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Wikipedia founder defends decision to encrypt the site in China

Wikipedia founder defends decision to encrypt the site in China

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This summer, Wikipedia switched to encrypted HTTPS for all users, preventing ISPs from seeing which pages a user was visiting or injecting traffic into the stream. But while the change offered new security for visitors, it also offended Chinese censorship authorities, which had grown accustomed to blocking individual pages on the site. The Chinese language version of Wikipedia has been blocked since May and many see the site's move to HTTPS as an extension of the rift between Wikimedia and the central Chinese government. But today, Wales pushed back against the criticism, publicly defending this summer's decision and the organization's general policy toward China in a long interview with the anti-censorship group Great Fire.

"I think our approach has been better than anyone’s," Wales says in the interview. "I am most proud that we have always been 100 percent uncompromising, and better than any other major website on these issues." Wales also pushed back against criticism from free speech groups, which he sees as fundamentally misguided. "Free speech activists should back off from tactics that involve naming and shaming people who are trying to do the right thing," Wales said.

"Our approach has been better than anyone’s."

Wikipedia isn't the first site to balance the benefits of Chinese access against the risks of appeasing the country's web censorship authority. Google has had a complex relationship with the country, withdrawing Google Search entirely in 2010 after public disagreement with authorities, but returning more recently with plans for a China-specific app store. Skype has also drawn criticism for operating Tom Skype, an identical government-friendly version of its service, although the service has undergone changes in recent years.

According to Wales, the decision to move to HTTPS was inspired in part by the Snowden leaks, which convinced him that transmitting unencrypted data to Wikipedia users was simply too risky. "We have known for a long time that there was a problem with clear text transmission of Wikipedia," Wales said, "but like many people, we didn’t realize how bad the situation had gotten until Ed Snowden’s revelations." At the same time, that decision has carried grave consequences, as many countries simply refuse to allow citizens access to encrypted sites. "We have always understood that it would likely lead to the complete block of Wikipedia in some countries," Wales said.