Research fellows at the prestigious Harvard University have found that there were fewer instances of censorship as far as Wikipedia was concerned when the site finally started to encrypt its traffic.
Is knowledge really power?
Or maybe the real power lies in money and authority.
All of that does not matter.
What matters is that Wikipedia has managed to fight back against government censorship from all corners of the globe with a help of a simple HTTPS switch.
Wikipedia is one of the biggest, if not outright the biggest, online repository of human knowledge created by man in human history.
And that fact comes with its own set of negatives.
One of them is that Wikipedia tends to get a lot of attention from governments who want to protect their citizens from the online encyclopedia content.
But what are we talking about really?
What we’re really talking about is that some governments feel that Wikipedia does not present knowledge that is suitable for their society.
Afterall, each society is different and has a unique set of norms.
Some topics that may be taboo in one society may not be so in another society.
Let’s have a look at some examples.
Erdogan’s Turkey has banned articles which detail knowledge about the female genitals.
Putin’s Russia has also pitched in by censoring articles which talk about weed.
Moving further to the west then we have the United Kingdom which has moved forward swiftly to block articles about German metal bands.
And then there is China.
Now China, is a bit of a regular when it comes to banning Wikipedia and Wikipedia articles.
In fact, China has banned Wikipedia in its entirety multiple times in the past and will probably do so again in the future as well.
They can probably do so because, in China, they have their own version of Wikipedia which is written completely in Chinese.
Wikipedia Wants To Stop Governments
It makes sense that Wikipedia wants people to come to the website and read its content regardless of the fact that the content there might conflict with their own beliefs or views.
Hence, Wikipedia has made a determined effort to prevent governments from blocking it.
In fact, it has become one of the top priorities of the site to solve the problem of web censorship.
The Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit, is the key player when it comes to making sure that Wikipedia does not get blocked overseas.
To help Wikipedia in its “noble” cause, researchers at the Harvard Center for Internet and Society have come up with a new research.
Of course, we can’t discuss all the contents of the research.
But in a nutshell, the Harvard report says this:
If Wikipedia wants to solve the problem of government censorship then it will have to solve it via encryption.
We should always give credit where credit is due and Wikipedia gets the credit for adding support for Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure, or HTTPS, way back in 2011.
But what is Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure?
That is obviously a lengthy topic.
For the zealots, we have this.
And for the regular folks, we have this:
HTTPS is just a close cousin of HTTP.
In fact, it is just like its predecessor HTTP but it comes with encryption.
That’s all we really need to know about HTTPS as far as this report is concerned.
Why Use HTTPS or Even HTTP?
Simply put, websites rely on technologies such as HTTP and HTTPS to transfer data.
Websites transfer data from the website’s servers to the browser which exists on the user’s computer machine.
Here is the difference between HTTP and HTTPS as far as the above-mentioned scenario is concerned:
With HTTPS enabled, when your computer machine tries to connect to any given website, the browser will specifically ask the website server to identify itself.
After that, the website server will comply and will then send a unique public key (its own public key) to the user’s browser.
The browser will then use that unique public key to create a session key of its own. It will then encrypt it.
Then, the browser-created session key is sent back to the website server.
The website server decrypts the sent session key with its own private key.
In this way, all online data that is sent to and from the browser and website server is secure via encryption.
The data is secured for the entire duration of the session.
If you don’t care about the process at all, then just know this:
HTTPS blocks governments all around the world (along with other entities) from monitoring and tracking which specific pages on Wikipedia visitors are looking at.
And it makes sense too.
Governments want to know what people are doing all the time so that they can make an important security decision.
Marketing companies want to know the same because they want to serve people more relevant ads.
And while both of these objectives look so innocent, they all require the end user (us) to give up our privacy and anonymity.
Time For Some Examples
IF there is no encryption and anonymity, the government of any country would have no problems in monitoring any user.
In other words, governments will be free to know which page a particular user is browsing on Wikipedia at any given moment.
With encryption though this changes.
The government can still know that the user is visiting Wikipedia.
But it can’t know which specific page the user is reading at any given time.
If a user was reading a Wikipedia entry on Tiananmen Square then all that the government would know is that the user is on Wikipedia.
It will not any anything about Tiananmen Square.
That’s the power of encryption at its best.
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Wikipedia is secure now.
But this wasn’t the cause if we go back just a couple of years ago.
Wikipedia only started to offer its online knowledge service to the user via HTTP and HTTPS back in 2015.
As you can probably imagine, for countries such as Iran and Pakistan, this was bad news.
Bad news because both countries had previously banned specific articles on Wikipedia.
And they were able to do so because Wikipedia was served using HTTP technology rather than HTTPS technology.
Now, even though those articles are banned in the HTTP version of Wikipedia, the HTTPS version is unhindered.
In other words, people can access the full version of Wikipedia via HTTPS.
Wikipedia Changes To Only HTTPS
Wikipedia only offered HTTP and HTTPS till June 2015.
After that, the foundation axed HTTP access.
And started to offer Wikipedia in only HTTPS.
Users now had no option but to access Wikipedia with HTTPS.
Why did Wikipedia axe the HTTP version?
Because according to the people behind Wikipedia this was the best way to ensure that restrictive governments did not interfere with the site’s operations and mission.
Governments will be governments.
And that means they will continue to protect their citizens against what they believe may hurt them.
Wikipedia isn’t exactly considered an accurate source of information especially when it comes to subjects like religion and culture.
With HTTPS though, these governments had no choice but to rethink their strategy on Wikipedia censorship.
HTTPS protocol destroys all forms of government censorship.
Governments now know this and hence cannot really afford to block individual entries on Wikipedia.
Either governments will have to block the whole of Wikipedia (which might be a great thing who knows) or they will have to allow full access to it.
Wikipedia Has Its Critics Too
Critics have argued for long on how Wikipedia’s plan to force governments to allow full access to the website to their citizens is flawed.
Some have said that this plan would only result in governments implementing more brutal and comprehensive censorship methods.
Others say governments might do away with all the trouble and ban Wikipedia outright.
And they may have a point.
Afterall, some access to online information is better than no information, to begin with.
Not that the information on Wikipedia is useful especially when it comes to subjects such as politics, religion, and social studies.
Nevertheless, it seems like Wikipedia doesn’t really care what its critics think of its HTTPS plan.
It has stayed its course with resolve.
What has made Wikipedia so adamant on its encryption policy?
The answer is Jimmy Wales
Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia (more specifically he is the co-founder of the online encyclopedia) and is a strong advocate for technologies such as encryption.
Harvard researchers new research study only strengthens Jimmy Wales’s intuition.
Encryption is indeed important.
In fact, full encryption has resulted in an actual decrease in government censorship incidents all over the world.
How Did The Researchers Come To Know About Wikipedia Censorship Decrease?
Wikipedia made the switch and after it made the switch ( June 2015).The researchers at Harvard first deployed a computer algorithm.
This algorithm detected abnormal changes in the site’s (Wikipedia) global online server traffic.
Researchers had the algorithm do this for a full year.
The project started in May 2015.
Researchers then collected the data and combined that data with a historical analysis of the request history made on a daily basis.
This process was carried out for over 1.7 million articles.
Then get this.
Those 1.7 million articles weren’t all in English.
In fact, we now know, those articles were in over 286 different languages and were from the year 2011 to 2016.
Researchers did this to accurately determine possible government censorship incidences.
When a full year passed and the researchers had collected enough data, they then launched the second phase of the project.
This phase came in the form of a client-side analysis.
Harvard researchers tried to access different articles but they did so in a very particular manner.
Researchers accessed articles which were in different languages.
They did this to mimic the real life situation where a resident would see a particular Wikipedia article in a random country.
Needless to say, the process was extremely and painstakingly long.
Because researchers had to go through the process of manual analysis of possible government censorship events.
It did pay off in the end.
Researchers found that Wikipedia’s simple act of switching to HTTPS from HTTP had changed something.
That change came in the form of less government censorship events.
Moreover, the switch to HTTPS positively affected the number of government censorship events on a global scale.
Researchers found this out by following a simple method.
They compared server traffic before
Wikipedia Will Probably Have To Do A lot More Work
That is, if it wants to stop all governments from ever blocking its content again.
One thing is for sure, government all over the world are not going to just sit down and let Wikipedia have its way.
The likes of China along with Uzbekistan and Thailand are still adamant and continue to block parts of Wikipedia.
As mentioned before, sometimes these countries block Wikipedia in its entirety.
Researchers can, of course, continue to do their research and complete it in due time.
But will that affect what governments do as far as censorship is concerned?
Harvard researchers certainly think so and hence remain optimistic.
There is little doubt in the fact that Wikipedia’s shift has indeed decreased government censorship.
But will this initial trend grow looking forward into the future?
No one really knows.
But if encryption means easier accessibility to knowledge for the whole of mankind then there is little to criticize here.
What do you think? Should governments just allow Wikipedia to “serve” its citizens with no regards to local customs and culture?
Or should the pursuit of knowledge take precedence over all else?
Let us know your thoughts by using the comments section below.
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