User:Martijn Hoekstra/Open letter

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Below is an open letter to the Wikipedia community in general, and those who lobbied, voted or argued in favour of a black out in specific.


Wikipedias SOPA blackout considered harmful[edit]

On Wednesday January 18, the English language Wikipedia decided to "black out". Instead of showing its usual content, it showed a landing page with a protest against the proposed SOPA and PROTECT IP legislation. This is a horrible mistake of the English Wikipedia, and may cause lasting harm to not only the English Wikipedia, but all projects run by the Wikimedia Foundation. Wikipedia is founded on five important rules, that govern every action, every internal policy and all content. The second of those reads, "Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view". From Wikipedia's conception, through its first steps as a tiny project, onto its rise as one of the most influential websites in the world, that rule is what has made Wikipedia worth reading. Now, with the blackout, this rule has lost its credibility. That could come at a high price.

How trustworthiness is lost[edit]

When I want to know what has been in the news, I look for a news outlet that will serve me unbiased, comprehensive information on the subject. Most news outlets claim to be unbiased, but appear otherwise. When I go to Salon.com for my news, I know that they allow their news to be colored. They will give information a liberal spin. Likewise, if I watch Fox News, I expect a conservative spin to most items. When I want less biased information, I can turn to for example the New York Times, or to CNN (Brits - read BBC).

Now imagine for a moment that I go to the CNN website, and notice that instead of the familiar information on the website, I am greeted with a large banner: the website is down, in protest against SOPA. I might read the statement, I might agree with it. I might get angry, and take action against the legislation. They have thoroughly swayed me. Mission accomplished right?

Wrong. I may have been convinced on this issue but, next time I look for unbiased news on a contentious topic, I will not be going to the CNN website. Why not? Because I now know that they are partisan. They convey an opinion, which I might agree with, but it will not be neutral. The next time I want impartial information on SOPA, I will not turn to CNN. I will go to the New York Times instead.

But it gets worse. By protesting a new law, I know CNN is willing to use their influence to color public opinion. I no longer trust them to be neutral. Not just for this issue, and not just for now, but forever.

How Wikipedia lost its credibility[edit]

This loss of trust is exactly what Wikipedia risks. As an committed Wikipedia editor, I dare to say that even when we take a public stance against SOPA, the neutrality of Wikipedia articles is not in question. We can, as Wikipedia, write a neutral article on SOPA, and protest it at the same time.

But ask yourself this question: What if I didn't know the Wikipedia community? What if I knew nothing of its inner workings? If I didn't know how the Wikipedia community battles for neutrality at every point? Would I still believe the article on SOPA would be neutral and unbiased? What about other articles on intellectual property rights? Other politically charged subjects? What articles would I trust to be completely neutral?

The answer to that question is a sliding scale. I would have less trust in the neutrality of the article on SOPA than I do on an article on Obama. And I would trust an article on Yoghurt even more. But for everything I look up on Wikipedia I will ask myself "how unbiased is Wikipedia on this issue?".

What Wikipedia has lost is the moral high ground, the credibility to easily answer, without further thought: "completely, always, without reservation". And with that, Wikipedia squandered the one thing that contributed most to its success: the claim of being impartial and neutral. It will take a lot of work, if it is possible at all, to restore the perception of neutrality.