Wikimedia Foundation executive director Katherine Maher says the current era of fake news and encroachments on freedom of expression make Wikipedia more important than ever, as she gears up for her first trip to Australia for Melbourne Knowledge Week.
Ms Maher, who took the top role in June 2016, told The Australian the internet was a very different place now to when Wikipedia started 15 years ago.
“The internet is more commercial, information is more consolidated and it’s also a lot more fragmented,” she said. “People are increasingly unsure about what they can trust and what they know on the internet.”
However, she’s confident that things will get better over time.
“People are more connected across the globe, literacy rates are rising globally and the costs of access to information are decreasing. So our vision has never been more important, because accessing free, reliable information is critical at this point in time, the conversations we want to have with each other around critical decisions for our society,” she said.
Based in San Francisco, Wikimedia has almost 300 employees, hosts sites such as Wikipedia and also engages in advocacy, in particular fighting for a free and open internet. “We are anti-censorship and pro-privacy,” Ms Maher said, pointing to a 2015 lawsuit Wikimedia filed against the US National Security Agency thatquestioned the agency’s mass surveillance practices. That lawsuit failed, but Ms Maher said the organisation has not relented in its focus on protecting freedom of expression.
“Right now we’re concerned about encroachments on people’s freedom of expression. It’s not about one administration or another, and it’s a trend around the world we’re seeing,” she said. “And this is coming not just from governments but also the private sector. We’re seeing a net decrease in individual privacy and this is having a chilling effect.”
US President Donald Trump this year appointed anti-net neutrality figure Ajit Pai to chair the Federal Communications Commission, paving the way for a replacement of the Obama administration’s landmark net neutrality rules. Those rules prohibit broadband providers from giving or selling access to speedy internet, and essentially reclassified internet service providers as utilities. Mr Pai wants to overturn that reclassification.
For Ms Maher, her priority is a conversation on the future of Wikipedia and “to make sure we truly reflect the world”.
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