Wikipedia goes blank and we all lose

I like Wikipedia, despite the contrary opinion of many of my academic colleagues. They steer students away from it, claiming it is an unreliable source of information. I disagree and I encourage my undergraduates to begin their research there and move on to deeper sources.

One friend agrees with me and tested Wikipedia’s accuracy in his law school class where he had half the class use law journals and the other half use Wikipedia as their sources. The results: Wikipedia was as accurate as the scholarly journals.

This result is similar to that found a number of years ago when Wikipedia entries were compared to the Encyclopedia Britannica articles. Wikipedia stood up very well against the venerable institution.

But all this was called into question, as Wikipedia has gone blank for a day, protesting two bills before Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). For twenty-four Wikipedia isn’t accessible. What viewers found instead was The Internet Must Remain Free.

Wikipedia, and others, believe that the proposed bills will lead to censorship, anathema to the spirit of the Internet. The Motion Picture Association of America, the prime backer of the bills, says it is a matter of copyright protection.  It is an attempt to stop piracy, they say.

Who is right? While the mater of copyright protection is a serious matter (I have a vested interest in this as a published author who occasionally receives royalties), I land on the side of Wikipedia (and the Obama administration). The free flow of information on the Internet has been an incalculable boon.

While Wikipedia has the right to make its position known and its method of protest certainly attracts a great deal of attention, it doesn’t mean that they’ve done the right thing. The problem is that in taking sides in this important dispute it has moved from a neutral provider of information to advocacy. This move from neutral provider to partisan position threatens to undermine Wikipedia’s credibility.

Wikipedia would do well to return to its stated mission as found on its website. It says, “Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view.” Wikipedia defines itself as a site that avoids advocacy and provides information instead of debating it.

I understand why Wikipedia has done what is has, but the loss of neutrality may have long-term consequences that won’t be good for Wikipedia or for those of those who support its endeavors and trust its objectivity.

Too bad Wikipedia traded in its principles.


One thought on “Wikipedia goes blank and we all lose

  1. I agree totally that Wikipedia is not the bogeyman so many academic make it out to be. Do you find that students are unable to do research on their own without wikipedia, though?

    Wikipedia is owned by Wikimedia, and their mission is to “empower a global volunteer community to collect and develop the world’s knowledge and to make it available to everyone for free, for any purpose.” Given this mission, I don’t think their decision to shut down Wikipedia for the day and take a position on SOPA and PIPA is contradictory to their values at all, but in fact supports them. Wikipedia’s objective to provide neutrality refers to the information that is contained within their articles (so, in other words, if there is an article about PIPA on the wiki it would be a violation of their values to within the article itself to present a biased viewpoint or slant). But since its raison d’etre is to spread, for free, information around the globe, Wikimedia as a non-profit organization I think has the right to say, “hey, if you want this neutral site full of great information, even information about topics that we might not agree with, you have to pay attention to the laws that give us the ability to do so”

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