The Wikipedia blackout on Wednesday 18th January 2011, protesting about legislation against online piracy and copyright theft (SOPA and PIPA), seems to have been a great success. According to Wikipedia's own (breathlessly enthusiastic) article about it, six US senators who had been sponsors of the bills, including Marco Rubio, PIPA's co-sponsor, Orrin Hatch, Kelly Ayotte, Roy Blunt, John Boozman, and Mark Kirk, said that they would now withdraw their support for the bills. Several other congressmen issued statements critical of the current versions of both bills. The following day, eighteen of the 100 senators, including eleven of the original sponsors of the PIPA bill, had announced that they no longer supported PIPA.
The Wikimedia Foundation reported that there were over 162 million visits to the blacked-out version of Wikipedia during the 24-hour period, with at least 4 million uses of the site's front page to look up contact information for their U.S. Congressional representatives. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that more than 1 million email messages were sent to congressmen through their site during the blackout.
I see it as a success for a different reason. It has brought home to many people that Wikipedia wields immense power. I don't know how much it would cost to advertise for a whole 24 hours on a network that was viewed by 162 million people, but it would be more than I could afford. As a guide, ITV's most popular show, the X-factor, pulls in about 11 million people. Only the richest and most powerful vested interest - which Wikipedia now obviously is - could command a budget for that kind of global coverage. If even a few perceptive people start seeing that Wikipedia is a threat to democracy everywhere, then I count that as a success.
You object that newspapers like the Sun, the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, the Guardian (to mention a few British ones) wield a similar influence, and have an editorial bias. I reply: these are just four newspapers, of different political persuasions. You have a choice, and people often choose a newspaper that reflects their natural political tendencies in any case. But there is only one Wikipedia. Moreover, The Daily Mail does not pretend to be an encyclopedia. And traditional media, which have an publicly identified editor, and an owner, can be engaged by traditional legal methods. This is not the case with Wikipedia. Wikipedia is invisible and anonymous.
Wikipedia has a strong internal administrative power structure, but it is invisible. Its administrators are hidden behind silly names like "Happy Melon", "The Cunctator". They are fiercely protective of their anonymity. One of them (on a now secret mailing list) writes "Of course, I'm writing from an anonymous email account with a pseudonym that has always been in place, and probably always will. I've had things oversighted on five different projects, and removed from places where 'oversight' is far from standard practice, to protect that anonymity. Is the fact that you don't know my name, address and date of birth a concern to you? Is the fact that I've written code for the cluster, or administrated three ArbCom elections, a problem for you?"
Er, yes, it's a problem for me. You cannot sue Wikipedia, because it does not exist. The Wikimedia Foundation, which does exist, and has a legal identity, claims it simply runs a website. They claim that actions taken on Wikipedia are by members of the 'community' - people like the Melon guy, and about another thousand of these faceless, anonymous individuals whose identity will never be known, and who are responsible to no one.
The picture above expresses everything I fear about Wikipedia. It is faceless, it hides behind a mask. It casts a shadow over the lives of billions of people. And it is essentially a conspiracy against the public of all English-speaking nations.
Tomorrow I will talk about how Wikipedia/Wikimedia managed to get the 'community support' for its action on Wednesday. Keep twiddling those dials.