Read the full transcript of Head to Head – Will the internet set us free? below:
Mehdi Hasan (VO): I bet you can’t imagine a world without the internet, yet 20 years ago, most of us had never been online. Email, Facebook, Twitter, Skype. We live in a connected world. We “tweet” our heroes. If we need something, we “Google” it. If we miss it, we watch it again on YouTube. We can educate ourselves for free.
And we can blog, make our voices heard, spark revolutions. The internet brings hope of progress and democratic change. But does it really?
Detractors say there is no such thing as internet freedom. Information overload makes us lazy. Free content debases our culture. Advertising is targeted to manipulate our choices. And mass online state surveillance erodes our civil liberties, destroys our privacy and subjects us to censorship and oppression.
My name is Mehdi Hasan and I’ve come here to the Oxford Union to go head to head with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, one of the unchallenged giants of the internet era.
The online encyclopedia, which is written by thousands of us and read by hundreds of millions of us, is all about spreading the sum of human knowledge to the whole of mankind. But is it degrading our knowledge? Dumbing us down? And can it survive in the face of the growing threat to internet freedom?
To help find the answers, I’ll be joined by four experts: Herman Chinery-Hesse, known as the Bill Gates of Africa; Bob Ayers, a former US intelligence officer; Isabella Sankey, from the human rights organisation Liberty; and Oliver Kamm, a columnist for the Times of London.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Jimmy Wales.
Mehdi Hasan: Thanks for coming, Jimmy.
Jimmy Wales: Mehdi.
Mehdi Hasan: Wikipedia.
Jimmy Wales: Yes.
Mehdi Hasan: Wikipedia.
Jimmy Wales: Wikipedia.
Mehdi Hasan: Massive.
Jimmy Wales: Yes.
Mehdi Hasan: 19 billion page views a month. 500 million unique users. More than 4.3 million articles in English alone. Did you ever think it would be this big, this transformative, when you it kicked off in, I think, what, 2001…
Jimmy Wales: 2001.
Mehdi Hasan: …12 years ago, 13 years ago.
Jimmy Wales: Well, I remember looking at a list that I found of the top 100 websites and so I thought at the time, you know, if we do a really good job, we might make it in the top 100 or the top 50. At that time it wasn’t clear that an encyclopedia would rate, you know, much higher than that and now we’re number five in the world so, in a sense, I was always very optimistic but I never really anticipated becoming part of the infrastructure of the world in the way that we have.
Mehdi Hasan: And you have become part of the infrastructure of the world and we’ll come onto that. You said once that Wikipedia is all about giving, quote, “every single person on the planet free access to the sum of all human knowledge”. Now, that’s an ambitious skull. I’m just wondering how close you think you are to realising it. Is it even possible to realise such a goal?
Jimmy Wales: Well, it is an ambitious goal and, in fact, I think one of the reasons that Wikipedia has been so successful is that it’s exciting to people. They like this idea, this vision, of everyone in the world having access to a basic encyclopedia so they can get started learning whatever it is they want. A few years back I tried to refine that goal to be a little more quantitative about it and I said, “Look we want to have at least 250,000 articles in every language that has at least one million native speakers.” It turns out there’s about 350 languages like that. We’re in about 280 languages, but we’re seeing a lot of growth. We’re seeing growth sometimes in some very surprising places.
Mehdi Hasan: And it’s become part of our kind of everyday conversation, like when you “Google” something now, you “Wikipedia” something. I mean, just since we’re here in the heart of Oxford University, let’s just take a show of hands from the audience here. Who here – and be honest – has used, accessed, read, either wittingly or unwittingly, a Wikipedia article in the last, I don’t know, 30 days? Raise your hands.
Audience: [MOST AUDIENCE MEMBERS RAISE HANDS]
Jimmy Wales: That was too easy, come on.
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Okay, okay, let’s turn it on its head. Who here has never used Wikipedia? Raise your hands.
Audience: [NOONE RAISES THEIR HAND]
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, literally no one. That’s a zero on our audience sample. So this is a massive, massive thing. And the question then becomes, can an online encyclopedia with these ambitious goals – that anyone can edit – can it be a truly accurate, reliable, high-quality source of content?
Jimmy Wales: Well, I mean, that is the interesting question that has been with us from the beginning, and the way we look at it is: we want to be Britannica or better quality. That is our goal. And when we think about how to get to that goal, one of the important things to understand about Wikipedia is that it’s a dialogue. It’s a discussion. It’s a, you know, everything is open to revision.
Everything is open to discussion, debate, to challenge. What does that mean? It means that sometimes you’ll go to an entry and it’ll have a big warning at the top. “The neutrality of this article has been disputed” – that means the community is struggling over whether this is accurate or not. Struggling over whether it has reliable sources.
Mehdi Hasan: You talk about the community and yet how can a teenager sitting in his bedroom be accorded the same weight and credibility and authority as a tenured professor on a subject that may be the specialist subject, the lifetime research of that professor?
Jimmy Wales: Well, what we find is that the best tenured professors really enjoy meeting that teenager who is really good at that subject.
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] What if he’s not really good, though?
Jimmy Wales: Well… [LAUGHS]
Mehdi Hasan: No one’s checking.
Jimmy Wales: [INTERRUPTING] What if the professor is not really good? Because that sometimes happens…
Mehdi Hasan: But at least he’s a professor. [LAUGHS]
Jimmy Wales: At least he’s a professor….
Mehdi Hasan: The guy who created Wikipedia with you, Larry Sanger, he says Wikipedia lacks credibility because of, quote, “anti-elitism or lack of respect for expertise”. Now, that’s undeniable, isn’t it?
Jimmy Wales: That’s a misunderstanding. We are not anti-elitist. We’re anti-credentialist. We are very elitist in the sense that we want people who know what they’re talking about. But if you rock up on Wikipedia and say, “I’m not listening to this debate and argument. I’m going to shut the whole thing down by saying I’m a professor so I don’t have to prove what I say”, you’re just going to get shot down on Wikipedia to say that’s not a legitimate form of debate. And, like I say, the best academics embrace that; they understand that.
Mehdi Hasan: Just coming back to, say, things like reliability and accuracy, so you talk about Britannica, et cetera. So I looked at my own Wikipedia page before I came here today and my Wikipedia page says I’m either born in 1979 or I’m born in 1980, which makes me sound kind of mysterious like a spy, which is kind of cool. But then I have to ask myself basically does that, or is what that is really telling me: I can’t really take this seriously as a source of information?
Jimmy Wales: I think that’s a really good example because it means you can take it seriously because you know the community has struggled with the question and they didn’t just have some editor…
Mehdi Hasan: Could have asked me.
Jimmy Wales: Could have asked you, when were you born?
Jimmy Wales: 1979.
Mehdi Hasan: It’s going to be corrected now before the programme goes out on air. [LAUGHTER]
Jimmy Wales: [INTERRUPTING] Right, right. So now we have a reliable source.
Mehdi Hasan: I mean, Philip Roth, one of the world’s most famous novelists, you’ll remember, in 2012, wrote an open letter in the New Yorker to Wikipedia saying that when he had tried to contact Wikipedia to correct what he believed to be a factual inaccuracy about one of his novels in the Wikipedia entry, he was told by a Wikipedia administrator, “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work but we require secondary sources.” [LAUGHTER] That’s a bit absurd, come on.
Jimmy Wales: It’s not absurd because when we get an email from a completely unconfirmed and un-confirmable address that says, “I’m Philip Roth and this is what you’ve got wrong,” really? Are you Philip Roth? How do we know this is true? And then also how is it verifiable for other people? We can’t just, sort of, change it with a footnote that says, “He told us so.” We need something a little bit more than that. I mean, one of the funny things about Wikipedia, despite being this crazy new thing from the internet, is how very old-fashioned we are, in a way. That we’re always looking for a reliable source. We’re always looking to say, “Look, we don’t want to make the judgement call if we can help it.”
Mehdi Hasan: Forget me, forget Philip Roth, your own Wikipedia page describes you as the co-founder of Wikipedia with Larry Sanger – a point you dispute. You say you’re the founder and you tried to change your own page but couldn’t. That’s a bit embarrassing.
Jimmy Wales: [LAUGHS] Yeah, a bit but, you know, again it’s a question of what the sources say, so…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] So do you think Wikipedia is wrong about you?
Jimmy Wales: I think the media is wrong about me and so therefore Wikipedia accurately reflects that, so… [LAUGHTER]
Mehdi Hasan: So, is there virtue…
Jimmy Wales: [INTERRUPTING] I’m quite proud of it. I’m proud of it. Even I can’t manipulate Wikipedia.
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] An important philosophical question, is there virtue in accurately reflecting something that is inaccurate?
Jimmy Wales: It’s a good question. Sometimes people would make the mistake of thinking, “Oh, Wikipedia doesn’t care about the truth, it has just verifiability.” And we have examples where, look, a consensus of thoughtful editors will agree this particular source is wrong at this particular time. But in general what we look for is verifiability. And one person’s opinion is generally not enough to overturn that.
Mehdi Hasan: There’s also the issue, of course, of really, really contentious issues that people feel strongly about on lots of different sides. A few years ago, I believe, an Israeli lobbying group was accused of encouraging its members to become Wikipedia editors so that they could control the narrative on the Israeli conflict. How, then, can I take any pages on Wikipedia seriously about Israel-Palestine?
Jimmy Wales: There’s one model people have of how Wikipedia should work, which is a battleground. So the battleground is: Wikipedia will get to neutrality because people from different sides will fight it out until they somehow have to come to a compromise. We reject that approach. That approach is not healthy. That approach just leads to endless conflict. Instead what we like to say is, “Look, Wikipedia – every Wikipedia editor has a responsibility to try to be neutral. To try to take into account different perspectives on an issue, and if there is no one…”
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Who enforces that? Who watches the watchers?
Jimmy Wales: Oh, the community. I mean, we all watch each other. I mean, it’s, and this is a key point…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] But the community, if the community itself… I believe there have been studies done. You say people study Wikipedia. I believe there have been studies done that show that 80 to 90% of Wikipedia editors are male.
Jimmy Wales: Yes.
Mehdi Hasan: Young men.
Jimmy Wales: Yes.
Mehdi Hasan: How can a group of Wikipedia editors who are a bunch of young men, presumably a lot of them living in the West especially for English language, how can they be said to be neutral? How can they reflect diverse viewpoints? How can they…
Jimmy Wales: [INTERRUPTING] This is absolutely correct. I mean, one of the things that we struggle with at Wikipedia is that even if you have a group of really well-meaning people who try really hard to incorporate different points of view, there will be things that they miss because of their own context. There will be things that they don’t think of. Things, biases, that they don’t even notice because they’re swimming in it. And what we want to do is bring in more editors, more diversity…
Mehdi Hasan: The Wikipedia community calls you, I believe, BDFL. Benevolent Dictator for Life, because you have the casting vote when there are big disputes. I’m just wondering how benevolent your dictatorship is?
Jimmy Wales: Um… [LAUGHTER] Well, the Wikipedia community does not call me “Benevolent Dictator for Life.” Er, the New York Times said that. I think that’d be one of the cases where we would say, it’s verifiable but not true so we… [LAUGHTER] …we probably shouldn’t have it. In fact, we’ve always rejected that model.
Mehdi Hasan: Let me bring in some of our expert panelists who are here tonight. Oliver Kamm is a columnist and leader writer for The Times. Oliver, in 2007 you wrote an article for The Times in which you said Wikipedia relied on the, quote, “dumbness, not the wisdom, of crowds.” Now Jimmy is saying it’s the crowd is what makes it reliable. It’s what makes the interaction. It gives it superiority over traditional encyclopedias.
Oliver Kamm: My objection to Wikipedia, Mehdi used the phrase anti-elitist, you responded by saying it’s anti-credentialist. My objection to Wikipedia is that it’s anti-intellectual. I’ve never come across an academic enthused by the subject who’s unwilling to discuss it or to debate the subject matter. The problem with Wikipedia is that you’re democratic, not in the sense of no one has the last word by credentials, but, anyone can join in. There is no way in which Wikipedia can filter genuine scholarship from amateur enthusiasm.
Jimmy Wales: Your view of Wikipedia is just simply false. This idea that we would regard everybody’s opinion as equally valid – this is not true. The open model is absolutely subject to some difficulties and weaknesses. But such as democracy. You know, this view that somehow Wikipedia is anti-intellectual is false. I mean we’re absolutely in the tradition, the enlightenment tradition, of reason, debate and discussion, and openness to new ideas.
Oliver Kamm: That’s preposterous, Mr Wales.
Jimmy Wales: [LAUGHS] Thank you.
Oliver Kamm: Your model is one of arriving at conclusions by consensus and scholarship doesn’t work like that. It works by conflict. And it works by derision of ideas that are bad. You approach truth by a completely different avenue, which is getting the largest number of people to agree with a particular summary.
Jimmy Wales: One of the things we reject in the Wikipedia community is the concept of voting. We don’t vote on what’s right so it’s not about the largest number of people. It’s about the arguments that are reasoned. It’s about making your case. It’s about proving your point. Preferably with the best and highest-quality reliable sources, which is exactly the academic approach. It’s exactly what we want from scholarship, is, I mean, of course some scholars are combative, some newspaper writers are combative [LAUGHTER] but we don’t have to be that way to arrive at the truth…
Mehdi Hasan: [LAUGHING] Let’s bring in Herman Chinery-Hesse. He’s a software entrepreneur from Ghana. He’s been described as the Bill Gates of Africa and he was shaking his head there as Oliver was speaking. You don’t share Oliver’s critique of Wikipedia?
Herman Chinery-Hesse: Not necessarily, I think some of his critiques, actually agreeing with him. The sense of no one central gospel which is, it seems to be, key in the Wikipedia statement. I’m not saying that everything is perfect. There are issues. But coming from Africa, as for me, Wikipedia works beautifully. It goes to the bush. It goes on the internet. It goes on 100 dollar PCs. It’s not perfect but it’s almost there.
Mehdi Hasan: How has the “open model,” Jimmy’s phrase, or the “crowd source model,” how has it affected developing countries in your experience?
Herman Chinery-Hesse: I don’t know that it’s affected my part of world significantly yet but I’m quite excited because when Africa starts to participate we will finally get to tell our story and this whole notion of “there’s no big tyrant on the top determining” will work very well for us, and finally we’ll have Africa’s story.
Jimmy Wales: I have, one of the things that I’m really passionate about: this is my phone, this, a friend of mine bought this for me on the street in Kenya. It’s a Google phone so Android, you know, web browser. This is available now for about $50 – unlocked 3G phone. And they’ve sold hundreds of thousands of them in Kenya. In Kenya alone. And so this, we are now finally, and one of the things we’re doing is we’re working with the mobile carriers so that they’ll bring Wikipedia on mobile phones with zero data charges. So one of the things that’s really important that’s going on in the world in the next five to 10 years, which is faster than a lot of people thought, is the next billion people are going to come online. They’re going to start participating and joining, learning and teaching. For me this is, this is the most exciting moment in history.
Mehdi Hasan: Are you glad that Wikipedia is putting other mainstream, traditional, old-fashioned sources of knowledge, encyclopedias, out of business? Is that a good thing? So I’m just wondering, do you think it’s a good thing or do you have a tinge of regret?
Jimmy Wales: You know, I think you could ask Thomas Edison about the candle… [LAUGHTER]
Oliver Kamm: You haven’t discovered Penicillin or electricity. You’ve set up a website. Your extraordinary self-grandiosity is one of the most revealing things I’ve heard this evening.
Jimmy Wales: So the interesting thing is I have done nothing and that is absolutely true but there’s a kid, Jack Andraka, who’s just invented a test for pancreatic cancer that costs, I think, one five thousandth of what the previous test cost. And he did this by using Wikipedia and open-access research and things online. He’s 17 years old. So knowledge is not about anything that I’ve accomplished. Knowledge is about empowering everyone, anyone, to learn what it is they want to know.
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s take a step back from Wikipedia and just on a wider point on the power of the internet and the transformative power of the internet. I just want to talk about some of the social implications. I mean I spend much of my time on Twitter and I love it and I couldn’t live without it. But there’s no doubt that it takes up a great deal of my time as a husband or as a father or as an employee and I just wonder how damaging has it been to our social interactions to the time we spend with our families and our communities in the real world?
Jimmy Wales: You know for me, just speaking of my life, I have managed, despite moving about from my hometown, I’ve managed to reconnect with friends from childhood, and I know about their children and I keep up with them and this would not have been possible without this tool. To both leave home and maintain those long-term friendships. That’s just one person’s life, one person’s example. I don’t see very many downsides in this at all.
Mehdi Hasan: Some of the Wikipedia editors, you know, these are volunteers, spend around 14 hours a day online. That can’t be healthy.
Jimmy Wales: [LAUGHING] 14 hours, that’s pretty good, that’s more than me.
Mehdi Hasan: You’re going to crack the whip. “I want 16.”
Jimmy Wales: [LAUGHING] I don’t know if it’s healthy or not. I’m not sure what these people would be doing otherwise. Certainly would they be watching television? Would they be, you know, what else would they be doing with their time?
Mehdi Hasan: When people talk about internet addiction, is that something you recognise?
Jimmy Wales: Yes, of course, yeah, I mean it’s entirely possible. I do think we have to be careful about the reward structure of some of these things. They’re made like video games in a way, with all the research into how to give people tiny little rewards along the way and keep them motivated. And that’s something to be conscious about for sure.
Mehdi Hasan: There are in the list of positives, I think many people would say that one of the positives, especially in recent years, is that the internet and social networks in particular seem to drive democracy. We saw that in the Arab Spring. A lot of commentaries and articles and books were published saying the role of Twitter and Facebook in those revolutions. And you once said that Wikipedia, quote, “is obviously not the place to come and organise a protest,” but am I right in saying that you do believe that nonetheless Wikipedia has played a role in building democracy or in encouraging revolutions? How so if that’s…
Jimmy Wales: [INTERRUPTING] Yeah I hope so, and what I say is, you know, Twitter and Facebook have proven to be very valuable tools for people to self-organise, to go out in the street, to demand things, to raise awareness about corruption. There are a lot of different elements of this that have been very good. But if we really want to establish healthier societies, better societies, it is a place to get started. It’s a place to start learning about these issues, learning about what’s possible in other places.
Mehdi Hasan: Let me bring in Isabella Sankey who’s policy director for the British human rights group Liberty. When you hear analysts saying that we have this transformative potential, Twitter or Facebook or Wikipedia has helped drive the Arab Spring or revolutions in former communist countries. What’s your response as a human rights activist?
Isabella Sankey: There’s absolutely no doubt the internet has been an incredibly transformative tool. It’s a kind of unprecedented social experiment and we’ve seen, as both of you, I think have acknowledged, the huge benefits for freedom of expression, collective action, protest and democracy. It’s a great democratising tool at its best. As a human rights advocate, free speech is, of course, incredibly important, as is democracy itself.
But our concerns, and I think they’ve been bought to light very much in the revelations we’ve had from Edward Snowden is that when the internet becomes mastered by our governments, whether they are outwardly oppressive governments or perhaps more oppressive in secret, it can become a tool of oppression itself, if it’s not properly regulated. If those with a huge amount of power on the internet, the leaders of internet companies, are not responsible in standing up to requests from governments to master the internet and know all our secrets.
Mehdi Hasan: Would you accept that point from Isabella?
Jimmy Wales: Oh yeah, absolutely, I mean, I think that the internet is a tool and it is not automatically a tool for good, and we need to be very aware and very cautious about lots of, actually, infrastructure issues. Just to give one example, Google has generally been quite good about encryption. They encrypted Gmail quite early on. I believe their data centres they keep very secure but they missed a trick because the lines between their data centres weren’t encrypted and apparently the NSA was tapping into those. And now they’re quickly, sort of, working to do that. That’s an example of infrastructure – an infrastructure mistake.
Mehdi Hasan: A lot of people believe Wikipedia is linked to Wikileaks. People always, because of the name.
Jimmy Wales: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mehdi Hasan: And, of course, they’re not linked in any way. I’m just wondering is there any bad blood between you guys at Wikipedia and the folks over at Wikileaks? I read somewhere that you’re not a big fan of Julian Assange.
Jimmy Wales: I’ve never met Julian Assange, so I don’t know him personally. I find him in email to be excessively combative and most people who’ve had any dealings with him seem to come away with the same sort of impression. He and Oliver might get along very well…[LAUGHTER] …but I think for Julian Assange, for Wikileaks and Julian Assange, I think I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. Certainly we need, it’s crucial and important that in open societies that we have ways for people who have knowledge of wrongdoing to be able to come forward, to make public what they know in a safe way. That is absolutely a good and important thing. At the same time I think that Wikileaks has been a bit loose about what they publish and when they publish it and how they publish it, and so I’m concerned about that.
Mehdi Hasan: Are you annoyed they took the name?
Jimmy Wales: No, I mean, yeah, only because people ask me if I’m annoyed every day and that’s annoying but… [LAUGHTER] Once I was coming into the UK and on my landing card I forgot to fill out occupation and the woman said, you know, “Occupation?” I said, “Oh, I’m the founder of Wikipedia,” and she dropped her pen, “Wikileaks!” [LAUGHTER] I said, “Different guy. Not wanted in Sweden.” [LAUGHTER]
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, well, we’re going to go to a break right now. Join us in Part two when we’re going to be talking about the NSA spying scandal, the role of online technology firms in it, and we’re also going to hear from our audience here at the Oxford Union who are waiting to come in and put their questions to Jimmy Wales. So come back after the break for Part two of Head to Head.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back to Part two of Head to Head. We’re here in the Oxford Union with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, the world’s fifth biggest website, the online encyclopedia. We’re talking about the internet, its transformative potential, the reach of sites like Wikipedia.
Jimmy, I want to ask you this question: is it time for President Obama, for the US Congress, to rein in the National Security Agency, the NSA, which has been accused of archiving, accessing, collecting, data mining our online electronic communications?
Do you think your fellow Internet moguls, if I can call them that, the bosses of Google and Yahoo and Microsoft and Facebook, do you think they did enough to prevent the NSA from surveilling, spying the data of ordinary users online?
Jimmy Wales: For each company and each situation there may be a different judgement that we come to in the fullness of time and in the richness of history as we come to understand all this. In general what I find is that at the major internet companies, Google has of course been in a leadership position on this, there’s been astonishment that this was going on. And anger.
Mehdi Hasan: According to documents leaked to The Guardian by Edward Snowden, Microsoft collaborated closely with the NSA and the FBI to allow its own encryption software to be circumvented. To allow its own users’ communications to be intercepted. That’s pretty outrageous isn’t it?
Jimmy Wales: It’s completely outrageous, if true. Certainly I think it’s time now that it’s been revealed for the government to confirm it or disconfirm it. It’s outrageous. It’s absolutely outrageous, and I would not…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Have you had any dealings yourself with the National Security Agency?
Jimmy Wales: No, we’ve had no dealings whatsoever.
Mehdi Hasan: They’ve never approached you to…
Jimmy Wales: [INTERRUPTING] Never approached us.
Mehdi Hasan: …try and get better access to the data?
Jimmy Wales: No, never, we were outraged when one slide emerged that discussed spying on what people are reading on Wikipedia so we promptly accelerated our efforts, which were underway already, to encrypt every connection to Wikipedia and that’s still an ongoing process that we’re working on because it’s unconscionable to do this, to…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Are you worried that they might not just be looking out for people who are reading Wikipedia but you talked about your community, the editors are communicating with each other, intercepting their communications?
Jimmy Wales: Yeah, absolutely and there is no question that people who are editing Wikipedia and in some jurisdictions are putting themselves at risk by doing so and we want to protect those people. Those people are heroes who are editing Wikipedia from Iran about political topics that are sensitive there, you want those people to be safe. You want them to be able to speak the truth without fear of being spied on. It’s the principle that applies everywhere. Human rights aren’t negotiable.
Mehdi Hasan: What’s your view of Edward Snowden, given you think that some of the stuff that’s been revealed is outrageous?
Jimmy Wales: Given everything that I know today, he’s a hero. He’s a person who’s been very careful, in the materials that he has leaked. They have been in the abstract. He hasn’t leaked anything that would put any particular agents at risk and so forth. He has exposed what I believe to be very likely to be judged, criminal wrongdoing. Lying to Congress. And certainly a shock and an affront to, in America, an affront to the Fourth Amendment. And I think that history will judge him very favourably.
Mehdi Hasan: Has all of this made you think again about where you locate Wikipedia’s servers? Because I believe they’re located in the United States, in Florida. Have you thought about relocating them because of what you’ve learned?
Jimmy Wales: We haven’t given it any really serious thought. I mean, the US remains a very good jurisdiction for things like freedom of speech, for the right of people to express themselves freely online. For the safeguards for an internet company, and so we would consider it but so far, we haven’t seen anything that would make us want to leave the US. There is a growing concern in Congress about this sort a thing. A growing sense in Congress that the public’s angry about this. That they’ve been misled as to what was actually going on. And I think we’re going to see legislation to change this. If I have anything to do with it we will.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, well, let’s go back to our panel, who are here in the Oxford Union. Bob Ayers, you’re a former intelligence officer. You’ve worked with the CIA and with the NSA. Jimmy talks about the wrongdoing that’s been exposed. Potential criminality and violation of the constitution. What’s your response to that?
Bob Ayers: The NSA collects foreign intelligence information. They collect it on behalf of the United States government. The government, realising that they operate in this secret community, in a classified world, has put in place two different committees to oversee all intelligence operations in the US. One in the Senate and one in the House. So when we say, “Rein in the NSA,” that’s very pejorative because the NSA is conducting a mission authorised by the government, supervised by the government and overseen by the government.
Mehdi Hasan: In October 2011, the foreign intelligence surveillance court, which is mandated with overseeing their activities, said that some of the surveillance programmes carried out by the NSA were deficient on statutory and constitutional grounds. They may be a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Senators on those committees you’ve mentioned like Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Mark Udall have said, “We were misled. We have not been given the full information.” The head of the NSA has admitted to misleading Congress.
Bob Ayers: There is a difference between misleading Congress and misleading the oversight that makes them responsible for seeing what they’re doing. Congress is a public body.
Mehdi Hasan: No, he went in front of that intelligence committee and misled them.
Bob Ayers: It is amazing…
Mehdi Hasan: [TALKING OVER ONE ANOTHER] He’s admitted to that…
Bob Ayers: It is amazing how many representatives find themselves misled when the public sentiment turns against something that they were aware of.
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Bob, okay, so you’re saying he was misleading them with their collusion.
Bob Ayers: No, what I’m saying is he was relating to them what the operations were that the NSA was conducting. At the time they were relating it, it was, “Okay, no problem with that, we understand, keep up the good work boys.” Suddenly it makes the press. Everyone’s outraged and it’s like the scene in Casablanca where suddenly they say, “My God, there’s gambling going on here.” [LAUGHTER]
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Let’s take a step…
Bob Ayers: [TALKING OVER ONE ANOTHER] One of the people in the Senate deny even having been briefed on intelligence operations.
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s take a step back and ask a wider question about principle. Should the NSA have the right, the ability to spy on the, ok, surveil, access the emails, for example, of everyone in this room – British citizens and residents?
Bob Ayers: Why not?
Mehdi Hasan: Isabella Sankey, why not?
Isabella Sankey: Privacy and the right to privacy is a very important, integral value. It’s something that gives us our dignity at its most fundamental level. We’ve never believed in mass surveillance previously. The reason why both of these countries fought the Second World War is because we believed in the inherent dignity and respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms. And what it looks like has happened over the last few years is that very gently these principles have been badly, badly eroded.
Mehdi Hasan: Oliver Kamm?
Oliver Kamm: So long as there is sufficient regulatory oversight, so long as there are independent commissioners who’ve held high judicial office, who have to sign off on intercepting electronic communications then I think it’s necessary because there are people who want to destroy our way of life.
Mehdi Hasan: Indeed, indeed there are, but, Oliver, accessing Angela Merkel’s electronic communications didn’t help kill Osama bin Laden, did it?
Oliver Kamm: No, that was preposterous. May I make a point about Edward Snowden who, if he were a hero, would have faced the consequences legally of what he did and not fled to a state that imprisons feminist activists, intimidates gay activists and murders journalists.
Mehdi Hasan: You’re talking about Russia there. Herman, I just want to bring you in here. Just in case people weren’t across where Edward Snowden happens to be. Herman, in a continent like Africa do you think certain unsavoury regimes may look at what’s going on and say, “Actually, we’ll have a bit of this,” if they’re not already doing a bit of this?
Herman Chinery-Hesse: Yes, yes, yes. Yeah, in my country I think that we’re monitored a bit. I’m not naïve about this. It’s a difficult, dirty job. Maybe I’m jaded but that’s just how the world works.
Isabella Sankey: I don’t think anybody has a problem with the idea of targeted surveillance, when somebody is suspected of serious wrongdoing, it’s definitely justified with the appropriate checks and balances to put somebody else under surveillance, whether that’s interception, whether it’s bugging, whether it’s following somebody in a car – whatever the technique might be. What’s problematic here is mass surveillance.
Bob Ayers: Once you establish the principle that says some degree of surveillance is acceptable – whether it’s steaming open letters, whether it’s intercepting Western Union telegraphs between different embassies – once you buy into the principle that it’s okay, now you’re only arguing degree. And terms like mass….
Isabella Sankey [INTERRUPTING] It’s so important and when you’re talking about…
Bob Ayers: [INTERRUPTING] Wait, stop, stop, stop. I let you speak, let me speak please. When you say things like “mass surveillance”, I mean, what constitutes “mass”? Is it 97% of the people in the world? 20% of the people in the world? It’s pejorative…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] But Bob, you said everyone in this room earlier didn’t you? That’s pretty mass surveillance.
Bob Ayers: One thing that people don’t seem to grasp when we’re talking about, quote, “mass surveillance” is what the intelligence organisations are collecting is raw information. They’re not even looking at it. They use computers to filter messages to try to…
Isabella Sankey: [INTERRUPTING] That’s looking at it, that is looking at it. Just ‘cause a computer is doing it doesn’t mean it’s not being looked at, filtered, that words are being looked at and…
Bob Ayers: [INTERRUPTING] It has to be looked at to be delivered.
Isabella Sankey: So they are looking at it? So they’re intercepting it. They’re collecting it. They’re intercepting it and they’re looking at it.
Bob Ayers: The concept that somebody is reading some little old lady from Birmingham’s Christmas message to her grandchildren is absolutely ridiculous.
Isabella Sankey: The computers are reading it.
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] No, it’s a little old lady in Germany. [LAUGHTER] Jimmy, what’s your response to what Bob’s saying?
Jimmy Wales: Well, I think it’s a mistake, this idea that it’s merely a matter of degree is a big mistake. It is a matter of principle. There is a principle difference between targeting an individual or a group of people, going to a judge, who’s an independent judge, and getting a court order based on probable cause is very different from surveilling everyone who is of an Arabic descent. There’s a broader group or how about everyone in this room or everyone at all. I mean, that principle, the principle of judicial oversight is not a degree. That’s an either/or. You’re either doing it, you’ve either got those checks and balances or you don’t.
And we could stop a 100% of burglary in this country. It’s quite easy to do. I’ll tell you how to do it. Cameras are getting cheaper and cheaper. The government can put a camera in everybody’s home including your bedroom ‘cause you often have your valuables there. All the data will stream into GCHQ and nobody will look at it. Does that sound like a good idea? It would stop burglary but I think most of us would find that incredibly unnerving, invasive, intrusive and also the moral justification that you then have in totalitarian countries to say, “Well, look, Britain does it, we’re going to do the same thing and, by the way, a few people are gonna disappear because of it.”
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Okay, well, putting the NSA issue to one side for a moment, the big internet companies we mentioned before like Google and Facebook et cetera are generating billions of dollars for themselves in profits by using our data, by using our personal information, to target ads at us. Hasn’t the internet simply become another tool for big corporations just to make money out of us?
Jimmy Wales: It’s a tradeoff. For me, I’m happy that Facebook is finally showing me ads that seem at least a little bit relevant. [MEHDI LAUGHS] But I think we should be concerned about the amount of data that is being collected. How is it being stored? What is it being done with it? And these are big issues that we’re all gonna grapple with in the coming years. I don’t think it’s a very simple thing to do. At Wikipedia we’re quite strict about our view of these things. We, for example, we only collect one out of 1000 hits to the website for traffic analysis and then we delete the logs as quickly as we can. As soon as we can run the stats. Because we believe if a government comes to us and says, “I wanna know what Mehdi’s been reading,” we can say, “Look, we don’t know.” And we will fight for that principle. That is very important to us.
Mehdi Hasan: Wikipedia, of course, is a non-profit.
Jimmy Wales: We are a non-profit, yeah.
Mehdi Hasan: Google, Facebook, Twitters of this world have made people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey into billionaires. You’re not a billionaire. Does that frustrate you sometimes? [LAUGHTER]
Jimmy Wales: No I don’t, it doesn’t bother me at all. As identified earlier I live with breathtaking arrogance and so that’s enough for me. [LAUGHTER]
Mehdi Hasan: [LAUGHING] I came across a quote of yours where you said making Wikipedia a non-profit was, quote, “either the dumbest thing I ever did or the smartest thing I ever did.” I’m just wondering if you’ve worked out yet whether it was the smartest or dumbest? [LAUGHTER]
Jimmy Wales: No, it was the smartest thing I ever did. You know, I think Wikipedia wouldn’t be what it is today, if it were anything other than the structure we have it in. One of the reasons people sometimes say, “Well, why don’t you put ads on Wikipedia? Why don’t you put ads on Wikipedia?” And one of the reasons is in the DNA of the non-profit or the Wikimedia Foundation, we care as much about the next million readers in Ghana as we care about the next million readers in California. And if we were driven by ad revenue, we would not only care, to get more readers in wealthy Western countries, we would also care what you’re reading. We would be thinking about what is the revenue per page. So we don’t do anything like that, and so we have no incentive to take your data, and try and get you to read certain things versus other things. We just burn the data and you read what you like.
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s, on that note, go to our audience. Who here would like to make a point or ask a question to Jimmy Wales? Let’s go to the lady here in the front row.
Audience Participant 1: As a student, Wikipedia often helps me to, sort of, streamline my thoughts and kind of get things organised but my tutor really doesn’t approve. Why do you think Wikipedia is often misunderstood as devaluing education in some way?
Jimmy Wales: The question is not, “Should students use Wikipedia?” because they all do without question, but, “How should they?” Um, and so I think that a tutor should say, “Right, all you know is what you read in Wikipedia. You’re at Oxford. Frankly that’s not enough, right?” It’s a tool. It’s a tool and the same thing, by the way, is absolutely true of Britannica.
Mehdi Hasan: Oliver, very briefly, you wanted to come in.
Oliver Kamm: Academics object to using Britannica because it’s a summary of primary and secondary sources. They reasonably object to Wikipedia because they’ve no idea if it’s true.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay let’s go back to the audience. [LAUGHTER] Gentleman there in the blue jacket to my left.
Audience Participant 2: I think we got some language problems going on here. It might be like a British/American thing but when you talk about democratisation on the internet, I see de-monetisation. And when you talk about freedom of information, I see millions of people working for free. These are very, very different things. I think there are some myths about the internet. One of these is the idea that open source or the hive mind is really good at generating stuff. It might work for Wikipedia but you can’t have 10,000 people write a novel or a concerto or make a film.
Jimmy Wales: I absolutely agree 1000 people can’t write a novel together. 1000 people can’t make a film together. 1000 people can learn how to make a film. 1000 people can study things. 1000 people can share ideas and enter into an intellectual community that generates a lot of excitement and interest and support. De-monetisation is a legitimate fear people have had that, you know, because of the internet we’re going to have a complete collapse in some of the creative industries doesn’t appear to be coming true.
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s go back to the audience – lady right there at the back there.
Audience Participant 3: What really strikes me when I read in Wikipedia is the number of people that we can find. Are there some criterias of how influential they must be to be listed?
Jimmy Wales: There are limits to what is in Wikipedia and there are limits to what can be in Wikipedia. I always give the example, I could write a wonderful biography of my mother, for example. I know her life story and she’s a wonderful person but no one else could verify it. And I don’t anticipate in the future we’ll have a profile on everyone, because I think it would violate the idea that everything in Wikipedia should be verifiable.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let’s go back to the audience. Lady here in the green scarf to my right.
Audience Participant 4: There are a lot of holes in Wikipedia’s coverage, especially of topics in the developing world. So how do you think this problem will be solved?
Jimmy Wales: Yeah, I think it’s a crucial point for Wikipedia. We now have a community that’s been together for several years. They have gained a great deal of expertise in how to write an encyclopaedia. They’ve thought through a lot of interesting discussions, dialogues, debates. The danger that we have is that we become a bit too insular and that we’re not welcoming enough to newcomers, and that we have a narrow view of what belongs in the encyclopedia.
I was once in South Africa and I was taken by a journalist to a restaurant in Gugulethu and I wrote a little entry about it in Wikipedia, which was immediately nominated for deletion, when in fact, this is a restaurant that had a big and interesting cultural role in South Africa. You know, it was an apartheid-era story and so on. And that’s bad. That’s bad if a community thinks, “Well, if I’ve never heard of it, it can’t be important,” and so we do try to fight that. Nothing about Wikipedia is magical or automatic. It’s very human. And so I really want to say, you know, anyone here who comes from a perspective that’s not your, sort of, 26-year-old male tech geek, which is the bulk of our community, please get involved.
Mehdi Hasan: Gentleman here in the leather jacket on the second row?
Audience Participant 5: Jimmy correctly mentioned Iran as one of the governments that restricts Internet and its population don’t have access to free information. And we have this bizarre situation where you have the Supreme Leader, you have the President of Iran, you have the foreign minister, all use social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to appeal to the international public opinion, to manipulate the international public opinion, whereas for the population itself, these tools are illegal and they’re filtered. Should this unfair advantage be removed? Should their accounts be disabled?
Jimmy Wales: That’s a very good question. It’s an interesting argument I’ve never heard before. I know if I were Twitter I would think about that. I would consider that. I certainly would say, you know, if in a country I found out that, the only IP addresses that were editing Wikipedia were from the government and everybody else was blocked, I think we would block those IP addresses so I think in our case we would probably take that action.
Mehdi Hasan: Has that happened? Have you done that in the past?
Jimmy Wales: No, I mean, that exact example hasn’t happened. It’s a hypothetical. We have blocked, well, we blocked the House of Representatives in the US once but, er… [LAUGHTER] …that was for juvenile vandalism. We let them back if they promised to behave.
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] That’s unlike Congress. Let’s go back to the audience. I want to take someone from the back. Gentleman right at the back with glasses and the goatee beard. He’s been waiting for a while.
Audience Participant 6: Thank you very much. I wanted to ask, ‘cause I’ve been to the doctor’s office a few times and caught him looking up my symptoms on Wikipedia. [LAUGHTER] So I wanted to ask, on that note, do you think it’s dangerous to be over-reliant on any one source of information, particularly something online? And on a related note, what do you think is Wikipedia’s impact on the future of institutional education? Particularly in the developing world. Thank you.
Jimmy Wales: Hmm, yeah… So, yeah it is, it is always dangerous to rely on any one source of information. It’s interesting, surveys done of medical students, how many of them use Wikipedia, it’s surprising and maybe a little bit alarming. But it, the impact of Wikipedia on education, particularly in the developing world, I think there are many different impacts.
So one of the things to remember about the world today in general, not just in the developing world, is that the amount of formal education that’s going on is more or less stable. But informal learning has exploded. Radically exploded. That’s happening of course in the developing world where oftentimes people don’t have good access to formal education so they’re educating themselves when they get access, you know, they’re getting online and they’re learning things that are of interest to them and they’re joining the conversation.
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s take some more questions from the audience. Lady here in front of me in the second row, just on the end, yes.
Audience Participant 7: Do you think it is right for private companies to be asked to police the internet on behalf of the large entertainment corporations?
Jimmy Wales: One of the most important things that the internet is giving us is an open platform for open conversation and creativity, and that’s really critically important. And any measure that we take to help copyright owners defend their rights must not interfere with that free flow of information. And that is really the crux of it. That is really the tricky part.
We have to remember there is a lot of alarmism going on about the situation with copyrights and so on, and we have a situation where, you know, in the past, copyright law only really it was an industrial regulation. It affected only big companies in a direct way. Now it affects everyone in this room. I mean if you have a, you know, your kid’s birthday party and you film it and then you decide, oh this would be really fun to set to a soundtrack.
So you get into iMovie and you make a little movie and you put the soundtrack of a pop song on and you upload it to YouTube and you send the link to grandma and grandma comes and then she says, “I don’t know why, I can’t hear the sound.” Oh, it’s because Google automatically disabled it as a copyright violation. That’s problematic. That’s fair use. You know, that’s just people trying to, to use the tools of creativity available to them and to equate that with piracy, as just one example, is a huge mistake.
Mehdi Hasan: One last question to you: if Jimmy Wales decided, “Actually, I’d like to go back and be a futures trader again,” or, “I’d like to go and try and be a billionaire like Mark Zuckerberg,” and quit it all and went off and did something differently, could Wikipedia survive? Would it survive?
Jimmy Wales: Yes…
Mehdi Hasan: Without its benevolent dictator?
Jimmy Wales: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah completely. I mean the process of the last 12 years has been for me the process of turning myself into the ceremonial monarch. It’ll be, Wikipedia doesn’t need me or depend on me to move forward and that’s as it should be.
Mehdi Hasan: Well, on that note, Jimmy Wales, thank you very much for coming on Head to Head. Thank you very much to our audience here in the Oxford Union for contributing. Thank you very much to you all at home for watching tonight. This debate will continue (where else?) online!
Thanks for watching Head to Head tonight.