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Democratic Media

From Wikimania 2014 • London, United Kingdom


Media, democracy and law are intimately interlinked. Laws and votes can't be directly bought, but media can.

"Media performs an essential political, social, economic, and cultural function in modern democracies. In such societies, media are the principal source of political information and access to public debate, and the key to an informed, participating, self-governing citizenry. Democracy requires a media system that provides people with a wide range of opinion and analysis and debate on important issues, reflects the diversity of citizens, and promotes public accountability of the powers-that-be and the powers-that-want-to-be."[1]

When the legal framework provided by Creative Commons open licenses was united with widespread internet access and wiki software, a wholly new process of collaborative content production was born. It has been so successful that Wikipedia is now one of the most consulted media sources in the world, without a single penny spent on marketing its content. Its political relevance was starkly drawn in January when South Korean activists launched balloons carrying USB sticks loaded with Wikipedia across the border into North Korea, but its impact is relevant worldwide, even in relatively liberal states where the state media are accused of manipulating political outcomes through selective coverage and centralised education allows for the possibility of political indoctrination.

Even in a state welcoming of more widespread and democratic engagement in its politics, the specific mechanics of how to mediate discussion between hundreds of thousands of contributors to produce useful outputs is far from solved.

"Wikipedia stands out as a twinkling beacon of hope. As a technology, process and ethos, Wikipedia has been able to turn the variety of views and contributions of Wikipedians into meaningful and often constructive deliberation, finally producing a single, unified result - the Wikipedia entry itself. This is an intricate process, and, impressively, one that has been self-developed, organically and democratically, by the Wikipedians themselves... The scale of this achievement is breathtaking."[2]

In the UK, The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has established a Commission on Digital Democracy to report to Parliament in early 2015 with recommendations on how Parliament can use technology to better represent and engage with the electorate, make laws and hold the powerful to account. As part of this, an experiment is currently underway to see whether Wikimedia can be used to directly crowdsource policy and evidence to be debated in Parliament.

Bill Thompson

Barbican Hall: Sunday 9:30 – 10:00

"We have a responsibility for what the internet is, has been and may become that we cannot escape. We built this thing, our actions shaped it, and we are accountable for what it does.

"It also means that we have the power to reshape it, if we choose to do so. And if we haven’t left it too late."

Bill Thompson has been working in, on and around the Internet since 1984 and spends his time thinking, writing and speaking about the ways digital technologies are changing our world. A well-known technology journalist, he is Head of Partnership Development in the BBC's Archive Development Group, building relationships with museums, galleries and other institutions around ways to make archive material more accessible, and a Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art.

Bill appears weekly on Click on BBC World Service radio, writes a monthly column for Focus magazine and is an advisor to a range of arts and cultural organisations on their digital strategies. He is a member of the board of Writers' Centre Norwich, Britten Sinfonia and the Collections Trust, and was for many years a Trustee of the Cambridge Film Trust. He built and manages the Working for an MP website.

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Ryan Merkley

Barbican Hall: Sunday 10:30 – 11:00

“The number of estimated licensed Creative Commons works is half a billion. But also 350 million photos will be uploaded today to Facebook and 100 minutes of video are uploaded every hour to YouTube. The world of content on the Web today has exploded, and CC needs to tackle apace the issue.”

Ryan is a national leader in public policy, open government, and digital communications. He is the incoming Chief Executive Officer of Creative Commons, the global nonprofit that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools. Ryan was Chief Operating Officer of the Mozilla Foundation, the nonprofit parent of the Mozilla Corporation, creator of Firefox. Ryan previously worked as Director of Corporate Communications for the City of Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games, and initiated Toronto’s Open Data project.

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Carl Miller

Barbican Hall: Sunday 11:30 – 12:00

"It is striking how technology - transformative in so many areas of our lives - has had such little political impact. The daily democratic reality for people in the UK today - how we express consent and have a say in decisions - hasn't really changed for generations. The frustration is that the Internet has made us more powerful as individuals, but not as citizens.

"Of all the Internet's children, Wikipedia stands out as the one most able to conduct that vital alchemy of turning dissenting views into collective consensus. It may show us a way towards a better, more representative politics, fit for the digital age."

Carl is co-founder and Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

Carl focuses on finding ways to understand social media in its full scale, scope and complexity by combining sociology, anthropology, computer science and artificial intelligence. He is interested in the creation of social media science as a reliable, powerful and ethical discipline that can inform our responses to social and political problems.

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Heather Ford

Barbican Hall: Sunday 12:00 – 12:30

"Any serious government propaganda machine includes Wikipedia editing. It’s only a matter of time before they improve."

Heather Ford is a leading authority on the role of Wikipedia as a source of breaking news, how Wiki editors write history as it happens. She is currently studying a Doctorate of Philosophy at the Oxford University Internet Institute on the subject. As a co-founder of Creative Commons South Africa, Heather has a rich background, working as a researcher, activist, journalist, educator and entrepreneur in a variety of digital fields including the Association for Progressive Communications, as Executive Director of iCommons and notably the Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board. In 2011, Heather was named as one of Africa's 10 most influential women in science and technology.

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Danny O'Brien

Barbican Hall: Sunday 14:30 – 15:00

"I've spent many years protecting and defending journalists who are in dangerous regimes and I've also worked on free culture and technology, and it's only very recently that these two things have combined - that increasingly the people who are the most important people in times of civil war or in oppressive regimes who are actually working to make change and actually have the tools to do that have become technologists, as well as human rights activists, and journalists.

"Not everyone is happy when someone speaks up online. Attempts to chill free speech can go from lawsuits to stalking, from takedowns to arbitrary arrest. We can build technology that helps make free expression a reality for billions, but what happens when our fellow speakers are targeted for reprisal? And what happens when our institutions get caught in the crossfire?"

Danny O'Brien has been an activist for online free speech and privacy for over 15 years. In his home country of the UK, he fought against repressive anti-encryption law, and helped make the UK Parliament more transparent with FaxYourMP. He was EFF's activist from 2005 to 2007, and its international outreach coordinator from 2007-2009. After three years working to protect at-risk online reporters with the Committee to Protect Journalists, he returned to EFF in 2013 to supervise EFF's global strategy. He is also the co-founder of the Open Rights Group, Britain's own digital civil liberties organization.

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Dan Gillmor

Barbican Hall: Sunday 15:00 – 15:30

"The promise of the open Internet was power and control at the edges of the networks, where anyone could communicate and innovate. The emerging reality is control being pulled back to the center by corporations and governments. Traditional journalism and citizen media alike, including Wikipedia, is threatened by this trend."

Dan Gillmor is author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People (2004 and 2006; O’Reilly Media) and Mediactive, and teaches digital media literacy and promotes entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums talks

Free and open source software

MediaWiki, the software that runs Wikipedia, is an open source project. This means that the source code is openly shared, allowing anybody with the interest and skill to adapt the software voluntarily and without permission. The software is distributed for free under GNU General Public License version 2, and its accompanying documentation is released under a Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 license (some of it is public domain).

This openness is a vital prerequisite to the digital collaboration that drives Wikimedia’s development. Any aspect of Wikimedia’s software or content can be adapted by anyone at any time. The development process is collaborative; institutional gate-keeping is relatively limited and democratic in principle. This allows for an experimental, consensus-based approach that is adaptable and responsive to changing requirements.

Free licensing

Free content can be distributed under a number of different license statuses. These licenses regulate how the content can be used, and under what conditions it can be shared. Wikimedia primarily makes use of GNU and Creative Commons licenses – which allow anybody to use, adapt and redistribute the work on a similarly open license – alongside materials that have entered the public domain either by donation or through the expiration of historical copyrights.


With a focus on software development, the GNU Project aims to enable users to autonomously take control of their computer devices by making software ‘free’ in four senses of the word: free to use, free to share, free to study and free to modify.

Creative Commons

As a direct alternative to “all rights reserved” copyright, Creative Commons – sometimes dubbed “some rights reserved” – is a license created out of a desire to create a richer public domain outside of the control of proprietary content owners. Creative Commons licenses are designed to allow publishers and creators to clearly communicate how they want a work to be used and distributed; whether they want to be attributed as the author, whether they will allow other people to make money from their work, whether they want the work to be adapted by others, and under what terms such adaptations should be distributed.

Most of Wikipedia's text and many of its images are co-licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). This means that anybody can freely share and adapt the content, as long as they attribute it to the correct source and distribute any derivative works under the same license.


GLAM is a large movement within Wikimedia that works with Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums. It covers a wide range of activities, including workshops, a Wikipedian in Residence program, and helping collections to easily donate digital material to Wikimedia Commons. GLAM outreach range from the formal to the personal, even at the same institution: in 2010 the British Museum offered a monetary prize for featured articles on British Museum-related topics,[3] and now encourages one-on-one collaborations between contributors and curators.

Collaboration between GLAMs and Wikimedians helps institutions to ensure that their online collections of digitised archive material are discoverable to anyone who might wish to consult them. This is one of the key challenges facing Open Access collections: it is one thing to be theoretically available to all readers regardless of means or institutional affiliation, but with so much information available online it is hard to reach the right community without a number of strategies for enhancing visibility. Connections with the Wikimedia community can be an important component of an institution’s online discoverability strategy.

GLAMs and Wikimedia both benefit immensely from collaboration. Wikipedians in Residence at these institutions bring the local Wikimedia community into contact with public educational institutions, often organising workshops with large groups of highly engaged contributors. This contributes to a lively culture of learning at physical sites, as well as in cyberspace. Bringing contributors to into established institutions also ensures that as Wikipedia develops, it makes use of the best resources available at sites across the globe.

Getting involved

Attend Wikimania, or consider volunteering! If you can't wait till August, check out the fringe programme.


  1. Robert W. McChesney, Making Media Democratic, Boston Review
  2. Carl Miller, Wikipedia is a masterclass in digital democracy, Wired
  3. British Museum Featured Article prize