Future Tense

Wikipedia Seems to Be Winning Its Battle Against Government Censorship

Wikipedia has made it much harder for governments to block access to individual articles.

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In Iran—as you might expect—internet content about women’s rights, sex, and religion are censored and filtered. Wikipedia articles on the topic used to be blocked. But in 2015, people in Iran were suddenly able to access Wikipedia posts that were previously censored—all because Wikipedia made a simple switch.

Wikipedia used to operate under both HTTP or HTTPS. With HTTPS, the information in your browser is encrypted. People can see what site you’re on, but not which specific page of that site when you use HTTPS. For example, someone eavesdropping on the network could see that you’re on Facebook, but not which ex from high school you’re looking at.

So if a country didn’t want you looking at, say, the Wikipedia page about Tiananmen Square, it could just block that single article. That is, until the Wikimedia Foundation switched over to being completely HTTPS in 2015. Now, if a nation wants to stop its citizens from reading some Wikipedia pages, it has to block the entire site. “Without encryption, governments can more easily surveil sensitive information, creating a chilling effect, and deterring participation, or in extreme cases they can isolate or discipline citizens,” the Wikimedia Foundation said in a statement back in 2015.

In May, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard released a study on the effects of the Wikimedia Foundation’s switch to HTTPS-only. For the most part, according to the report, it has been positive for the fight against censorship. “Wikipedia has repeatedly found itself the target of government censors,” the authors of the study wrote. But the site’s efforts seem to be working. “Our research suggests that on balance, there is less censorship happening now than before the transition to HTTPS-only content delivery in June 2015. This initial data suggests the decision to shift to HTTPS has been a good one in terms of ensuring accessibility to knowledge,” the study says.

To conduct the study, the Berkman Center used both client-side data and server-side data. Client data comes from the “perspective of users around the globe,” and server data deals with “traffic coming in to Wikimedia servers.”

The researchers focused on 15 different countries that had histories of either specifically blocking Wikipedia or general internet censorship. The study found that the primary countries that are censoring Wikipedia at least somewhat are China, Thailand, and Uzbekistan.

The Chinese-language Wikipedia project began in May 2001. Its first brush with censorship came in 2004, when the government blocked the project during the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. Currently, the entire Chinese Wikipedia site is blocked. China’s government its own official digital encyclopedia in 2018. A digitized version of the print version that has been around since the 1970s, it will contain 300,000-plus entries made by more than 20,000 scholars.

China is an extreme case, but other countries have dabbled in Wikipedia blockage, too. While states in America have begun to legalize marijuana, Russia still has a problem allowing its citizens to merely look at articles on the subject. Roskomnadzor, the federal agency that supervises electronic media in Russia, blocked all of Russian Wikipedia, aka ru.wikipedia.org, in August 2015 after Wikipedia editors refused to remove an article about cannabis. Because this happened after the switch to HTTPS, the government had to block all access to Wikipedia, instead of just the page. However, the site was restored a few hours later after Roskomnadzor said the article met its standards after being edited, even though Wikipedia editors claimed the article hadn’t been changed.

The study concludes that while Russia’s internet censorship at large continues to grow, the government has not been interfering with Wikipedia. Clients based in Russia were able to access Wikipedia and its subdomains, and the network request round trip was the fastest out of all the countries in the study.