Why we must all support policy that keeps the internet open and accessible

Gasometer Schöneberg, where the conference was held.

This week, the Wikimedia Foundation was invited to provide opening remarks for the third annual Global Conference of the Internet Jurisdiction and Policy Network in Berlin, Germany. This conference represents a place for civil society, platforms, elected representatives, policymakers, and other stakeholders to come together and discuss how we can manage tensions between competing national laws that impact information on the internet while elevating our essential rights and freedoms.  As advocates of free knowledge, it was an opportunity to share our belief in the importance of policymaking that supports an internet that is open and accessible to all.

This conference comes at a critical moment. The internet is in a moment of change, a testing of the boundaries of the free exchange of information and ideas. In the past year, we have seen increased concern about what information is available on social media and online, and how videos, images and stories are being shared more quickly and with wider audiences than has previously been possible.

This summit is an opportunity for all of us to continue to weigh how potential regulation may impact the promise of the internet to connect people and serve the common good. An overly broad, one-size-fits-all approach to regulation across the internet preferences platforms over people, places limits on knowledge and collaboration online, and effectively builds walls between people and ideas, rather than bridges. As stakeholders consider the very real challenges and responsibilities posed by internet governance and regulation, it is crucial to consider the following:

  • The importance of clearly articulating the norms and values we seek to uphold
  • The responsibility of governments to protect, and platforms to respect human rights
  • The challenges and risk of reactionary responses, and one size fits all regulation
  • The need for cross-border collaboration in service of our common humanity, and
  • The need to engage all stakeholders, especially civil society, in these critical dialogues

Laws and public policy should promote and preserve the freedom to share and participate in knowledge and exchange. The internet—and Wikipedia—is richer, more useful, and more representative when more people can engage together. That is why, unlike other internet platforms, Wikipedia does not localize knowledge for different countries or target it to individual users. Versions of Wikipedia are differentiated only by language—never by geography, demographic, or personal preference.

That means the information on Wikipedia is the same whether you are in Berlin or Brasilia, and editors from around the world can work together to improve, correct, and advance knowledge. Such a flourishing and competition of ideas and perspectives from different cultures may be a messy process, but it allows people to build consensus on how we see and share the world around us.

Any regulation also needs to consider its impact on international human rights. They are universal, fundamental, and non negotiable. We should carefully examine all solutions to make sure that we are aware of how potential restrictions could be abused, applied unevenly to different populations, or enforced too broadly in a way that silences or excludes people online. When we are overzealous about limiting knowledge, we risk impacting inclusivity and diversity. Permanent removal of knowledge can have long-term invisible impacts.

So how can we keep knowledge free and the internet open? Our recommendation is that this happens by giving power not to the few but to the many. Wikipedia is often held up as an exception to more traditional models for the consumer web, but we believe it is the example that decentralized models of curation and regulation can work. Wikipedia has shown how effective it can be when we empower communities to uphold a clear mission, purpose, and set of standards. As we look to the future of content moderation, we must similarly devise means to involve broad groups of stakeholders in these discussions, in order to create truly democratic, diverse, and sustainable online spaces.

Wikimedia’s vision is a world where every single human can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. This week’s conference produced some powerful momentum and collaboration between a multitude of stakeholders towards this shared future. The hard work is just beginning, but by meaningfully engaging more people and organizations today and in the future, we can develop standards and principles that are more inclusive, more enforceable, and more effective. We are encouraged by the possibility in front of us.

Together, we can help protect a flourishing and open internet that allows for new forms of culture, science, participation and knowledge.

We believe that free access to knowledge is a human right.

Knowledge makes our societies more informed, more connected, and more equitable. We stand up for that right every day.

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