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As Wikimedia looks toward 2030, how can the movement help people find trustworthy sources of knowledge?[1]

As part of the Wikimedia 2030 strategy process, the Wikimedia Foundation is working with independent research consultants to understand the key trends that will affect the future of free knowledge and share this information with the movement.[2] This report was prepared by Dot Connector Studio, a Philadelphia-based media research and strategy firm focused on how emerging platforms can be used for social impact, and Lutman & Associates, a St. Paul-based strategy, planning, and evaluation firm focused on the intersections of culture, media, and philanthropy.

What are threats—and what are hopes—for the free flow of knowledge and the future of the digital commons over the next 15 years? Many forces are at play that could lead to the contraction or expansion of the open web.

What do we mean by the “digital commons?” Researcher Mayo Fuster Morell explains that the digital commons includes “ … information and knowledge resources that are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to be non-exclusivedible, that is, be (generally freely) available to third parties. Thus, they are oriented to favor use and reuse, rather than to exchange as a commodity. Additionally, the community of people building them can intervene in the governing of their interaction processes and of their shared resources.”[3]

Both increased commodification of the internet by corporations and crackdowns on access by repressive government regimes are already contributing to troubling trends. These include the creation of ever-smaller, disconnected filter bubbles online; the deliberate spread of falsified and misleading information; and an increasing lack of transparency of algorithms that drive social networking sites and search engines. To protect the digital commons between now and 2030, a multi-stakeholder approach is needed, which involves governments, corporations, civil society actors, content producers, online platforms, and others in a position to help.

Coming up with workable, collaborative, and networked solutions for how to best protect and advocate for digital rights and internet freedom is of paramount importance between now and 2030. Open web communities such as those fostered by Wikipedians, the open access peer reviewed collection of academic journals at the Digital Commons Network and others all have a role to play in this policy debate—as well as the advocates for alternatives to traditional intellectual property rights regimes, such as Creative Commons and free software licenses, and alternative economic models built on massive collaboration among peers.[4]

The question is: Can this ethos survive? Every generation has a non-profit, charitable culture that helps to support a movement. As the Web 1.0 infrstructure, culture and values fade, will the next generation of the web allow the digital commons movement to attract new members?

At its core, the Wikimedia movement depends on and models the essence of a free and open internet where people from all over the globe gather to create and spread well-sourced knowledge, not for profit, but for the sake of the mission. For Wikimedia projects to continue to thrive over the next 15 years, the movement should not only consider adhering to the platform set out in its current statement of public policy—developed with community input—but consider expanding its role in national and global campaigns to foster a free and open internet.

Key issues

The Wikimedia movement is not alone in asking these questions nor is it a newcomer to these discussions. Issues of key importance to the movement—access, censorship, privacy, copyright, and intermediary liability—are the same issues being discussed at the Internet Governance Forum (a multi-stakeholder space that facilitates discussion and dialogue of public policy issues pertaining to the internet), the annual Access Now! RightsCon gathering, the Stockholm Internet Forum, the IREX Internet Freedom Festival, Re:Publica digital culture conference, ICANN gatherings, Internet Society local, regional and international gatherings, Mozilla Festival, to name a few.

It is also important to recognize that by 2030, radically different information sharing protocols have the potential to shift the very nature of how some people access information. For example, the Internet Archive's Brewster Kahle’s proposal for "locking the Web open"[5] using peer-to-peer technologies or the success of mesh networks in places such as Cuba[6] where internet access is scarce.

In other words, the Wikimedia movement must work to anticipate both problems and solutions before they arise in governments, the courts, and life as it is lived out in the wild world of the internet. As digital commons scholars David Bollier and Silke Helfrich write in the introduction to their edited book, The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State, “it has become increasingly clear that we are poised between an old world that no longer works and a new one struggling to be born… But since there is no path forward, we must make the path.”[7]

For many digital rights and internet freedom advocates the way forward starts with the issue of governance. For the digital commons to survive in a time of increased threats to internet freedom and the spread of many national governments pushing for their own national intranets and cyber-boundaries, there is a risk that the global open internet will be lost to online crackdowns against freedom of expression and access to information.[8]

Here are concerns, threats, and issues that Wikimedians must monitor carefully and think about creatively between now and 2030:

  • Access: In 2015, the International Telecommunication Union estimated that about 3.2 billion people, or almost half of the world's population, are online. About two billion are from what they call “developing countries,” including 89 million from least-developed countries.[9] Internationally, youth are leading the way with 70% of people ages 15-24 using the internet.[10] The issue of access can be understood in a number of ways. The most basic is simply the ability to actually access and use the internet—this includes issues of infrastructure, technology rollout, and affordability. Other access issues include direct censorship, internet shutdowns, the rise of national networks, and surveillance. For internet rights activists, access also includes issues of language, diversity, and inclusion.
  • Direct censorship: As noted in “Misinformation, verification, and propaganda,” numerous countries around the world have responded to the free flow of information and educational content that the Internet offers by restricting access to certain sites— particularly social media sites, and also news and information sites such as Wikipedia. A factor for tech and media companies is deciding if they will cooperate with local censorship laws versus resisting at the risk that governments revoke permission to operate within their borders (the Ranking Digital Rights non-profit research initiative examines this topic). Wikimedia’s stance is that “everyone should have the right to share and access knowledge free of government censorship,” which will continue to be tested by governments between now and 2030.
  • Internet shutdowns: Temporarily disabling Internet access is often the response of repressive regimes to periods of instability. Access Now, which monitors shutdowns, recorded 15 instances in 2015 and 56 in 2016, across a wide variety of countries including India, Malaysia, Uganda and Brazil. See also the Software Freedom Law Center’s tracker here. This is predicted to increase between now and 2030. As noted by Global Voice’s Netizen Report: “It appears that internet blackouts are becoming an increasingly common tactic for local and regional authorities when faced with public consternation around politics and elections, ethnic and religious tensions, and incidents of violence.”[11] What this means for the Wikimedia movement should be clear: if we want a free and open internet that allows all people, regardless of where they reside, to contribute to and benefit from the Web, then the internet needs to be protected as a public resource requiring modes of governance, standard setting, and norms that support the free flow of information and ideas in cyberspace.
  • National networks: Many countries that restrict free speech have, at the same time, recognized the utility and desirability of Internet access—for instance, Iran and its efforts to develop its own domestic internet.[12] Iran is not alone: “the BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—are building their own high-speed Internet free of the U.S. influence.”[13] This could contribute to more splintering of the global audience already vastly divided in 2016 compared to 1996. (For example, a visualization of the “web as a microverse” was produced by the Internet Archive in 2016.)[14]
  • Net neutrality: This network design principle asserts that Internet service providers should be able to connect from one point to another without discrimination on the basis of origin, destination, or type of data.[15] Net neutrality grows out of the idea that the Internet should be treated as a “common carrier,” that is a provider of basic services, like water and electricity. The principal concern about violations of net neutrality is that they are anti-competitive and could make it far harder for smaller or nonprofit websites to break into the market if established players are able to have their content prioritized. In a worst-case scenario, it may even be possible for large players to use their financial clout to completely block access to competitors or news sources that seek to discredit them. Public policy battles over net neutrality have been some of the most visible in recent years, and will continue in the foreseeable future.
  • Privacy: As Jathan Sadowski argues in The Atlantic, “Whether we like it or not constant data collection about everything we do—like the kind conducted by Facebook and an increasing number of other companies—shapes and produces our actions. We are different people when under surveillance than we are when enjoying some privacy.”[16] In recognition of the importance of protecting privacy in the digital age we live in, the UN has created the position of Special Rapporteur for Privacy.[17] In recent years, concerns about privacy have made headlines due to increased awareness about algorithmic tracking, bots, artificial intelligence, and the commodification of personal data by companies such Google and Facebook. Wikipedia is a significant exception to the trends of websites generating revenue through targeted advertising. One of the key questions that the Wikimedia movement could think through is how privacy rights and concerns extend to the digital commons movement, and how the movement could better respond to its users’ privacy concerns and rights and advocate for privacy protections in global policy debates. The current privacy policy goes a long way in this direction—it is community-built, transparent, and ensures that little user data is retained. On the other hand, privacy concerns need to be balanced with the mission of creating an encyclopedia that includes descriptions of notable people in history and society. For example, privacy laws should not go so far to create "memory holes" that allow people to rewrite history.[18]
  • Surveillance: Closely related to privacy concerns are electronic surveillance practices. Rather than restricting access to sites, countries may prefer to allow users to view sites but record or monitor their activity. The widespread practice of government surveillance was brought to the public’s attention with the Edward Snowden case and revelations he made about U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance practices. Since then, awareness about the use of electronic surveillance has spread, and concerns about the extent of government surveillance suggest that protecting users’ and editors’ privacy will continue to be a signature concern for the Wikimedia movement in the coming years.
  • Intellectual Property: Copyright in particular matters to the Wikimedia movement. Creative Commons and other “open culture” movements have attempted to shift thinking from a culture of restrictions ("permissions culture") to a culture that supports sharing and remixing by default. This is best covered in general terms by Lawrence Lessig in Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity.[19] Central to the Creative Commons movement is the idea of the "remix culture"—a particularly important concept in terms of thinking about the future of the digital commons. Collectively the Wikimedia movement can help to define and support 21st century ways of thinking about intellectual property rights.
  • Intermediary Liability: What responsibility do content providers bear for information that appears on their platforms but which is posted by third parties? The policy discussions of the 2000s—especially in the US—were mainly concerned with liability for copyright violations (say if a video that infringes copyright is posted on YouTube) and led to Safe Harbor laws that broadly protect the intermediary. More recently, however, the spread of a global open internet and information commons has raised red flags in terms of intermediary liability. For the digital commons, this is a problem because of how local, national, regional, and even international bodies determine the legality of content and how to determine who is legally responsible for posting content. This has grave implications for the Wikimedia movement that will continue to resonate over the next 15 years. Wikimedia Public Policy invites public comment on this issue, and presents its views on the topic of Intermediary Liability.
National laws in this space take the stance that a host must exert ultimate control over content and may even be required to review everything that a user does online before it becomes public—a practice that is anathema to the crowd-sourced, everything-is-a-work-in-progress model that powers the Wikimedia projects. Additionally, calls by policymakers for platforms to implement mandatory upload filters that would prevent users from adding illicit or somehow unwanted content to the sites rely on the notion that AI and machine learning systems can do the heavy lifting. This may seriously harm the community’s’ abilities to contribute or participate.
  • Freedom of Expression—libel and insult laws: Many countries seek to muzzle discussion, both online and offline, by threatening hostile reporting with laws that cover libel, defamation or slander. This is not a new strategy: for example, Singapore’s leader Lee Kuan Yew used defamation laws to silence criticism in the 1970s.[20]
Recent efforts to fight hate speech and prevent terrorist propaganda also pose possible risks to free expression. As society discusses divisive and controversial topics, some free speech advocates urge online platforms to set clearer standards[21] on what kinds of speech they will allow.
Closely related are insult laws which penalize speech that is deemed insulting to national leaders or symbols, such as the national flag. Thailand’s lèse majesté laws, which allow for punishments of up to 15 years in prison for insulting a member of the royal family, are often considered to be the harshest example. Even democratic countries still have insult laws on the books. A number of EU states regularly bring prosecutions under their insult laws, notably Poland, Spain and Greece, although appeals to the European Court of Human Rights are frequently successful against such convictions.
Freedom of expression is important for users of the Wikimedia projects as they collaborate and have discussions. The projects are works in progress, and people need to be able to talk about rumors, scandals and rapidly developing events without fear of being sued or arrested. Continuing to defend these rights—as the Wikimedia Foundation did in a 2014 case in Italy—can set influential legal precedents.
  • Open Access and Open Data: Open access for scholarship, data, and other forms of research is crucial for Wikipedia, given the reliance on reliable sources. Publishers are setting new standards for how they make valuable educational material available, and Green or Gold Open Access Policies make knowledge more accessible and affordable.[22] Wikimedia also was a founding member in the Initiative for Open Citations.[23] In the future, as governments abandon or shut down important data sources,[24] the Wikimedia movement could serve a valuable role in preserving them.

Where does the movement go from here?

The future of the digital commons requires the Wikimedia movement and its vast community to voice their considerable influence on key internet law and policy debates that impact relevant issues such as digital security, net neutrality, access, copyright, freedom of expression, privacy, and more.

As the Wikimedia movement helps to chart the path forward for how to best preserve the digital commons, these important questions stand out:

  1. What can the movement do to better engage policymakers, and to spread awareness and knowledge about how the internet works, and work with and through global and local civil society?
  2. How can the Wikimedia movement find ways to continue and foster meaningful, transparent dialogue with the various internet governance entities, fora and institutions —ICANN, ISOC, IGF, and others that are more local and regional—to help shape the conversations that determine the digital rights which undergird open access to the internet?
  3. How can the movement balance country-specific values such as the right to anonymous speech or the intermediary liability regime of the U.S. while still harmonizing the laws internationally on issues such as free expression, defamation and more?
  4. How should the movement work with other open internet allies such as Mozilla, the Internet Archive, EFF, and others in a way that is not duplicative and leverages Wikimedia’s considerable visibility and influence?
  5. How can the Wikimedia movement play a leadership role in modeling exemplary institutional behavior across various projects in order to serve as a beacon for those critiquing government, corporate and even nonprofit practices around privacy and transparency?


  1. While many of the links on this page point to the English Wikipedia, the language in which this brief was originally written, similar pages and policies exist on many other Wikimedia sites. Translators are welcome to substitute links here with the equivalents on other language Wikimedia wikis.
  2. "How will external forces hinder or help the future of the Wikimedia movement? – Wikimedia Blog". Retrieved 2017-07-13. 
  3. “What Is Digital Commons?,” WhatIs.com, Tech Target, accessed September 13, 2017, http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/digital-commons
  4. Benkler, Yochai, ed., The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006).
  5. “Locking the Web Open, a Call for a Distributed Web,” Internet Archive Blogs, Internet Archive, February 11, 2015, http://blog.archive.org/2015/02/11/locking-the-web-open-a-call-for-a-distributed-web/
  6. “Cuba's Illegal Underground Internet Is Thriving,” Gizmodo, January 26, 2015, http://gizmodo.com/cubas-illegal-underground-internet-is-thriving-1681797114
  7. Bollier, David and Silke Helfrich, eds., The Wealth of the Commons A World Beyond Market and State (Amhurst, MA: Levellers Press, 2012).
  8. “Freedom of the Press 2017: Press Freedom’s Dark Horizons,” Freedom House, accessed September 13, 2017, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/freedom-press-2017 “Enemies of the Internet 2014: Entities at the Heart of Censorship and Surveillance,” Reporters without Borders, March 11, 2014, https://rsf.org/en/news/enemies-internet-2014-entities-heart-censorship-and-surveillance
  9. “ICT Facts and Figures 2015,” International Telecommunication Union, 2015, http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/ICTFactsFigures2015.pdf
  10. “ICT Facts and Figures 2017,” International Telecommunication Union, 2017, http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/ICTFactsFigures2017.pdf
  11. “Netizen Report: India Had 31 Internet Shutdowns in 2016,” Future Tense, Slate, March 30, 2017, http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2017/03/30/netizen_report_india_had_31_internet_shutdowns_in_2016.html
  12. “Iran Rolls Out Domestic Internet,” BBC News, August 29, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-37212456
  13. Shots, Chip, “BRIC Nations Plan Their own ‘Independent Internet’,” IT World, October 4, 2013, http://www.itworld.com/article/2705173/networking-hardware/bric-nations-plan-their-own--independent-internet-.html
  14. Webverse: A 3-D Map of the Internet, Internet Archive, accessed September 13, 2017, http://webverse.org/
  15. “Net Neutrality,” The EDRi Papers (issue 8), European Digital Rights, accessed September 11, 2017, https://edri.org/files/paper08_netneutrality.pdf
  16. Sadowski, Jathan, “Why Does Privacy Matter? One Scholar's Answer,” The Atlantic, February 26, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/02/why-does-privacy-matter-one-scholars-answer/273521/
  17. “Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, accessed September 11, 2017, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Privacy/SR/Pages/SRPrivacyIndex.aspx
  18. Blitzer, Joanthan, “Google Search Results: Dictator Not Found,” The New Yorker, May 20, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/google-search-results-dictator-not-found
  19. Lessig, Lawrence, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, (New York: Penguin, 2004), http://www.free-culture.cc/freeculture.pdf
  20. “Lee Kuan Yew and freedom of expression: the libel action as a means of silencing political opposition – Tessa Evans,” Inforrm’s Blog, The International Forum for Responsible Media Blog, March 26, 2013, https://inforrm.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/lee-kuan-yew-and-freedom-of-expression-the-libel-action-as-a-means-of-silencing-political-opposition-tessa-evans/
  21. Malcom, Jeremy, Cindy Cohn, and Danny O’Brien, “Fighting Neo-Nazis and the Future of Free Expression,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, August 17, 2017, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/08/fighting-neo-nazis-future-free-expression
  22. “Open Access,” Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, accessed September 11, 2017, https://sparcopen.org/open-access/ Budapest Open Access Initiative, February 14, 2002, http://www.budapestopenaccessinitiative.org/read
  23. Molteni, Megan, “Tearing Down Science’s Citation Paywall One Link at a Time,” Wired, April 7, 2017, https://www.wired.com/2017/04/tearing-sciences-citation-paywall-one-link-time/
  24. Fountain, Henry, “Scientists Fear Climate Data Gap as Trump Aims at Satellites,” The New York Times, April 10, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/10/climate/trump-nasa-satellites-global-warming-data.html?mcubz=1&_r=0