Wikipedia co-Founder Jimmy Wales on Thursday said he senses fear from government officials when he goes to meet with them, crediting the blackouts from the online encyclopedia and other sites in protest of anti-piracy laws with putting the pressure on policymakers.
"When I go and visit government officials now, they’re a little bit afraid," he said.
But at the same time, Wales stressed it’s important for Wikipedia to maintain its political neutrality. He said he hopes to have “a big, friendly, open conversation in the community” to define more broadly when the site should go on strike against future Internet legislation.
The encyclopedia website went dark in January along with Reddit and other websites to protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), prompting many lawmakers to ultimately drop their support for the anti-piracy bills.
Wales, who is a leader in speaking out against legislation that threatens the openness of the Internet, said he hopes the online encyclopedia decides to have a blackout only when Internet policy threatens to disrupt its work.
“I hope that we never have to do it again. I don’t want us to become a site that goes on strike every six months over something.” Wales said at the Wikimania conference at George Washington University. “I think it should be reserved for the most serious things that directly impact our work.”
The online encyclopedia blacked out the Russian version of its site this week to protest legislation that it says will encourage online censorship.
“I have no idea yet what the outcome will be, but I’m hopeful because it certainly got a lot of huge amount of press coverage there and around the world,” Wales said. “So I’m hopeful that it at least puts governments on notice that hey, the Internet community cares about these things and they care enough to actually do something about it.”
Wales had argued that SOPA and PIPA would threaten Internet freedom and openness in its pursuit of going after websites accused of offering infringed copyrighted material. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and lobbies for the recording and motion picture industries backed the two bills, saying online piracy is undercutting their bottom lines and hurting American jobs.
Large-scale piracy motivated by profit is an “existing problem” Wales said, and he wouldn’t be opposed to “making some suggestions for tweaks” to how infringing websites are dealt with.
But he added that doesn’t mean governments should try to push through bad legislation that will hurt Internet users.
“We cannot accept sort of absurd, technologically incompetent, draconian policies that would impact Internet users in a negative way,” told reporters after his keynote, emphasizing that he was expressing his own personal views and not speaking for Wikipedia.
Wales also argued that the entertainment industry needs to continue adjusting its business model so it offers people the content they want. Citing a personal example, Wales noted how he can’t watch HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series at home in London even though he’s willing to pay for it.
“I think that he media industry needs to say, 'Look, why don’t we sell people what they want to buy,’ and I think that will take care a huge proportion of the problem,” he said.
The Wikimania conference is held in a different city each year, from Frankfurt to Buenos Aires, but this is the first time it has been hosted in Washington.