Can Wikipedia Shut Down Universities?

Five or six years ago at a faculty meeting a colleague, the sort of person who can only be described as an “old school educator,” argued for a college-wide ban on Wikipedia. Another colleague, a highly distinguished scholar and teacher, looked at me in shock and asked the question we were all thinking:

How can I teach without Wikipedia?

I think the difference is not that one was a good teacher and the other bad nor that one was willing to do the work of teaching and the other not. Indeed, I would wager a bet that a look at my Wikipedia-dependent colleague’s teaching record would show an exceptional educator. It is just that she relies on Wikipedia for many of the facts (what year was Weber born? when did Marx write the Manifesto), and spends her time preparing courses that are not just a collection of facts, but rather a set of analytical tools for exploring the world around us.

By this point in time, nearly all of us rely on Wikipedia for the facts, and not just educators. Want to know if you should buy an Austin Mini? Is Continental Airlines still in business? Thinking about going crabbing? What equipment do you need? Got bedbugs? What about Valentine’s Day? These are all important questions that many of us want or need to know NOW and Wikipedia is there to answer those questions. And I’m not going to even mention how much my teenagers use Wikipedia to complete their homework assignments.

But alas, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit will only come up with this message today:

For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia.

Wikipedia as well as several other Web sites including reddit and Boing Boing are blank today to protest the anti-piracy legislation being considered in the U.S. Congress right now and the site encourages you to contact your representatives.

Although pirated material is already illegal, it is also widely available. The new legislation, known as SOPA, would restrict sites like Google from even listing the names of sites accused of internet piracy.

According to Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, the legislation is a threat to free speech around the world and will do little to actually stop piracy. Wales told CNN that

we’re very strong defenders of copyright… The other side will try to paint this as anybody who’s opposed to this must be making money off of piracy or be in favor of piracy. That isn’t true. The issue here is that this law is very badly written, very broadly overreaching and, in at least the Senate version, would include the creation of a DNS (domain name system) blocking regime that’s technically identical to the one that’s used by China. I don’t think that’s the right way the U.S. needs to go in taking a leadership role on the Internet.

Google is not down today, but they did post a statement protesting SOPA as well and issued a statement saying

There are better ways to address piracy than to ask U.S. companies to censor the Internet. The foreign rogue sites are in it for the money, and we believe the best way to shut them down is to cut off their sources of funding.

Meanwhile, former Senator Chris Dodd, who is now chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, one of the most ardent supporters of the anti-piracy legislation, said

It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information… A so-called ‘blackout’ is yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals.

I don’t know anything about the technical issues, but legislation that would limit access to other sites and put search engines like Google in the business of censoring such access is a bad idea. I’m not saying it would shut down the universities, but it would limit our access to knowledge and that would be a bad thing. The world SOPA would create is scary and not just because we might not be able to look things up on Wikipedia. The world it promises is more like the Internet version of Citizens United, whereby corporations became citizens with protected free speech. Here megacorporations, looking to protect their profit margins, can force other megacorporations to limit the way 99 percent of us use the Internet: not for profit, but for information.

I can’t look up the entry on SOPA on Wikipedia today, but if I could, I’d edit it to say: A piece of legislation that ultimately failed when lawmakers decided to let the corporations figure out how to make more profit without using the U.S. government as a sort of global police force, shutting down its citizens’ access to a variety of sites just because somewhere along the way profit has been lost.

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