Interview: Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales Calls a ‘Transitory Phenomenon’

Jimmy Wales, 2009. Credit: williambrawley/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Jimmy Wales, 2009. Credit: williambrawley/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

New York: With Facebook re-branding as ‘Free Basics’, the battle over how exactly technology and Silicon Valley will affect global development has come to the foreground. Cheap access to digital connectivity will undoubtedly play a vital role in the global development process. And yet, the methods through which these are provided are often marred by violations of net neutrality and accusations of digital exploitation.

The Wire’s Anuj Srivas spoke with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit on how digital connectivity will play a role in achieving global development, zero-rating and net neutrality, and access to openly available digital content.

What sort of role do you see Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation playing with regard to the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals? Are you happy with these goals?

Wikipedia plays a huge role in spreading information flows. So of course we are trying to translate them [goals] into as many languages as we can. For example in India we have Wikipedias for all of the official languages and a few of the unofficial languages.

In general of course we will translate the goals as part of our encyclopaedia entries about the goals. However, as we move forward with that, we hope to have a Wikipedia entry for each and everyone of the goals and the things that are happening around the world with regard to the goals. People who are therefore interested in the goals can learn the full scope of these goals.

My only small critique of the goals is that we should have an 18th goal – a goal that emphasises connectivity for everyone. It is half mentioned here and there, as part of other goals, but it is really central. Not because it is more important than things like clean water or sanitation. If a person needs clean water, then they absolutely need clean water.That’s actually quite urgent.

On the other hand, it’s not like by providing connectivity, we have to divert resources from providing clean water. These are separate standalone issues. People need access to connectivity, access to knowledge, access to a way to organise. Once they have that, they can start demanding for clean water.

Where do you think the process of zero-rating and initiatives such as India fit into the larger aim of providing access to global information flows? Keeping in mind the criticism has faced in India and potential violations of net neutrality that zero-rating brings about…

What’s interesting is that I think that net neutrality is really important. It’s an important value. But access to knowledge is also an important value. And they can be in tension to a certain extent.

I believe that programs like or Wikipedia Zero are really transitory phenomena. In the sense that data is getting cheaper and cheaper so it becomes less and less necessary to think about ways of subsidising access to data. For example: we would have not thought of doing Wikipedia Zero in the United States, because of course if you have a data plan, there’s no need for that. So I definitely think [the need for zero-rating] is somewhat transitory in nature.

But in the short run, I think that it [zero-rating] is super important for people who are coming online. And they are all coming online so fast. The very rapid drop in the price of the smartphone is pushing this. For $50, you can now get an Android phone that is almost equivalent in terms of specs to the original iPhone. Yes it’s a cheap crappy phone when compared to your Samsung S6. But people are getting real access who couldn’t get it earlier and and it’s coming faster than people realise.

So it’s important that we think about the people who are coming online. These people now have the ability to buy a smartphone and they want to come online. However, data charges can still be cost prohibitive. So we need to think: how can we help those people?

What do you think of other ways of providing cheap Internet access apart from Different forms of zero-rating like the ones piloted by Janaa and Mozilla or even initiatives such as Google’s Project Loon which don’t necessarily violate net neutrality?

I think definitely we should look into everything. Obviously, as I say, net neutrality is a value so we should be looking at ways of doing that are consistent with the principles of net neutrality.

I am definitely a big fan of things that are, so far, speculative like Google Loon and Facebook’s drone projects. These kinds of technical projects that look at how can we deliver Internet access to places that it is difficult to deliver Internet access or expensive otherwise. I mean obviously we aren’t quite there yet, but those things I find exciting and they are amazing ideas.

So if you look at Africa, the total broadband capacity of Africa has been skyrocketing in the last few years. If you looked at Africa ten years ago, the full bandwidth into Nigeria, the entire nation of Nigeria, had a bandwidth of about 75 megabits per second. At my home in Florida I had a 150 megabit connection cause I had fibre-optic to the home. So that’s amazing, right?

But now, they’ve dropped new fibre-optic cables into Nigeria and South Africa now. So the total bandwidth in Africa is going way way up. We are seeing this reflected through many metrics.  These things are coming very quickly and it’s going to be transformative.

I am very interested and I think that we should be exploring everything that is possible.

 On similar lines, access to freely available content is just as important as access to cheap Internet. What are your thoughts on the recent controversy surrounding Wikipedia editors who were given free ScienceDirect accounts by academic publishing powerhouse Elsevier?

Yeah well, I actually thought that the criticism was a bit silly. Because, you know, Wikipedia editors also buy books that are proprietary in terms of copyright. So if somebody gave us some free books, we would say “That’s great, now we can research better”. So giving us access to sources of information is [not the issue].

But like I’ve always said, if there is a situation when we have two sources for a certain fact, two equivalent sources in terms of quality, we should prefer the one that is more accessible and more open of course. However, at the same time, we shouldn’t diminish the quality of Wikipedia with some sort of misguided desire that all research be free and free of access, even though we support that.

If you think that poor people should be given free food, you’re not wrong if you accept a free meal sometimes!

Note: The Wire is covering the UN summit on SDGs at the invitation of the United Nations.