The founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written by its users, has defied the Chinese government by refusing to bow to censorship of politically sensitive entries.
Jimmy Wales, one of the 100 most influential people in the world according to Time magazine, challenged other Internet companies, including Google, to justify their claim that they could do more good than harm by cooperating with Beijing.
Wikipedia, a hugely popular reference tool in the West, has been banned from China since last October. Whereas Google, Microsoft and Yahoo went into the country accepting some restrictions on their online content, Wales believes it must be all or nothing for Wikipedia.
His stand comes as Irrepressible.info, a joint campaign by the London-based Observer newspaper and Amnesty International for free speech on the Web, continues with the support of more than 37,000 people around the world. The campaign calls on governments to stop persecuting political bloggers and on information technology companies to stop complying with these repressive regimes.
"We're really unclear why we would be [banned]," Wales said. "We have internal rules about neutrality and deleting personal attacks and things like this. We're far from being a haven for dissidents or a protest site. So our view is that the block is in error and should be removed, but we shall see."
Wales said censorship was "antithetical to the philosophy of Wikipedia. We occupy a position in the culture that I wish Google would take up, which is that we stand for the freedom for information, and for us to compromise I think would send very much the wrong signal: that there's no one left on the planet who's willing to say `You know what? We're not going to give up.'"
Wikipedia's entry on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 includes the government's official claim that 200 to 300 people died and the Chinese student associations and Chinese Red Cross's estimate of 2,000-3,000 deaths.
"I think it's an interesting question whether they're prepared to understand the difference between advocating one set of figures or another versus simply reporting on what the controversy is," Wales said. "I can understand that they would be upset -- although of course I still don't think they have any moral right to ban anything -- if we were pushing one set of figures in contrast to their objections, but if we are reporting both, to me that's exactly what an encyclopedia should do and they should be comfortable with that."
Wales will meet senior Chinese officials to try to persuade them to allow the Web site's 1.3 million articles to appear there uncensored.
"One of the points that I'm trying to push is that if there's a small town in China that has a wonderful local tradition, that won't make its way into Wikipedia because the people of China are not allowed to share their knowledge with the world," Wales said. "I think that's an ironic side-effect and something the people in the censorship department need to have a much bigger awareness of: you're not just preventing information about Falun Gong or whatever you're upset about getting into China, you're preventing the Chinese people speaking to the world."
The Irrepressible.info site will allow visitors next week to access and distribute censored content.
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