2018-01-11
#rp18 Speaker Katherine Maher: We gotta fight for our right to (free) knowledge

Of the five most successful websites in the world (Google, YouTube, Facebook, Baidu and Wikipedia), only one is non-commercial – and has a female CEO. Entries on the go-to website encompass over forty million encyclopaedia articles.
 
Of course, we’re talking about Wikipedia. And directing wikimedian Katherine Roberts Maher, the influential women who stands alongside the likes of Mr. Schmidt, Li or Zuckerberg. Friends describe Katherine as Wikipedia come to life: open, always looking to expand her knowledge - and full of interesting fun facts.  

As a longstanding advocate of free and open societies, as well as an expert on the implementation of technologies for social impact, Maher is more than able to take on the above-mentioned “Brotopia” (Emily Chang). She has lived and worked around the world, dealing mainly with the effects of technology and innovation on human rights, governance and international development cooperation.
 
While she does confirm the prevailing realisation, which became especially highlighted last year, that the web is currently a quite inhospitable structure that exists as a “(…) highly commercialised place where privacy is illusory, where platforms and information tend to be highly concentrated, and where information is algorithmically presented to you with tremendous bias based on what it is you looked at last.”. But sticking your head in the sand is not an option. As always, nobody is going to save us but ourselves. 
 
Current public discourse tends to concentrate on the older, and well-known, problem of fake news and, in doing so, oversees the root cause: commercial interests that create a virtual space in which misinformation not only thrives, but is rewarded. Maher’s free business consulting tip for Facebook & co: The prioritisation of information, instead of showing users the posts that have been clicked the most, thereby reducing the amount of false information and news.

Tech for Good – that may sound about as “Silicon Silly” as the new (and very dumb) “raw water” trend to a few of you, but maybe it’s a small leftover of that initial promise of the internet to offer free, unhindered information that got stuck somewhere in the hyperlink structure.

And, overall, it may be just a drop in the ocean, because Wikipedia is also facing problems of its own: the conduct in the discussion forums can sometimes leave a lot to be desired, and those who are contributing are less diverse.
 
In this way, Wikipedia’s knowledge repository faces the same challenges as the other big technology platforms or companies: information verification, resistance against comprehensive surveillance as well as (further) state intervention, protection of privacy and the commitment to close the gender gap. 

There is, however, another way. An exciting example is the “Wikimedia 2030” strategy

which tested a reorientation that finally enabled a shift of the spotlight onto the wide array of technology and network-based service users outside of the Western context. A focus that remains very rare among companies based in Silicon Valley. The Valley may dream of connecting the world, but it seems to increasingly be isolating itself. Even the 2030 horizon highlights that Wikimedia only reaches a fraction of the world’s population and remains a project of the global North.

The importance of seeing the bigger picture became an essential part of Katherine Maher’s outlook early on, when she began planning to become active in organisations connected to American foreign policy: She was studying Arabic in Cairo when George W. Bush ordered troops into Iraq. This led to a change of heart: She instead began working for HSBC in London, Toronto and Düsseldorf. She subsequently went to the United Nations and the World Bank, where she was involved in organising technical resources and solutions for problems ranging from HIV and AIDS treatment in East Africa to malnutrition in Malawi. Being able to draw on the experiences of her past career steps means that Maher can easily envisage global perspectives from her couch in San Francisco, a concept that also constitutes the foundation of the Wiki-structures. 

The most important criterium for the assessment of Wikipedia entries is their relevance: volunteers have actually been arrested for their entries. For example, there’s the case of a Frenchman who wrote about a signals intelligence gathering operation, and was then arrested by security authorities for betrayal of confidential information. The government in Turkey has restricted access to the website so that they can censor political entries. In the US, Wikimedia supports a lawsuit against the National Security Agency (NSA) and their “Upstream” programme, to ensure that users can keep accessing information online without being tracked. This was done in light of studies, such as one published by the Berkeley Technology Law Journal that found out that the searches for “Terrorism” related Wikipedia articles dropped by almost 30 percent following Snowden’s whistleblowing revelations.

“The biggest threat to free information is ourselves and our consumerism”, Maher explains. “We forget how valuable knowledge is to the development and furthering of our society. Accuracy of information, continued inquiry, this has always propelled us forward. If we lose value and appreciation for that, then some of the other structures start to crumble.” Trust and transparency are the elements that Maher sees as Wikipedia’s strongest selling point. Indeed, the website users can track and update the editing process at any time, investigating the myriad of changes and misinformation. 

We’re balling our activist fists and look forward to hearing Katherine Maher’s insights and outlooks for Wikimedia 2030, the role of knowledge and the future of the open web. And we promise to keep a spot open for her on the Karaoke stage, because on top of everything else, she’s got pipes!

Twitter: @krmaher
Wikipedia: Katherine_(WMF)