Saturday, October 8, 2011

The temporary end of the Italian Wikipedia…

It’s always delicate to write something whenever you never introduced yourself properly to your readership. I will try to make it straight. Despite the anglo-italian consonance of my pseudonym, I am a francophone wikipedian, member of the local Arbcom, and editor of a well-received wikipedian blog, Wikitrekk.

During the past week I committed myself to two significant issues. I launched a francophone poll on the Image Filter, whose results will be displayed soon. I took an active part in the reception of the blackout of the italian wikipedia on the francophone web, notably by writing the french translation of the Communicato degli utenti. The two preceding posts concerned the Image filter. This one, logically, bears upon the italian wiki-protest.

I dare say the writing of this post has not been a very exhausting work. It’s not a real original work, merely an english adaptation of a french account which has been wholly appreciated by francophone wikipedians and newspapers. The structure is basically the same : I adress the event chronologically by using three simplistic sections : before / meanwhile / afterwards…

Before : the Comma 29

The expression « Comma 29 » is filled with a certain exoticism. It could have been the codename of a MacGuffin murder mystery. The reality is more prosaic.

In the Italian law vocabulary, a Comma is a paragraph, a distinctive section of a law or a resolution. The Wiretapping act consists of 42 of commas, each of them being subdivided into several subsections identified by the letters of the alphabet. As you might guess, it is not an easy-to-read text — rather an archeological fabric in which ruses, accomodations and divergences intricated for about three years.

The very first draft have been proposed to the parliament one month after the victory of Berlusconi’s party to the general elections, on the 30th of june 2008. In account of the complexity of the Italian legislative, the law is fully approved two years later by june 2010. And there… Berlusconi dropped it. In the midst of the Rubygate scandal, the Cavaliere surrenders to public pressure.

Finally, after one more year of in-waiting, the Wiretapping act is making its come-back, always aiming to reinforce the political control over the press. It even goes farther than that. One theses 42 commas, the 29th, hides, beneath an innocent look, one of the most depriving measures a democratic government ever attempted to enact against the New Media.

The small, introductory (a) stipulated that:
With respect to radio and TV retransmissions, the statements or corrigenda are issued under the 32th article in force, on TV and radio service of the legislative decree n°177 of the 31th of July 2005. With respect to computer sites, including the newspaper and magazines diffused by electronic means, the statements or corrigenda are published within the forty-eight hours of the petition, with the same graphic features, the same access methodology to the site and the same visibility that theses of the publications to which they refer
Specifically, each time that an individual consider himself to be defamed by an online publication (it might be a blogpost or… a wikipedia article), all he has to do is to file a petition in court. Consequently, the publication has to be automatically suppressed or altered in a way that suits the plaintiff. If the suppression or alteration does not occur within 48 hours, the website will be heavily penalized. According to an italian blogger, Guido Scorsa, the penality would go as high as 12000 euros.
A collaborative organization like is clearly threatened by such a procedure. Its appliance actually contradicts one the five pillars : the quest for a neutral point of view. The encyclopedic article of a living person does not have to be favorable or unvaforable : it has to inventory every notable fact about him/her with no regards to their moral qualification. Besides, as Moyg pointed out, the notion of defamation can be understood in a very broad way. Beyond legal charges, one can also complaint about a mention of one’s professional failures. Whenever the plaintiff is the sole judge of the prejudice, every excess becomes possible.

Moreover, the volunteer editors cannot face innumerable legal procedures. Dozens of thousands of articles are concerning a living person. If several hundred of them decided to file a petition, the community would be completely flooded. Given the restrictive pecuniary means of any charity organization, several fines would lead Wikimedia Italia to bankruptcy.

Yet, the Comma 29 could not be fully applied. Because of the decentralized nature of the Internet, any legal procedures within this frame would be very difficult to achieve. An article of the Repubblica highlights the embarrassment of the courts that will have to manage it:
Who will be the responsible person or organization that will account for the corrigenda demands within 48 hours, given that the users are anonymous and volunteer ? How theses corrigenda will appear in concrete ? And, who shall pay the possible fines ? The users, the administrators (who are also volunteer users) or the Wikimedia Foundation ?
This dilution of accountancy alters the effectivity of Comma. Nevertheless, its mere existence can trigger long-term considerable damages. Guido Scorsa fears actually the of an induced censorship. In order to avoid any judiciary commitment, the contributors would modify their publications a priori:
The bloggers will generally be induced to correct « out-of-fear » [per paura] […] To impose a required correction on non-professional informative productions gives an extraordinary pressure or even threatening mean to the enemy of the freedom of expression.

Meanwhile : the blackout

I shall first and foremost correct a widespread mistake : the Wikimedia Foundation is not responsible for this blackout. It has given it its full support. But it has not in the least decided such a spectacular action.

The decision is taken, as most decisions are taken on a wiki : consensually. By the evening of the 3rd of october, Vito opens a discussion page titled Comma 29 e Wikipedia. He presents two possible countermeasures to the Comma 29 : the closing of the encyclopedia and the systematic display of a statement ; the maintenance of the encyclopedia and a systematic display of a statement according to graphic means that remained to define. Most of the expressed opinions were in favor of the first one. There have been some disagreements, but but they were finally moderate, as shows the statement of Eustace Bagge :
Opposed to the blackout of the whole website. Yet, it could prove useful to hide the articles dedicated to living persons, if the problems induced by the comma turned out to take concrete forms.
Overall, the consensus is reached. An italian even evoked the broadest consensus ever reached in the history of the italian community. In fact, the consensus goes even beyond the initial proposition, which planned a 24-hours blackout. Some believe that such a short time would not be efficient et advocate a sine die blackout, till the rejection of the Comma. Others state that 24-hours are enough to send a clear signal. A medium agreement is found : 48-hours. Eventually, the black-out ceased a few hours sooner (approximately 40 hours).

Whatever we might think of the ethical ground of the blackout, its efficiency cannot be denied. Seen about 20 million times, the Communicato is well supported by the italian civil society. A newly created facebook page Rivogliamo Wikipedia is liked by about 300 000 profiles. #wikipedia has become the third most used hashtag on tweeter, exceeding #moody in popularity — a clear sign that the defense of the encyclopedia turns out to be a more important issue than the recession of the national economy.

Afterwards : Internationalization of the Italian issue

The Wikimedia Foundation has quickly indicated his full support to the blackout. Its executive director, Sue Gardner stated that:
It seems obvious though that the proposed law would hurt freedom of expression in Italy, and therefore it's entirely reasonable for the Italian Wikipedians to oppose it. The Wikimedia Foundation will support their position.
In a similar vein the lawyer Mike Godwin (whose named has been universally popularized through the Goldwin law) believed this blackout to be an adequate answer to repressive numeric laws:
having dealt with government censorship of various sorts for more than 20 years, is that more dramatic action is most likely to be effective in persuading a government to change course.

This more dramatic action had at least one immediate effect : to internationalize what used to be an italo-italian issue. It is nowadays easy to find references to the comma 29 in the english, german, swiss and french press.

The reaction other wikipedian communities has also been immediate. On, a Solidaritätserklärung mit dem italienischen Wikipedia-Streik (literally Declaration of solidarity with the italian wikipedia-strike) has already received several hundred of supports. On, the reception was less unanimous. Most of the expressed opinions supported the italian option. Wikimedia France has proclaimed its solidarity with the action of the italian wikipedia. Yet several well-esteemed contributors has overtly dismissed such an initiative. A bureaucrat has gone as far as ending his encyclopedic collaboration on account of this issue.

Against the absurdity of some state restraints, global answers seem to emerge. The Wikimedia Foundation has just introduced a new notion : the Project-Wide protest. A two-lines sum-up specifies its in-progress semantics:
Neutrality is a pillar of Wikimedia projects. However, when there is a significant threat to the well-being of a particular project, the wiki's community can engage in project-wide protests to draw attention to the issue.
A draft of a juridico-wikipedian concept is coming to life. It was already underlined by this subtle interrogation of the italian utenti :
We want to be able to keep a free and open-to-all encyclopaedia, because our articles are also your articles - Wikipedia is already neutral, why neutralize it?

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