Editor’s Note: Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia and a board member of the Wikimedia Foundation. In 2015, the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, sued the NSA over the agency’s mass surveillance of international communications. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed the scope and scale of the National Security Agency's massive surveillance program
Jimmy Wales: We should pardon Snowden because he was critical to reinstating privacy as a core value in our society
Wikipedia is founded on a bedrock principle of neutrality, seeking to describe all relevant sides without taking a political stance. As an individual, I, too, try to stay out of most political debates – except where they directly impact my personal passion for the free flow of information. This is one of those times.
When I founded Wikipedia in 2001, the Internet was a place where ordinary people could freely create and share with one another. Wikipedia emerged from that egalitarian spirit, as a community committed to the free exchange of knowledge. Our mission was and continues to be to collect the sum total of all human knowledge and make it available to everybody in their own language.
Since its founding, Wikipedia has become one of the most popular websites in the world. And we zealously guard the privacy of our users, both the 75,000 people who write the encyclopedia and the half-billion people who read it. In 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed the scope and scale of the system of mass surveillance that had been built by the National Security Agency and other national security agencies, we were horrified.
It is thanks to Snowden that we can now participate in an informed and democratic debate about how the US government subverted the power of the Internet in the name of mass surveillance. As a result of what he disclosed, people began to realize their privacy had been massively eroded over the past decade, and not just by the NSA. They recognized that their personal information was being collected, stored, analyzed and shared. Text messages, emails and phone records they thought were private were actually up for grabs, easily accessed by the US government either directly from major tech companies or by tapping the cables and switches that comprise the Internet’s “backbone.” And all of the surveillance was done without a warrant.
That is why I’ve signed onto the campaign asking President Barack Obama to pardon Snowden. Without him, ordinary people around the world would still know little of the growing dragnet stifling the Internet’s enormous potential for good.
As a result of Snowden’s actions, the Internet has become safer and users are better equipped to protect themselves. Since the disclosures began in 2013, the number of websites moving to HTTPS to encrypt traffic has skyrocketed. (This includes Wikipedia and US federal government websites.) Popular messaging apps like WhatsApp have adopted end-to-end encryption, and apps like Signal, which was used only by the highly privacy-sensitive, have become more popular.
Some of the world’s biggest tech companies have stood up against government attempts to enlist them in surveillance operations. Nowhere was that more clearly on display than earlier this year, when Apple refused FBI demands that it insert malware into an iPhone, which would have weakened its technology for everyone.
But what may be even more important than legal reforms and technical changes is the public debate Snowden instigated. His disclosures brought about a change in consciousness, reinstating privacy as a central value, and newly incentivizing the protection of information activists and dissidents abroad. Young people in the United States are more judicious in what they publicly share online. Activist groups like Black Lives Matter are taking pains to protect their communications. And the United Nations has recognized that encryption is vital to the protection of global human rights.
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The many positive developments catalyzed by Snowden can’t fully undo the harm that mass surveillance has done to people’s creativity and free exchange of ideas. We know there has been a chilling effect. People’s behavior online has changed, and writers worldwide are engaging in unprecedented levels of self-censorship.
That said, a brave young American whistleblower has given us the most important tool in our fight to reclaim the Internet: knowledge. Snowden acted out of a love of the Internet and its promise as an open space for collaboration, sharing and experimentation. I’d like to think that if I had been in his place, I would have done the same thing. For his act of conscience, he deserves our overwhelming appreciation.
Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia and a board member of the Wikimedia Foundation. In 2015, the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, sued the NSA over the agency’s mass surveillance of international communications. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.