John Lubbock
May 01 2018

Marking the One Year Anniversary of the Block of Wikipedia in Turkey

It has now been more than a year since Wikipedia was blocked in Turkey. This means that Turkey’s population of 80 million (or at least the 70% of them who have internet access) are unable to access the largest source of information online, as well as to contribute to that information in Turkish by editing and creating new articles. The rest of the world has lost access to the perspective and knowledge of Turkish internet users, who are unable to contribute to and influence the information on the site.

Wikipedia is a much more complex system than most people give it credit for. Today, Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia curated by volunteers around the world. Every month, more than 200,000 people edit and improve Wikipedia’s more than 45 million articles across nearly 300 languages. It’s a website run by a charity (the Wikimedia Foundation) and supported by independent volunteer editors, affiliate groups, and independent charities in different countries (like my charity, Wikimedia UK) which are responsible for promoting the website and supporting its volunteer editors around the world.

The Wikimedia community is committed to the idea that knowledge should be free and open. Our mission is to allow everyone, everywhere to freely share in the sum of all knowledge.  Our content is not owned or copyrighted by anybody but is shared on Creative Commons licenses which allow anybody to edit, remix and reuse it for anything they want. This is what makes Wikipedia so unique from other large internet platforms. We do not host advertising, our content is created by volunteers, and we are fundamentally driven by our mission, rather than profit. It’s a fundamental challenge to the advertising based business model that most big websites use and means that while we don’t suffer from some of the ethical problems that come from monetising user data, we also lack the resources that come from it. This is why you’ve never seen any Wikipedia advertising and why you’ve probably never thought about how the site works.

But that doesn’t mean all governments are fans of Wikipedia. Since 2015, all language versions of Wikipedia use HTTPS encryption, making it much more difficult for a government or other third party to see what specific page a user is viewing, and meaning that they cannot filter individual pages, but must block the entire domain. China has blocked Chinese language Wikipedia this since 2015, and in 2017, Turkish authorities blocked Wikipedia across all languages, with the stated reason being their objection to two articles on English Wikipedia containing reports about Turkish weapons ending up with extremist factions in Syria’s civil war.

The block in Turkey has reduced traffic to the Turkish Wikipedia by around 80%, but many Turkish people are still accessing the site through proxies or VPNs. At a time when the Wikimedia community is pushing hard to encourage Wikipedia users outside Europe and North America to contribute to the site, the loss of 80% of our Turkish community is a serious setback for our ability to achieve this aim. Imagine all the people with an interest in a subject who could volunteer their time to help the world learn about history, science, popular culture or any other subject, who are now prevented from doing so.

The Wikimedia Foundation has made efforts to explain to the Turkish Information and Communication Technology Authority (BTK) how Wikipedia works, and legal remedies have been explored, but all official avenues seem to have been exhausted.

This is why the Wikimedia movement started a social media campaign called #WeMissTurkey. We are a global movement of people whose goal is to create a world in which everybody can freely share in the sum of all knowledge, in their own language, for free. We cannot do that if millions of people are blocked from accessing and contributing to Wikipedia.

We know this is an ambitious goal, and one that will never be complete because the sum of all knowledge will keep growing. And we know that Wikipedia’s coverage and representativeness of our world’s diversity leaves much to be desired and needs to be improved. Turkish Wikipedia has 300,000 articles, but the quality and quantity of its content could be so much better with more contributors. More contributors also means more people to remove vandalism and poor information that goes against Wikipedia’s guidelines.

People often mistakenly believe that there is some central authority in Wikipedia. In truth, information on Wikipedia must meet a series of criteria to be included on the site. Subjects must be notable, having been discussed in reliable, independent media sources. Information must be presented in a neutral way, as a summary of other sources, rather than original research. Different views on a topic should be presented, but views with more consensus should be given greater weight - for example the scientific consensus that global warming is caused by human activity. If there is a dispute about which information is correct, each article also has a Talk page, where editors can go to discuss and vote on how to change the information in an article.

There’s a kind of cognitive bias called anthropomorphism, and I have noticed it regularly problematise reporting about how Wikipedia works. Journalists and governments regularly attribute human agency to Wikipedia, which is, let us not forget, a website of crowdsourced content which is not edited or censored by the Wikimedia Foundation or chapters like mine.

People regularly ring our office and ask us to change Wikipedia when ‘something is wrong on the internet’. We patiently explain to them that if they click the edit button and follow the guidelines, they can add content or remove things they think are not true, as long as they have supporting references to show that what they’re writing is correct. Wikimedia charities are not going to change or censor articles because someone is unhappy with the content.

Apart from being totally against the ethos of how Wikipedia works, if we started to go down the path of censoring Wikipedia because one person told us to do it, where do you think that would end? We are not a company with a centralised hierarchy but a movement of people around the world committed to the idea that knowledge should be free, for everyone.

So is there a solution to this impasse? Obviously, there is a lack of trust on both sides. A Wikimedia chapter cannot form in Turkey when the community is afraid of harassment by the Turkish government, and the Turkish government and public cannot gain a better understanding of Wikipedia while it is blocked. Higher level talks between the Foundation and the Turkish government may be a good idea, but if dialogue fails, I am not sure what other options exist. The recent creation of a law which forces all internet broadcasters to obtain a license to operate in Turkey does not bode well for the future of online freedom of expression in Turkey.

Next year, Wikipedia will be 18 years old. It is worth remembering that we are still at the dawn of a new age of information technology, and fierce battles are being fought over the right of access to information in different countries. These fights will go on for a long time, but Wikipedia is not going away any time soon. For the time being, our website and community can wait until the winds of change are blowing in a more favourable direction.