One of the central tenets of Wikipedia is that it guarantees its users anonymity, ensuring that no one will be persecuted for reading, writing, or editing its articles.  

As Gregory Kohs pointed out in the Examiner, it was this notion of privacy that many users felt was threatened when the site’s founder, Jimmy Wales, posted the following comment on his talk page on June 25:

“In the media there have been reports of user accounts used on various tech discussion sites by Edward Snowden ... It seems highly likely to me that he would have edited Wikipedia...Do we have any evidence of that, or suspicions about that?”

Wikipedia editors were concerned, essentially, that Wales and the Wikimedia Foundation might, as one commenter put it, take “proactive measures to assist the government in prosecution, even when not required to do so...That is an extreme stretch of the privacy policy.”

The section of the privacy policy in question states that outing a Wikipedia editor’s real name is “an unjustifiable and uninvited invasion of privacy and may place that editor at risk of harm outside of their activities on Wikipedia.”

Wales told the Daily Dot that his intentions were misinterpreted: “I was asking whether the issue had been discussed anywhere. I was wondering whether anyone had made the connection, given that there are widely published reports of particular usernames that he used on other sites.”

At the heart of the concern over outing Snowden on Wikipedia is the broader notion that the organization, through Wales, would be willing to engage in surveillance operations like the National Security Agency’s recently leaked online surveillance program, PRISM. As a study published by Springer put it, “People participating in [Wikipedia] provide and adapt content, and divulge personally identifiable content in the process, thus leading to (potential) privacy issues.”

“I think that what people are reading is deeply personal and a fundamental requirement for freedom of expression under the 1st Amendment is also freedom to read without being tracked by the government,” Wales said. “We haven't been asked to participate in any such program, but I think I can safely say that we would absolutely refuse to do so, and if forced by law, we would protest against that law.”

While seemingly benign compared to our emails, chats, photos, and videos—-all more or less accessible to the NSA—the ideas we choose to engage with betray fundamental aspects of our beliefs, perhaps even more so than the things we post on social media. Historically, these ideas have always existed in opposition to authority. Recall that Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—a book exploring racism in the nineteenth century—was once banned from certain American libraries as crass and objectionable. 

This is not to imply that lawmaker’s control over ideas is an outdated practice. In fact, according to the American Library Association, among the 10 most challenged books of the 1990s was not only Huckleberry Finn, but Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate Wars and JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Further down the list is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. And as recently as a few months ago, the unedited diary of Anne Frank was challenged in Michigan. Ideas about race, gender and sexuality are perpetually on trial not only in courts but—perhaps even more importantly—in the commons.

Wikipedia has brought this commerce of ideas into an unprecedented public space. And as revelations about the NSA’s Internet surveillance programs like PRISM continue to surface, it is becoming increasingly clear that if abused, Wikipedia could divulge a wealth of information about the ideas with which Americans engage. As the Springer study put it, “providers of the platform have full access to user data, regardless of any privacy settings. There are no technical obstacles barring them from access to user information.”

Wales, who as a cofounder and “benevolent dictator for life” of Wikipedia is arguably in control of this information, asserts that he will not violate that trust. “Speaking personally, I'm deeply concerned about the allegations about the NSA's surveillance program,” he said. “I believe it is time for the government to explain the program in more detail to the American people.”

Wales went on to elaborate on the possible use of Wikipedia in surveillance programs. “Obviously we'll resist within the scope of what the law allows. If there's a legitimate court order or subpoena, we have to decide on a case-by-case basis how to handle it.”

Of course, Google and Facebook, too, seem to have resisted within the scope of the law. And that hasn’t stopped PRISM. Wikipedia, in that sense, might already be out of Wales’s—and everyone’s—hands. 

Photo via Wikimedia Commons