Open Knowledge Is Not Enough – The Case For Fair Knowledge

Is it time to boycott Wikipedia? As Wikipedia is the most prominent endeavour of the Wikimedia Foundation, a boycott of the latter should start here. And in my opinion there are good reasons to call for a boycott of both, Wikipedia and the Foundation. First: The Wikimedia Foundation accepts sponsorship not only from government institutions in general but from right-wing governments with questionable human rights records. Second: Wikipedia relies for the most part on the exploitation of its contributors.

The dimension of exploitation and human rights abuses in the creation and production of knowledge is usually either dismissed or ignored. Accordingly, proponents of FLOSS, Creative Commons, and Open Access either romanticize the benefits of their endeavours or flatly deny that they have any political or moral implications whatsoever. Knowledge is objective and it is value-free, and with this mantra all exploitative features are either dismissed or overlooked. But as the context of the Wikimania Conference 2011 in Haifa, Israel, shows, even FLOSS and free knowledge are not immune to problems of human rights and human dignity. Those and similar problems in the creation and production of free knowledge should be addressed heads-on. As with the Fair Trade Movement 20 years ago it is now time to counter such developments with the introduction of a seal of approval for Fair Knowledge. The following tries to make an argument for this.

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Once a year the chapters of the Wikimedia Foundation, authors, participants of the different Wikimedia projects as well as interested people meet at a conference called Wikimania. Each annual conference takes place in a different country, organized by the local Wikimedia Chapter. This year, the conference is to be held on August 4 -7, 2011, in Haifa, Israel.

Since the beginning of the organizing of Wikimania 2011 there were calls for a boycott of the conference. One response has been that a boycott of Wikimania 2011 is not only besides the goals of the conference but also grossly unfair with regard to the state and people of Israel: When the Wikimania Conference 2008 had been held in Alexandria, Egypt, in the time of the repressive Mubarak regime, seemingly no-one had objected to its location. As people seem to have been silent on the human rights situations then, the argument goes, it is now unfair to scold Israel. As there seem to be a double standard at work, the question of an anti-Semitic agenda of those calling for a boycott sounds reasonable. That is, if one accepts the premises of the rebuttal that both situations are comparable. But are they?

We could enter into a lengthy debate how Wikimania 2008 in Alexandria differs from Wikimania 2011 in Haifa. Both venues, their times and political situations, are, in fact, very different. Suffices to name just one point: In Egypt the government wasn’t interested in the conference whose taking place helped to foster a critical counterpublic. In Israel, being a democracy, such synergy effects from a Wikimania conference to create and support a counterpublic are not to be expected. Rather, such a conference will more likely support the official agenda of the government to promote the picture of a liberal and cosmopolitan society. So the argument that one cannot call Israel to account for a conduct one is seemingly willing to ignore in other cases, is misguided. Israel, a western democracy, cannot claim to be judged by the same standards that are in play when the behaviour of a repressive regime is judged. As Israel is a democracy, it has to oblige to the legal, political, and moral standards of democracies. Accordingly, restrictions of free speech, e.g. the recently passed law that makes calling for a boycott of Israeli products or companies by any Israeli citizen a punishable offence, carries a very different meaning and impact than had the equivalent been announced by the generals of the military junta in Burma or the clerics in the regime of Iran.

Many called for a boycott of Wikimania 2011 because of the politics of the state of Israel. This is a possible way to frame the problem. But this is not what this post is about. The problem is not (now or here) the politics of the state of Israel that may suggest a boycott of Wikimania 2011. On this everyone will have his opinions, in defence or disgust. Rather, and with regard to Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikimania conference 2011, the question is this : How can you have a discussion or conference about free knowledge in a democratic society that curtails free speech? If it where Iran or China, no-one would expect these countries to guarantee free speech. Accordingly, no-one is going to plan a Wikimania conference in either of these countries in the near future.

This question becomes more urgent when it is seen in conjunction with the fact that agencies and ministries of the state of Israel (plus affiliated government companies) are involved. On the web-page of Wikimania 2011 we find the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a “diamond sponsor” of the conference, the East Jerusalem Development Ltd as a “silver sponsor”.

Wikimania

Not only is it odd that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and not, e.g., the Ministry of Tourism, is sponsoring the event. Likewise it is problematic that the East Jerusalem Development Ltd., an Israeli Government company, is an official sponsor. (On the East Jerusalem Development Ltd’s share in the rebuilds in East Jerusalem see e.g. here.) Israel tries to present itself as a good host as well as it simply tries to have a little time of normality, of intellectual exchange, meeting of new people, and a good time. It is understandable that it uses every opportunity there is – there are only so few – to create and show a positive image of the country and its people. Insofar I have no quarrels with the conference being sponsored e.g. by the City of Haifa or some Internet companies. But when it comes to government agencies and their companies who are involved in activities that are internationally contested (West Bank, settlements, East Jerusalem, etc.) the belief in a somewhat neutral sponsorship seems odd. The resulting question is this : Why does Wikimedia Foundation (itself or its Chapters) accept sponsorship from government agencies and companies that are involved in highly contested political activities?

Again, it’s not about whether the Israeli activities are legitimate or not. (Personally I think they are not albeit I see reasons why Israel acts as it does.) The main question is why Wikimedia Foundation does accept government-sponsorship at all.

In a private conversation with an employee of a Wikimedia Chapter I was told that an advantage of a “global movement” like Wikipedia is that it may build bridges between people. If this rather clumsy PR-argument is to be taken seriously, can we then have Wikimania conferences in repressive dictatorships as well, sponsored by the respective governments? Will we have a Wikimania Conference in Tibet, sponsored by the Chinese government? Or a conference in Zimbabwe, sponsored by Mugabe, paid for with blood-diamonds?

If a Wikimania conference were to be held in the USA and would be sponsored by the US State Department and the companies Haliburton and Blackwater, or by the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, or by the Koch Brothers, or by George Soros – wouldn’t there be an outcry of indignation? Wouldn’t everybody impute or fear undue exertion of influence? So why in the case of Wikimania 2011 is it okay and goes without any further ado that the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the East Jerusalem Development Ltd. are allowed to sponsor the conference? Does nobody fear undue influence? Who do you think is going to pay for your beach party on August 7, or the sight-seeing trips to Jerusalem and surroundings?

Again, if all had been organized and paid for by private citizens, institutions, companies, I would have far less quarrels with Wikimania 2011. But given the sponsors that are involved, how can Wikimedia Foundation even think that this conference is going to be a politically neutral event? With the engagement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and others Wikimania 2011 becomes a fig leave for the state of Israel, not necessarily its citizens, to create an image of an open and liberal society. Wikimedia Foundation, its Chapters, and the participants seemingly don’t bother about lending a hand in this.

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All this takes place in a context in which we lose independent sources of knowledge. Wikipedia has become the primary intermediary for encyclopedic information. Much like Ubuntu became the predominant Linux distribution, Wikipedia grows by exploiting unpaid authors who create, revise, discuss articles while only Chapter employees are paid a decent salary. With the help of unpaid workers Wikipedia (similar to Ubuntu) created a brand that is now strong enough to raise millions of dollars in donations worldwide that are used for everything but a decent pay for those who produced the brand. Furthermore, this huge amount of unpaid work supplanted other encyclopedias – be it print or online –, and created a monoculture of sources for our search for encyclopedic information on which we now depend.

Wikipedia became the primary access to encyclopedic information on the web. At the same time Wikimedia Foundation accepts sponsoring from governments that may or may not be engaged in human rights violations and other controversial issues. Not only is it doubtful in what sense Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia are still independent from external influence. We also have to ask how Open Knowledge (CC-licensed) is produced, under what conditions of exploitation, and under what conditions of political alignment. We not only need Open Knowledge in the sense of a Creative Commons licence. Equally, and more important, we need Fair Knowledge, a certification like that in the Fair Trade movement 20 years ago that certifies that the knowledge and information provided wasn’t / isn’t produced, created, and disseminated under abusive conditions. Such conditions would be, e.g., exploitation, racism, human rights violations, violence, torture, expulsion, environmental degradation, to name but a few. We need an assurance that knowledge is produced, created, and disseminated with minimum standards of fairness, equality, collaboration, lack of exploitation, freedom from governmental or private sector interferences.

Until Wikimedia Foundation openly declares that it refrains from government and private company sponsorship, we should boycott Wikipedia. We shouldn’t rely on it, we shouldn’t promote or recommend it, we shouldn’t participate in writing, commenting, and editing. We shouldn’t donate to it and we shouldn’t use the other projects of Wikimedia Foundation either.

Creative Commons licences give information about how to use an item, they don’t give us information about how the item was produced or created. Simply because something has a CC licence doesn’t mean it is a human friendly product that should be used. CC licences don’t inform about the hazardous conditions pertaining to the production, creation, or dissemination of knowledge and information. Without Fair Knowledge we keep ignoring the exploitative character of Wikipedia (and other initiatives of the Open), its brand character, its dominant role in knowledge and information acquisition that supplants other sources of knowledge. Without Fair Knowledge we have no guarantee that events like the Wikimania 2011 don’t border on or are accomplices of human rights violations every proponent of Wikipedia would decry when it occured in other segments of politics, governments, market economy, and biosphere-degrading environments.

A good step forward to that goal is a boycott of Wikipedia. If only as to recognize how dependent we became on this encyclopedia whose main advantage is not the quality of its articles but the convenience of its access. A second step is to work out criteria for a Fair Knowledge seal of approval. Precisely because the projects of FLOSS and Open Information exist in an environment of free market capitalism it is necessary to elucidate under which circumstances they were produced, created, and how they are connected to the political sphere nobody can escape.

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