Wikipedia editors react: the SOPA blackout is wrong

neutralWe’ve all undoubtedly suffered a bit due to the Wikipedia blackout today. The site has censored itself to give the Internet a test of what the consequences of SOPA/PIPA regulations could look like. And while it’s inarguably effective and has created something of a rally cry among devoted Web users, some take issue with the tactic—specifically, Wikipedia editors.

“I think the Wikipedia blackout protest was a really bad idea,” editor Charles Ainsworth (whose user name on the site is Cla68) tells us. “Wikipedia is not supposed to get involved in political causes, it should remain neutral.”

An editor by the name of User:Scott ManDonald has made a Wikipedia entry (irony of ironies) detailing this ethical gray area. In an entry titled “Wikipedia should remain ideology-free: Protecting the death of a neutral community,” he writes: “The blackout of the English Wikipedia destroys forever the concept of its political and geographic neutrality. It means rather than an open group of international contributors, uniting solely around their commitment to writing an encyclopedia, with nothing else implied, Wikipedia is, through what can only be described as an Internet moral panic, now associated with a particular political position in a particular national.”

“While many, possibly most, Wikipedians may happen to hold this political position in common, it ought to have been irrelevant to editing here. Now it is not; a precedent has been set and something important has died,” he says.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has been tied to controversy before, and in the wake of being labeled overly-partisan, has defended his position. “Articles must remain neutral. The community need not, not when the future of the Internet is at stake,” he says via Twitter.

Wikipedia’s efforts today have been successful—both in raising awareness regarding SOPA/PIPA and bringing attention to the site. But other platforms have shied from taking a stance, most notably Twitter. “Closing a global business in reaction to a single-issue national politics is foolish,” CEO Dick Costollo says, although noting he meant strictly in reference to his company.

So what do we lose? Wikipedia is inarguably helping the anti-SOPA cause: lawmakers supporting the bill, including two co-sponsors, have dropped their support. There’s been a massive rallying cry and Wikipedia has been one of the organizations at the helm–but there is a cost. That cost comes in the form of doubt over the site’s invaluable neutrality. An encyclopedia isn’t a place where you want opinions, and Wikipedia has spent so much time cultivating itself as a worthy source – a community that users trust to present facts.

If you never felt this way about Wikipedia, then you weren’t all that affected by its blackout, or you use it quite casually and simply took something away from its protest. Still, taking a stance has consequences for those who see it as a neutral quarry of information. But you have to weigh that against the outcome, and movement that can turn the political tide against SOPA/PIPA is also a valuable thing. As Wikimedia staffer Brandon Harris told us, “Overall, the citizens of planet Earth seemed pretty excited and positive, so that’s a good thing, I think.”