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Georgetown’s Yahoo! Fellow Evgeny Morozov: Free Speech and the Internet

Georgetown Yahoo! Fellow Evgeny Morozov

Georgetown Yahoo! Fellow Evgeny Morozov

In case you missed it, Georgetown University’s Yahoo! Fellow, Evgeny Morozov, had an excellent op ed in Friday’s New York Times on “The Internet and Democracy.” Evgeny writes:

To appreciate the full bouquet of challenges that the Internet is posing to the modern nation state, look no further than the case of two German men who are waging a legal battle against the U.S.-based Wikimedia Foundation — the charity behind the online encyclopedia — for violating their rights to privacy. In 1990 the two men killed a German actor, were sentenced to life in prison in 1993, and were released on parole a few years ago. The German law allows them to start afresh; the media has been barred from mentioning their full names in relation to the crime.

The German-language Wikipedia complied and removed their full names from its entries. The English-language Wikipedians, after producing more than 60 pages of arguments, persevered. Stopp & Stopp, the improbably named law firm representing the two men, duly filed lawsuits against the Wikimedia Foundation in German courts, which prompted accusations of censorship from the likes of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, a free-speech group.

Striking a balance between an individual’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know is never easy and is usually the result of intense national deliberations. Thus the non-compliance by the English-language Wikipedia has most interesting implications for Germany: As long as English remains a global language and Wikipedia entries occupy top search results on Google, many Germans would continue stumbling upon information that their courts do not want them to see. Limiting access to Wikipedia does not seem like an acceptable solution: Only very brave (and impractical) judges would go that far.

Such defiance to authorities is not necessarily a “bug” in Wikipedia’s programming: By the same token, Thai courts can’t force Wikipedia to adopt a deferential attitude to the country’s monarch because of its draconian lèse majesté laws. Few would argue that Wikipedians should comply with those.

So what to make of Wikipedia’s rebelliousness? That it has inadvertently challenged the sovereignty of the German state should not be written off as just another ironic twist of post-modernity. Germany is not the only government that has difficulty maintaining control in today’s decentralized and digitally-mediated environment, which knows no borders and respects no court orders. How could a modern nation state aspire to protect local norms if it has lost the ability to enforce the very laws that follow from these norms? If entire nations are forced to live in information environments that no longer reflect their own assumptions about human nature, would all of our legal and social norms eventually converge to some global lowest common denominator?

We are unlikely to find comprehensive answers to any of these questions this early into the digital game. But we can try solving them one by one. The current case in Germany presents a good opportunity to examine Wikipedia’s rapidly growing power — and the numerous ways in which it can be harnessed to right the wrongs that are bound to arise on its pages.

If newspapers produce the first drafts of history, Wikipedians certainly produce its latest and — thanks to Google — most viewed drafts. Wikipedia has become an extremely powerful platform with tremendous real-world repercussions for those caught in the crossfire of its decision-making. For this reason alone, Wikipedia can no longer be run like the favorite basement project of anonymous 13-year-olds.

The German case illustrates that some of the disputes could be too complex to be easily pigeon-holed into an intractable body of Wikipedia’s rules and practices. To resolve such cases in a satisfactory fashion, one needs a thorough understanding of philosophy, history, law and ethics; having some hard-earned worldly wisdom wouldn’t hurt either. So far, Jimmy Wales, a co-founder of the project, has served as Wikipedia’s deity-in-chief, adjudicating the cases he saw fit. Often, he did make sensible interventions, including a recent plea to Wikipedians not to disclose the details of the kidnapping of David Rohde, a New York Times reporter in Afghanistan. However, whatever Mr. Wales’ individual talents, many of decisions that Wikipediands need to make appear too daunting for any individual to decide on his own.

Thus, whenever current rules and norms of the project come into conflict, Wikipedians shouldn’t shun away from asking for help. An external international panel comprising the world’s most eminent philosophers, legal scholars, historians and others can prevent challenging cases from getting ugly before they reach the courts.

After all, there is a reason why newspapers have editorial boards and ombudsmen; it seems strange that one of the most powerful media sites in the world hasn’t yet followed suit. There would be little harm in bringing half a dozen wise people on board, if only to reaffirm Wikipedia’s commitment to becoming the world’s most respected — rather than most feared — source of knowledge.

Very interesting food for thought! I suspect Evgeny’s students will have a challenging time in his Master of Science in Foreign Service class at Georgetown in the spring. It’s title– The Internet and Democracy. The course description reads:

This course is designed for students who seek a deeper understanding of the Internet’s influence on authoritarian regimes. The recent emergence of blogs, wikis, and social networks as fast, cheap, and effective tools of communication has radically transformed how information spreads even in the most closed societies. However, while the benefits of the Internet to democratic forces – such as easier and cheaper access to information and the almost instantaneous ability to mobilize crowds of supporters – are fairly well-known, there are also growing concerns over the Internet’s “darker side”, particularly the growing sophistication with which some authoritarian governments leverage the power of the Internet for the purposes of surveillance, propaganda, and cyberwarfare. The course will explore the threats and opportunities that come with the emergence of these new virtual public spheres and will discuss different strategies devised by authoritarian governments to neutralize their democratic potential. Each class session will explore a particular aspect of the Internet’s influence on authoritarian states. While the course will be global in scope, students with an interest in Russia, China, and Iran might find it particularly useful. The course will be quite current and practical in nature, with a heavy focus on debating the role that tools like Twitter and Facebook have played in recent geopolitical events.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.