiring that sites proactively police content merely suspected of copyright infringement, both pieces of legislation place undue and unrealistic burdens particularly on global sites that depend on user-generated content, like Wikipedia.

“Open Internet has always been vital to our goal of empowering individuals and communities through free access to global knowledge,” says Katie Filbert, President of Wikimedia DC. “While we recognize that copyright holders have legitimate concerns regarding their property rights, we do not believe that the solution should come on the backs of millions of innocent online users. Open Internet, like free speech, must always be protected.”

Wikimedia District of Columbia is the official regional chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation in the District, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Delaware. A non-profit educational organization, Wikimedia DC is dedicated to the advancement of general knowledge and the collection, development, and dissemination of educational content under a free license or in the public domain.

Nicholas Michael Bashour, Vice-President
Phone: (313) 377-4589

Transcending Boundaries: International Relations and Wiki Projects

The field of International Relations (IR) has always been about transcending boundaries, whether physical or metaphorical. Unfortunately, as aptly stated by Oxford IR Professor Andrew Hurrell in his introduction of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s inaugural Distinguished Fulbright Lecture, there exists in IR academia a “Berlin Wall-like division between fields.” This division, in fact, exists in several disciplines, not just in IR. While there are several individuals across disciplines who work to break down these barriers, large-scale cross-disciplinary collaborations hardly ever exist. In today’s highly-connected world, enhancing global knowledge depends in part on fostering collaborations across fields and disciplines.

In a paper by Deana D. Pennington titled “Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration and Learning,” she argues not only that collaboration is important, but also that cross-disciplinary collaboration depends on having a “knowledge ecosystem” composed of individuals who use effective tools along with bodies of knowledge to foster successful collaboration.  The very collaborative nature of Wikis makes Wikipedia and its sister project one of the effective tools to build this “knowledge ecosystem.” The only thing necessary is a large number of people who bring their expert body of knowledge with them and use Wikis as a tool for effective collaboration.

While not a be-all end-all solution to the problem of sharp divisions between fields in International Relations and other disciplines, Wiki Projects have the potential for bringing together actors from across IR fields to collaborate and build a large body of knowledge that is available to millions of people across the world, particularly those who wouldn’t normally have any reason or incentive to interact with each other. This is not a foreign idea to IR scholars. In a recent survey of US scholars of International Relations and related fields by the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations at the College of William and Mary, scholars were asked a number of questions about topics related to the scholarship and pedagogy of IR. One of the questions asked was whether they have used Wikis, such as Wikipedia, as a scholarship or teaching tool. Results showed that 52.36% of responders used Wikis as a teaching tool in the classroom, and 13.46% of responders used Wikis for scholarly purposes. Unfortunately, only 6.96% of responders said that they have edited a Wikipedia article in their area of expertise. Increasing the number of professionals who contribute in their field to Wikipedia articles and other Wiki Projects is an important goal for everyone in the Wiki movement and an essential step for turning Wiki Projects into the effective collaboration tool of the “knowledge ecosystem.” We at Wikimedia DC place particular emphasis on reaching out to professionals in our area for that purpose.

Many of the scholars surveyed are from Washington DC. In fact, four of the top ten schools of IR are based in DC: The Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, and the School of International Service at American University. One of our goals at Wikimedia DC is to reach out to students and scholars at these schools and encourage them to add expert and professional contributions to various Wikipedia articles in their field. By engaging the professional IR community in the region, we are moving one step further toward ensuring that the expert knowledge of world’s top scholars in International Relations becomes available to people around the globe.

If you are a scholar or a student of International Relations based in the Washington DC area, we will be reaching out to you soon. But we invite you to also reach out to us. In the works, we have multiple projects dedicated to bringing together professionals from many disciplines, such as LibraryLab, Edit-a-thons, and our forthcoming Embassy Outreach Initiative and Wikis and Open Government Project. By working together, we can ensure that the vast intellectual capacity of the Washington DC region is shared with individuals across the world. In that way, Wiki Projects and Wikimedia DC, like the field of International Relations, transcend both physical and metaphorical boundaries to bring the international community together.

Image: Madonna des Kanonikus Georg van der Paele