“Mother Teresa of the Internet” Sue Gardner On The Future Of Global Cyberspace

The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which was written in 1996 by John Perry Barlow of the EFF is kind of a manifesto. And one of the things that John Perry Barlow was imagining when he was thinking about the future of the internet was, he wanted it to be something that was freed from the constraints of the physical world. He wanted it to be a thing that would be borderless. And I think that years later, that’s exactly what we saw happen. It came to fruition with Wikipedia. Wikipedia was geography-collapsing. People coming together across borders and working together in real time and collaborating to build the encyclopedia. And I think that more recently, we’re beginning to see that changing. We’re beginning to see, especially in the past 2-3 years, is the reassertion of geographical borders on the internet. And that concept is sometimes called balkanization or simply the fragmentation of the internet. As an internet user, we are located in the geography where we are in in that moment in time and it’s not easy for us to see the experience of other people,” – Sue Gardner


Sue Gardner is a Canadian journalist, former executive director of Wikimedia and has earned the nickname, “Mother Teresa of the Internet” for her unwavering drive to ensure that people have equal access to the information they desire and need on the internet. She has been ranked as the 70th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine and has contributed to raising Wikipedia’s revenues from $2 million to $60 million.

This past week in Helsinki, Finland as part of the global tech conference Slush 2014, Gardner presented an informative and inspiring talk on the future of the global internet, covering a number of censorship issues that have taken place and made headlines throughout the past few years. From China to India, the UK to Finland, examples of this internet fragmentation, that is evolving into a more prominent issue, were highlighted in order to draw awareness to the dwindling control we have over the information available to us and the ever changing transition of the global cyberspace.


1. China – June Fourth Protests. “If you are in China, in mainland China, you can’t see this article. It used to be the case that inside mainland China, you couldn’t experience Wikipedia at all. So Wikipedia and many Western websites were entirely blocked in China, up around the time of the Beijing Olympics. And in the run up to the Olympics, the Chinese authorities lessened the restrictions to some degree. But just unblocking Wikipedia doesn’t unblock all the material on Wikipedia and much of the material is not visible to people inside China. You cannot see a lot of the Western internet.”


2. India“If you are physically located in India, you are not supposed to see this version of the Indian map. What this is, it is the map of India as defined by the United Nations. The borders with Pakistan and the borders with China are disputed and there are different views of reality of who owns what of that territory. If you’re inside India and you are using Wikipedia, you can see this version of the map, even though technically, it is not legal for Wikipedia to show it to you. But if you are inside India and you are using any other web services, if you are using for example Google Maps or sites like that, what you are going to see is the map of India with the borders of India as defined by the Indian government. You can’t access this.”


3. UK“This is a very bad heavy metal album from 1976 from a group called The Scorpions. They are a German band and this album is called Virgin Killer. In 2009, a coalition of internet service providers in the United Kingdom decided that that image was child pornography and they didn’t think that anybody in the UK should be allowed to see it. So what they did was, they blocked access to that Wikipedia article and for four days, the people of the UK freaked out and screamed and yelled and talked to the media about how they didn’t want Wikipedia blocked for them. They wanted to be able to see everything that was on it. So that coalition of ISPs backed down and they reinstated people’s access to see this article. But when they did it, what they said was, the only reason they were backing down is Wikipedia is enormously popular. It’s too big, it’s too important and people love it too much. They still think that this image shouldn’t be visible to people inside of the United Kingdom. And they continue to block access to all types of material that they think is not in the interest of people in the UK for them to see.”

sonera4. Finland“An anonymous person wrote and published a book about Sonera, which was at the time, the national telecom that has since merged with the Swedish national telecom. And the book was about alleged financial, bad practices at Sonera and it was published on the internet and later published in book form. Last May, the European Union issued a ruling, which was intended to be privacy protective and the idea of it was, if you had done something that was bad in your history and it was years and years and years later, you should have some ability to remove information from the internet so you were not constantly haunted by a mistake that you had made in your youth. So they created a process whereby people could petition certain search engines to have results removed from search engines if they were harmful to you as an individual. When I’m at home in my house in San Francisco, I can Google Sonera book and I can get this article on the Finnish Wikipedia. If I’m inside Europe and I do that same Google search, this doesn’t come up for me. It’s been removed from the Google results, because somebody petitioned to have it taken down. We don’t even know who petitioned, because Google is not supposed to tell you. So what that means is, a peace of your country’s history is lost to you. You can’t see it anymore.”

From there, Sue wasn’t shy about diving into her reactions and opinions in regards to balkanization and hopes for a global internet in the future.

“So, I think it used to be the case that we all had one internet experience for the most part and the countries that were walling themselves of like China, North Korea, we hoped in the early days that these countries would join us and come into the free and open internet. But I think that what we’re seeing today instead of that is, we’re seeing various institutions and authority figures, sometimes governments, sometimes ISPs, or industry group, what we’re seeing is them excercising authority over what we are able to see online. There’s a number of reactions that people could have to that. You could think that, ‘I don’t really care about the Sonera book, it’s not that big of a deal to me,’ or you could think that ‘I’m anti-censorship but I also believe that other countries are different and maybe I’m not the one that should say what another country should do or not do on the internet.’ And I get that. But in my view, I think that what my gut tells me to do is, I think that our original version of the internet was the correct one and I think that it’s one that we should stand up for today. The reason that I say that is, when I look at something like Wikipedia. It is purely of a product of the free and borderless internet. It’s a place where people can come together across geological boundaries without any impediments and they can work together. And they do. Arabic people working with Jewish people on the articles about the Middle East. We see people coming together. Not just constructing an Encyclopedia, but learning from each other. I think that’s what the internet is for. And I think we should stand up for that.”

Twitter: @SuePGardner

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