Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said on Thursday he hopes the online encyclopedia would never have to go dark again, but it would if necessary to protect the Internet from draconian policies that would harm everyday users.
The site played a key role in stopping proposed U.S. anti-piracy legislation in its tracks with a 24-hour blackout in January.
On Tuesday the Russian-language version of the site shut down for a day in an effort to stifle legislation in Moscow that would allow government officials to blacklist and block websites without a court order. But Russian lawmakers still voted to approve the law on Wednesday.
“It at least puts governments on notice that the Internet community cares about these things, and they care enough to actually do something about it,” Wales said.
Wales, speaking at the annual Wikimania conference, said he credits the U.S. blackout, in which bigger players like Google Inc (GOOG.O) and Facebook Inc (FB.O) displayed censorship bars and arguments against the bills on their websites, with strengthening Internet companies’ position to push back against regulatory proposals.
“When I go and visit government officials now, they’re a little bit afraid,” he said.
But ultimately it is up to the online community to decide how to move forward, Wales said, adding that he would like to see the community engage in an open, friendly conversation to define more broadly when the site should protest Internet policy in the future.
Wales said it would be very risky for Wikipedia to get too involved in political issues. But he said the site would take a stand on matters that directly impact its work online.
The online encyclopedia, which is written and edited by volunteers and has an estimated 365 million readers worldwide, took a hard stance against the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and Protect IP Act, or PIPA, in January.
Wales and others argued that the bills, designed to shut down access to overseas websites trafficking in stolen content or counterfeit goods, could undermine innovation and free speech and compromise the Internet’s functioning.
The legislation was a major priority for Hollywood, the music industry, pharmaceutical companies and many industry groups, which maintained that the proposed law was critical to curbing online piracy they say costs them billions of dollars annually.
Wales said that piracy is a serious problem and he would not be opposed to some adjustments and tweaks to existing law to crack down on thieves more efficiently.
“But in doing so, we cannot accept absurd, technologically incompetent, draconian policies that will impact everyday Internet users in a negative way,” Wales said.
He cautioned against legislative solutions that try to lump too many different types of problems together, such as selling counterfeit prescription drugs that can cause death and teenagers sharing songs with their friends.
“We have to really be on the lookout for power grabs in the guise of solving what I think most people would agree is an actual problem,” he said.