Wikipedia is good for the Turkish economy and education sector - but it’s still being blocked

I have worked for Wikimedia UK, a local chapter of the Wikimedia global network of charities, for the last four years, but I am writing this in my capacity as a freelance journalist, and someone who cares about Turkish culture and society, and free access to information.

Wikipedia is a collaboratively-written encyclopaedia in more than 300 languages. It is supported and promoted by the U.S.-based Wikimedia Foundation and national affiliates in other countries, but its content is decided by its editors. When the Turkish government blocked access to Wikipedia in 2017, it asked the foundation to censor certain webpages for Turkish IP addresses, in the same way that YouTube or Twitter block certain content at the Turkish government’s request. 

Wikipedia is not like YouTube or Twitter, which make their money through advertising. These commercial companies agree to takedown requests from governments because they want to continue to operate in those markets and make money from advertising.

Wikipedia does not have advertising, and its income is generated exclusively from donations, so it does not have the same incentives to comply with blocking requests as commercial companies. Furthermore, if the foundation started to censor content at the request of one government, other governments would do the same thing, and large parts of the content could become unavailable to people in some countries.

For these reasons, the stalemate over Turkey’s blocking of Wikipedia continued for more than two years, and the Wikimedia Foundation decided to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to pressure the Turkish government to unblock the site. The ECHR granted Turkey an extension to submit its response to the court case, which is due by Jan. 10. But on Dec. 26, 2019, Turkey’s Constitutional Court overruled the decision to block Wikipedia, though the site remains blocked.

The Turkish version of Wikipedia currently has 338,666 articles, compared to almost 6 million on the English version. That is almost 5.7 million subjects that English speakers can learn about which do not exist in Turkish. Certainly some of these subject areas may be covered by the Turkish Reddit-like site Ekşi Sözlük, but as the site’s Wikipedia page points out, “users are not required to write correct information”, and the site is largely unmoderated. 

Working for the UK local Wikimedia chapter, I’m certainly not unbiased. I think Wikipedia is a great thing that helps us all learn basic facts about the world, but I do not think it is perfect. It replicates many of the underlying inequalities found on the internet generally.

More than 40 percent of people on the planet still have no internet access, and cannot take part in conversations in digital spaces at all. When we argue and debate on Facebook and Twitter, we forget that so many people have no voice in our conversations. But Wikipedia is a work in progress, and can be improved. 

That is why I am running a workshop in London this week to teach Turkish speakers to edit Wikipedia. Updates to Turkish Wikipedia have been massively reduced due to the block, and so there are many important subjects that have no Wikipedia page in Turkish. In organising this event, we also want to show that the Wikimedia community is serious about improving Turkish Wikipedia in order to benefit Turkish people and the Turkish economy.

There is currently no substitute for the information provided to Turkish citizens by Turkish Wikipedia. Instead of continuing to block Wikipedia, the Turkish government could work with Wikipedia editors in Turkey, like the volunteers from the Turkish Wikipedia User Group, to improve the existing Turkish Wikipedia.

I have been trying to improve data about historical sites in Turkey on Wikipedia’s sister site Wikidata. The Turkish government does not keep a very good list of all the heritage sites in Turkey, and the one it does have, Evanter, is blocked for IP addresses outside Turkey. If there were better Open Data about historical sites in Turkey, it could be very useful, not just for the educational sector, but also for Turkey’s tourism sector. There are many examples like this for collaborative projects that the Turkish government could support if it wanted to help us improve information about Turkey that is freely usable by anybody.

Blocking Wikipedia means that Wikipedia articles about Turkey are less likely to be contributed to by Turkish people, and silences Turkish voices in online conversations about their culture and history. This is bad for Turkish people, and for people outside Turkey who want to understand Turkish culture. Unblocking Wikipedia would also show that the Turkish government is willing to compromise, and isn’t as authoritarian as many people perceive it to be.

The Wikimedia community isn’t looking to impose Western values on Turkish people. The beauty of having Wikipedia in over 300 languages is that people who speak those languages can write their own encyclopaedia according to their own values and interests. The Wikipedia article on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, for example, is different (and longer) in Turkish compared to other languages. 

Learning to edit Wikipedia is increasingly being seen in the UK as a valuable skill for students at high schools and universities. It teaches them how to research, how to critically analyse information and write about it, how the internet works, and how collaborative media is produced online. Wikimedia’s work with universities shows that students also like the fact that they are sharing their knowledge with the world, rather than just write my essay for me which will be read by their teacher, graded, and then thrown away.

There are so many benefits to be gained from free access to information in the digital age, and rather than seeking to control and suppress non-government media sources, Turkey could create valuable benefits for its education, tourism and other knowledge-based industries by working with Wikipedia, rather than blocking it.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.