London: For an internet pioneer, being passionate about the industry’s current challenges comes with the territory. And the one thing Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, cannot stomach is the regulatory limitations being imposed on what can go online.
Wales has been a vocal critic of a 2014 ruling by the European Court of Justice, on the right of individuals to request the removal of information from Google’s search engine. “The Right to be Forgotten affects the fundamental right of public access to information,” said Wales, who is also an adviser to Google. “As it’s currently being interpreted today, The Right to Be Forgotten tasks private companies with determining what information to remove from the public eye.
“Private companies should not be arbitrators of the freedom of expression.”
As for Wikipedia, marking its 16th year of operations, Wales is trying to script the next stage of evolution for the online information portal. Wikipedia is operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in San Francisco.
“Unlike companies like Google, it’s a relatively small organisation with roughly 300 people,” said Wales, who spoke to “Gulf News” from his London office. “I actually am not a staff member for the Wikimedia Foundation, though I do serve on the Foundation’s Board of Trustees.
“In that role I help guide the organisation’s leadership and where we are headed as a movement. Overall, I would describe myself more as an advocate and dedicated member of the Wikimedia community.
“I care deeply about where we head next, but I am one voice among many who care about the future of Wikipedia.” And how will a post-Wales Wikipedia look like? “Will the child survive the father? Yes, but he will always remain the father. Wikipedia is bigger than any one person.
“Our community of editors — tens of thousands of people from around the world — is at the core of what makes Wikipedia possible. I have no fear that Wikipedia will outlive me and not just survive, but thrive. I could never have built Wikipedia on my own.”
Wales emerged as one of the most influential entrepreneurs of the internet age thanks to Wikipedia, launched as an English language website on January 15, 2001. In August, Wikipedia had 8,000 articles and by September, it reached over 13,000.
Wikipedia English hit the 2 million article mark in September 2007, making it the largest encyclopedia ever assembled, surpassing the 1408 Yongle Encyclopedia, which held the record for almost 600 years. Today, Wikipedia has over 5.3 million entries and 40 million articles in more than 250 different languages. It packs in 18 billion page views and nearly 500 million unique visitors monthly.
According to Alexa internet, a web analytics firm, Wikipedia ranks among the world’s most popular websites, after Google, YouTube, and Facebook, but ahead of Yahoo!, Amazon, and Twitter.
On what it means to have an army of readers — as well as doubters wanting to trash his project — “One great thing about Wikipedia is that it improves over time. The community of volunteers works every day to add, update, and improve the information to make sure it’s something you can trust, and that you know where the information comes from.
“I think that today most people understand that Wikipedia has come a long way, to the point where it’s become something many of us rely on in our daily lives.”
In the Arab world, Wikipedia is better known for its Arabic encyclopedia, launched in 2003. Arabic remains the fourth most popular language worldwide (after English, Chinese, and Hindi).
The Arabic Wikipedia is maintained by volunteer editors who have collectively written more than 450,000 articles on the site, making it one of the top 20 languages within the Wikipedia universe.
“We’ve seen high levels of participation on Arabic Wikipedia just in the past few years; this includes the second annual WikiArabia three-day conference held last March in Amman, organised entirely by volunteer contributors,” Wales said. “The Arabic Wikipedia community has also been involved in bringing Wikipedia into the classroom, where students use it as a tool to learn important skills like referencing sources, writing, and critical thinking.
“Nearly 10 per cent of featured articles on Arabic Wikipedia have been edited by students.”
And for the record, the highest rated information within Wikipedia is German. “Due to strict policies and a culture of quality, they do a great job. I think this shows that even languages with a smaller number of speakers (100 million people speak German) can do well.”