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Jimmy Wales: It was Wikipedia that ended the evil of SOPA

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RSA Europe Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said the site's blackout played a key part in defeating the USA's controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

The English version of Wikipedia, Reddit and hundreds of other smaller websites coordinated a notional service blackout for a day in mid-January to raise awareness of SOPA. Wales described SOPA as introducing a Chinese-style blocking system in response to complaints about copyright infringement. In response, Wales said, 10 million people contacted Congress (an unnamed senator told Wales) and the bill was pulled days later.

"I am quite anti-piracy. This was a strike against bad legislation," the beardy Alabama native said. "Those who say this was Silicon Valley versus Hollywood are missing the involvement of the general public. Too much power to arbitrarily shut down websites is dangerous."

The blackout of Wikipedia followed a similar effort in Italy and was followed by a far less successful campaign in Russia. Wales, who has moved to the UK and now lives in London, suggested that the Wikipedia community would be very selective about wielding the tactic in future protests. He said the rule of thumb would be that the protest should involve an issue that affects Wikipedia's core operations (such as freedom of speech) rather than as a part of a mass protest about a more general issue, such as economic austerity programmes or a proposed war.

Wales hit the news recently with campaigns against the UK's draft Communications Data Bill, described by critics as a "Snooper’s Charter", and also when he set up a petition requesting that Home Secretary Theresa May block the extradition of UK student Richard O’Dwyer to the US over alleged copyright infringement offences connected with his TVShack.net site.

The Communications Data Bill, should it become law, would make it somewhat more feasible for government agencies to monitor traffic via Facebook, Skype and Twitter private messages. Only the parties involved in messages and not the content of messages would be recorded.

Wales objects to the measure on privacy grounds, arguing it would be far better to apply a legal process to tap the communication of specific suspects rather than “escrowing and pre-archiving 66 million people’s data on the premise that a handful of them might be paedophiles".

Last month Wales raised the possibility of encrypting all connections with Wikipedia if the controversial draft bill becomes law. Speaking at the RSA Europe conference this week, Wales gave no timetable on when this might happen. He said that moving to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) by default was desirable anyway, but that UK Snooper's Charter might speed up this process.

"We should all be moving to HTTPS everywhere to secure connections to websites," and prevent attacks such as session hijacking, Wales said. He added that Google's experience showed that applying encryption doesn't add much in extra costs. ®

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