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4 Jul, 2019 19:52

Stop abuse by Big Tech: Wikipedia co-founder issues ‘Declaration of Digital Independence’

Stop abuse by Big Tech: Wikipedia co-founder issues ‘Declaration of Digital Independence’

Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger is calling for a decentralized internet and a boycott of social media while his own brain child is accused of corporate-like intrusion into the community’s self-governing domain.

Every person using the internet has “unalienable digital rights,” a lengthy document, conspicuously resembling the US Declaration of Independence and published on the Sanger’s website says, defining these freedoms as “free speech, privacy and security.”

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The appeal published in late June – just days before Independence Day in the US – states that these rights were unceremoniously violated by the “vast digital empires,” which have been mercilessly exploiting humanity for their own profit. It then goes on to list the “long train of abuses” that ordinary internet users have suffered at the hands of greedy corporations, which includes a wide range of misdeeds – from extracting private data without the explicit consent of the owners, and marketing them to advertisers, to allowing corporate and government surveillance over social media users, and the arbitrary banning of undesired opinions due to political and ideological reasons.

The “declaration” compiled by Sanger – the man who helped start Wikipedia back in 2001 and served as the project’s community leader before leaving it just a year later – eventually calls for people to unite in an effort to snub the exploitative tech giants and create a “decentralized internet” free from corporate control.

The most reliable guarantee of our privacy, security, and free speech is not in the form of any enterprise, organization, or government, but instead in the free agreement among free individuals to use common standards and protocols.

According to Sanger, the new bright future of the internet should be based on strong privacy guarantees, end-to-end encryption, universal technical standards and protocols, and users retaining exclusive control of their personal data and any content they publish on the net.

On a more practical note, the proclamation urges those with the necessary skills to “code, design, and participate in newer and better networks” while calling on the broader public to simply “eschew the older, controlling, and soon to be outmoded networks,” apparently referring to the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

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Sanger did not limit himself to a general appeal only, though. He also called for a “social media strike” scheduled for July 4 and 5. The action is expected to involve people abandoning their social media accounts for these two days except for posting the notion that they are “on strike.”

It is unclear, however, how many people have heeded Sanger’s call to action, so far. By 17:40 GMT, almost 1,400 people voted in a poll on the issue launched by Sanger on Twitter, with slightly more than half saying they would join the strike.

The developments come as Wikipedia, arguably one of the last bastions of internet freedom, which traditionally has a strong community of editors and takes pride in its self-regulating practices, faces what was even described as nothing less than “constitutional crisis.”

The scandal was unleashed by the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) – a US non-profit group, which hosts Wikipedia and is expected to refrain from interfering in community matters. Despite this, it banned one Wikipedia administrator – an encyclopedia community member – from editing the English version of the website for one year.

The person with the username Fram, who faced the sanction, was suspected of hounding and harassing at least 11 Wikipedia editors. Yet, his ban sparked a wave of indignation among the community and led to at least 21 Wikipedia administrators leaving their posts in the weeks after the incident. One particularly frustrated operator also decommissioned a bot in protest.

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An ArbCom, a sort of ‘Supreme Court’ of Wikipedia elected by the community, even said that “if Fram’s ban, an unappealable sanction issued from above with no community consultation, represents the WMF’s new strategy for dealing with harassment on the English Wikipedia, it is one that is fundamentally misaligned with the Wikimedia movement’s principles of openness, consensus, and self-governance.” It was apparently not bothered that Fram allegedly told members of ArbCom to “crawl into a corner and shut up” or “collectively resign” just a month before his ban as they failed to take any action in response.

Meanwhile, the WMF justified its actions precisely by the community’s inaction. The foundation told the Slate Magazine that it takes action “only in very particular circumstances, where there is a gap in the community’s ability to successfully address a known challenge, or for legal reasons,” adding that there were only 32 such cases since 2012. The community, however, appears to be unconvinced, arguing that the WMF follows in the footsteps of Facebook and Twitter in the community management.

Whether or not this case will be a serious blow to the online knowledge hub is an open question, though.

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