Jan 172012
Authors: Matt Miller

Did you try to use Wikipedia today?

If you were trying to settle a bet with a friend, do homework or just look up useless facts, you were instead faced with an ominous black screen with the words, “The Internet Must Remain Free.”

Somehow you’ll have to live through a day where you can’t look up the age of Neil Patrick Harris or why yawns are contagious. (The answers to these questions are 38 and because of emotional closeness between individuals –– among other theories. Thanks Wikipedia.)

So why is it that millions of us have been forced back to the dark ages of installing Encarta Encyclopedia disks? Because Wikipedia decided Monday it will become a picketer instead of a neutral information hub.

For 24 hours, the free online encyclopedia, which is the sixth most-visited site on the web, is shutting down its English pages in protest of two Congressional bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). And since you can’t search on Wikipedia what these two bills are, I’ll give you a brief outline.

The bills hope to stop the distribution of copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods by giving the U.S. Department of Justice and copyright holders the ability to file court orders against websites.

Opponents of the bills, which include the Obama administration and the technology industry, say the legislation would promote censorship and inhibit the creation of new web-based companies. The Motion Picture Association of America (or Hollywood since there’s still no Wikipedia) is one of the main supporters of the bills and hopes to crack down on Internet piracy.

Wikipedia joined sites like Reddit and Boing Boing in shutting down operations and going dark in order to call attention to the First Amendment rights they feel the government is infringing.

And while it’s good to see leaders in the technology industry looking out for web users in an attempt to champion for Internet freedom, should this be Wikipedia’s job?

If you go on Wikipedia’s “About” page (you’ll have to take my word for it today) there is a link to their five pillars or, “The fundamental principles by which Wikipedia operates.”

The second pillar is: “Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view.”

A more in-depth explanation of this pillar defines Wikipedia as an information source that avoids advocacy and characterizes information instead of debating it.

Today Wikipedia has abandoned one of the pillars of its existence and reduced its credibility as an ethical, unbiased source of information.

The decision to go dark today was made by the writers of Wikipedia –– meaning all of us –– and although the decision had pure intentions, it may have done more harm than good.

In weeks, months or years from now, when someone tries to search on Wikipedia the SOPA and PIPA bills, can that user believe 100 percent that the information is unbiased? When you read an article about net neutrality on the free encyclopedia, will you be certain that the facts haven’t been slanted?

Had it been Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter or any other tech behemoth blacked out today, it wouldn’t have been a question of ethics. These websites are not founded on neutrality and providing impartial information like Wikipedia was.

Wikipedia was first launched 11 years ago, and for the next decade it faced a constant uphill battle against critics who didn’t view the site as a legitimate source of information. In recent years it has started to build some credibility, but if it continues this role of political activism it will once again become an underappreciated joke.

Many Wikipedia editors had concerns with the decision to black out the site. This dissent can be seen in the public wiki-based discussion (which you will also have to wait for tomorrow to see).

One editor in particular was Robert Lawton. He told the Washington Post that his, “main concern is that it puts the organization in the role of advocacy, and that’s a slippery slope.”

If the global encyclopedia is willing to shut its users off from its English articles in protest of a national legislation, what else is it willing to do? Doctor articles for the use of propaganda? Censor the creation of articles that don’t fit with the political goals of Wikipedia? These are the questions that arise when an objective documenter of history suddenly becomes a player in history.

If Wikipedia ever wants to become a viable source for books, papers or articles, it cannot abandon its neutrality and the ethics upon which it was founded.

News Editor Matt Miller is a senior journalism major. His column appears Wednesday in the Collegian_. He can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @Official_MattM._

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