There has been a recent change in Australia, with the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 passing into law. This post is a bit of background on the relationship between Wikipedia and copyright, aimed at local users of free content, such as Wikipedia users and editors.
For those in the US: This is a bit like a watered-down, Australian version of SOPA, which allows rights-holders to have websites taken offline. In 2012, Wikipedia users voted to black out the English Wikipedia for 24 hours in protest.
So will Wikipedia be blocked in Australia?
In short, no, because Wikipedia content can be used freely.
The thing which distinguishes Wikipedia from other encyclopedias is the way it deals with licensing. Wikipedia editors release their content under a free licence, which lets anybody use re-use it, modify it, and even sell it, as long as they attribute the source. This is why every Wikipedia article has this text in the footer:
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply.
The new law allows rights-holders enforce copyrights more strongly, by having a court issue an injunction to take sites offline. Because Wikipedia doesn’t host or index infringing content, it’s going to remain accessible. It’s safe to stop printing your favourite articles now!
Wikipedia is not copyrighted then?
Copyright violations are not tolerated on Wikipedia, but this does not mean that nothing on the site is copyrighted — this is a very common misconception!
Editors own the copyright to their content, but it’s legal to re-use it with proper attribution. This model ensures that Wikipedia will always be free, since nobody can “go solo” and claim ownership of all that text. You can read a lot more about how Creative Commons licensing works from our friends at Creative Comons Australia.
If you want to find out who wrote an article, you can use the “History” tab to view every edit since the beginning of time. In Wikipedia’s case, this is circa 2001 (well ok, January 2002 is the oldest revision I can find).
What if Wikipedia did get blocked in Australia?
That would be a nice hypothetical to consider, except that Wikipedia is already blocked in some locations, so there’s real data out there. For example, Wikipedia is blocked in mainland China, but the Chinese Language Wikipedia thrives, with over 814,000 articles. Its global community includes some editors who are behind the firewall.
In purely practical terms, Internet filtering doesn’t work very well. Computers are quite good at sending information to each-other (including via other computers), and there’s not a whole lot more to the story than that.
The Net treats censorship as a defect and routes around it.John Gilmore
Many Australians will be familiar with another form of rights-based restriction in the form of “Geo-blocking“, which prevented media-hungry local users from accessing online streaming services. Many thousands were able to sign up anyway, showing that the general public is happy to side-step a block in order to buy something.
What about sources?
Sites that Wikipedia would typically link to as sources are not likely to be blocked in Australia either. You need to cite your sources, not link to an infringing copy of them!
A word about Metadata
A more concerning bill was passed earlier this year, and that’s the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2015, which effectively requires ISP’s keep a record of which sites you visit.
This metadata (where the traffic comes from, where it’s going, and when) can tell you a lot about a person. In an environment like Wikipedia, where many users edit anonymously, the community should be concerned about this powerful collection of information falling into the wrong hands.
Even unsophisticated data analytics could identify a Wikipedia editor from a customers’ metadata. For example, many users would access an obscure source immediately before adding it to a citation, and this pattern could be easily used to match a Wikipedia account to an ISP customer account.
Data breaches do happen, so you should be concerned about your information accumulating, regardless of its intended purpose. In the past 18 months, news articles have covered ISP’s which published customer data online in a spreadsheet, accidentally submitted it to the white pages, had their networks accessed by criminals, and had their customer database offered for sale on twitter.
Many large websites, including Wikipedia, now use “HTTPS by default“, meaning that your computer is asked to speak securely to the website. As this becomes more commonplace, the Internet becomes safer, because only the intended recipient will see the message. HTTPS is a Good Thing(TM), but the metadata is extensive, and its mis-use would be damaging.
There wont be a direct impact on free content or Wikipedia because of these changes, but they do take the Internet a step backward. For anybody in Australia, the storage of metadata presents a risk. Net time there is a data breach at an ISP, two years of customer metadata could be for sale on Twitter next time.
Wikimedia Australia promotes participation on Wikimedia projects and the equality of opportunity to access and participate in the collaborative creation of Free Cultural Works in Australia. Check out our website for more detail.
Image credit: Please see Wikimedia Commons