Jimmy Wales is an American Internet entrepreneur known for his role in the creation of Wikipedia, a free, open-content encyclopedia launched in 2001. He serves on the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, holding the board-appointed "community founder" seat. In 2004, he co-founded Wikia, a privately owned, free Web-hosting service, along with Angela Beesley.
Together with Larry Sanger and others, Wales helped lay the foundation for Wikipedia, which subsequently enjoyed rapid growth and popularity. As Wikipedia expanded and its public profile grew, Wales took on the role of the project's spokesman and promoter through speaking engagements and media appearances. Wales has been historically cited as the co-founder of Wikipedia but he disputes the "co-" designation, asserting that he is the sole founder of Wikipedia. Wales' work developing Wikipedia, which has become the world's largest encyclopedia, prompted Time magazine to name him in its 2006 list of the world's most influential people.
Born in Huntsville, Alabama, Wales attended a small private school, then a university preparation school, eventually attaining a bachelor's degree and master's degree in finance. During his graduate studies he taught at two universities.
Question: Has Wikipedia run into any problems with the Chinese government?
Jimmy Wales: Well, we have-- for a long time we were completely blocked in China for more than two years. All languages completely blocked. Just recently they unblocked the BBC and then soon after that unblocked the English Wikipedia. I’ve heard conflicting reports just in the last couple of days-- I got an email from somebody who said that we’re blocked again in China, but I haven’t confirmed that yet. So I think it’s a little touch-and-go at the moment. But that’s only the English. The Chinese language version is still blocked. So yeah, it’s a problem. And it’s a problem that-- it’s an interesting one, because when I’ve been in China, it turns out the firewall [ph?] is very, very porous. Young people all know how to get around it. I mean, it’s just like-- it may be illegal to download illegal music or movies in the US, but the kids do it, right? So it’s the same thing there, right? People know how to get around the firewall. Young people, technical people, journalists. And they do. They get around it. But still, that’s not to say that it’s no problem, right? Because lots and lots of people don’t bother. They’re afraid to try, or whatever. But the other aspect of this that I think people don’t really recognize nearly enough is that a big part of what I think is going on with the internet censorship in China is not really about control of political information; that’s’ a part of it; but if you wanted too control political information, well with respect to Wikipedia, you would probably just block certain pages. You wouldn’t block the whole thing. But there’s also a certain element of protectionism going on, and so we just recently had the head of Baidu made a statement that Chinese people shouldn’t use Wikipedia, they should use Baidu’s Baiduwiki [ph?], Baidupedia [ph?]-- it’s their version-- which they copied all of Wikipedia and didn’t give us credit, and all those kind of classic things that people criticize Chinese companies for, but his remarks about it struck me as being very nationalist in nature. In other words, “Don’t use this foreign thing. Use the homegrown Chinese version.” Whereas, we don’t really view it in that light. I mean, he tried to paint Wikipedia as an American project. But we’re very global. I mean, the only thing I can think about is it’s a movement of the people of the world., and we would prefer It if China would participate in that. And certainly Chinese Wikipedia is very, very healthy, and we think it’s successful. And you know, and I also don’t mind him making that argument, right? He can make that argument, but it’s a little disingenuous, I think, to make that argument when you realize that, “Gee, it’s a little silly to be making that argument when we also have Wikipedia completely blocked in China.” It’s like, “Are we really that much of a threat that you still have to talk down about us, even though we’re blocked?” Because I think if were available, then people would use ours and not Baidu, so, but anyway, it’s the kind of thing that I think it’s a policy mistake for china. I try to be pretty low-key about it, because I actually want this to change in the long-run. And so it’s-- for us it’s just a matter of really staying consistent and saying, “Look, you know, Wikipedia is not a hotbed of radicals who’re trying to overthrow the Chinese government. It’s mostly about the moon and tigers and Pokémon and whatnot. So, <laughs> it’s not really the kind of thing that we think they should be blocking. We’ll see.
Recorded on: 4/30/08