Wikimania 2022 Anti-Censorship Panel Discussion – Emerging Threats of State-led Censorship and Response Strategies

Introduction

A few decades earlier, a pocket-size super-computer with the potential to replace newspapers and books for consuming knowledge would’ve been dismissed by Mark Cuban as a ludicrous pitch at Shark Tank. Fast forward to 2022, we live in an era where 120 characters can decide the course of elections, and Wikipedia – the global library open around the clock – has replaced thick hard-bound encyclopedia volumes! 

Even though the Free and Open Knowledge receives accolades across the globe, many states prefer to keep certain information closely guarded (against the public interest), leading to legal notices, take-down requests, and cumbersome regulatory compliance requirements imposed by irked state authorities. At the time of drafting this blog, Wikimedia Foundation’s (Wikimedia) projects continue to remain banned in mainland China, and the legal department has received three (3) new legal notices from Roskomnadzor (the Russian Regulator for monitoring media) in response to the articles related to Russo-Ukrainian conflicts.

The state-led desire to control the flow of information is not limited to Wikipedia but has also been a cause of concern for other platforms (also known as intermediaries) and civil-rights activists. To deliberate on this, the Foundation’s legal department organized a panel discussion titled “Emerging Threats of State-led Censorship and Response Strategiesduring Wikimania, 2022. It featured experts in the technology and policy ecosystem including, Emma Llansó (Director, Free Expression Project, Center for Democracy and Technology), Başak Tosun (Affiliations Committee, Wikimedia Turkey), and Rachel Judhistari (Lead Public Policy Specialist, Wikimedia). Leighanna Mixter (Senior Legal Manager, Wikimedia) moderated the panel discussion. The section below provides a broad issue discussed during the discussion.

Censorship Tools 101

Emma and Leighanna opened by discussing different methods that states adopt to censor platforms. Traditionally, the governments resort to Legal Orders addressed to platforms for content take-down, access to user data, Network Level Blocking (requiring ISPs to block certain websites), and Internet Shutdowns. While the shutdowns are not directed to a particular platform, they cast a chilling effect on netizens’ access to the Internet. For instance, since 2019, India, which gets over 750 million visits to Wikipedia per year, has witnessed around 411 government-imposed shutdowns. Secondly, the governments have started including “Local Presence and Must Carry Provisions” in their Information Technology Laws. Under local presence laws, platforms directing services to a country’s residents are mandated to employ local legal representative(s) who can be held legally liable for non-compliance with the legal demands. On the face of it, such provisions may appear unobjectionable; however, due to such requirements, employees remain under constant fear as the governments threaten to prosecute them for non-compliance. Similarly, under must carry provisions, platforms are required to host political leaders’ opinions, even if found to be manipulated, which hampers their ability to counter “disinformation” efficiently.  

In 2021, Apple and Google were compelled to take-down “Navalny” (a smart voting app) in Russia to safeguard their local employees from governmental action. Similarly, in 2021, the New Delhi Police raided Twitter’s office late at night for disagreements over tweets about COVID-19 crisis in India. 

When we missed Turkey!

From April 2017 to January 2020, the Turkish Government banned all language editions of “Wikipedia” for hosting articles related to “State-Sponsored Terrorism.” Despite alternatives such as VPNs, proxy websites (which commercialized Wiki content), Wikipedia’s readership reduced to some extent as all associations with educational institutes came to a sudden halt. Since the un-blocking, Turkish Wikipedia has hit the milestone of 500,000 articles, and the volunteer community has been granted a not-for-profit status.  

While the block was limited to Turkey, it deprived readers across the globe of information related to Turkish Culture.”- Başak Tuson

Global Advocacy Initiatives at Wikimedia 

The panel moved to discuss the bespoke challenges faced by Wikimedia with the recent regulatory developments. Rachel noted that new regulations, particularly in South Asia, failed to appreciate the diversity amongst the online platforms and categorized them in the same basket as Big Tech, despite the differences. Unlike Big Tech, Wikimedia platforms are not commercialized or depend on advertisements. True to its mission, Wikipedia has delivered the Internet’s promise of being a universal enabler of knowledge. Thus, what may work or be plausible for Big Tech to implement, may not be compatible with community-driven Wikimedia platforms. Even with the sophistication of artificial intelligence tools, content moderation at the scale of social media services would lead to inconsistencies, and strategies adopted by platforms may not necessarily be in line with political interests. The panelists agreed that the regulatory developments directly threaten Wikimedia’s mission and pillars of Wikipedia. As the states lean towards interventionism (vis-à-vis hands-off approach), it is critical that the regulations are made agnostic of political interest. 

“To protect the Wikimedia Model, it is important to work with progressive legislators and build alliances with global as well as regional advocacy groups who bring local nuance and help legislators understand and appreciate the Wikimedia models more effectively.”- Rachel Judhistari

Concerning Russia, Leighanna pointed towards the challenges of keeping the platform active without compromising on its core values. For Wikimedia’s legal department, responsibility is not limited to securing the safe-harbor protection for Wikipedia but also extends to supporting and safeguarding the community to enable them to contribute without fear of persecution.

Way Forward

On an optimistic note, the panelists agreed that the strength of the advocacy requires local and international rights organizations to work together in advancing the cause of online freedom! The recent consultative status accreditation to the Wikimedia Foundation by the Economic and Social Affairs Council (United Nations) is a testimony of the success of a collaborative approach, when twenty-three countries came on board in support of non-profit organizations committed to advancing the right to freedom of speech and expression.  Yes, these are difficult times, but every challenge also presents an opportunity to emerge stronger! Stay tuned…

Wikimania Session link, YouTube recording link

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