Jimmy Wales is perhaps most famous for co-founding the world’s largest repository of human knowledge: Wikipedia, and the underlying Wikimedia Foundation. It’s perhaps one of the biggest decentralized efforts to produce and edit content around the world as well.
Having been part of the creation of the Internet’s most compelling use cases, Jimmy Wales has strong thoughts on the future of the Internet, encryption, human rights issues, Web3, cryptocurrencies and bitcoin. I sat down with him at Collision Conference in the summer of 2022 to discuss — what follows is a copyedited transcript of our conversation.
What are your current thoughts on an Internet that seems more censorship-prone, a more adverserial environment? I think a long time ago you wrote about some Wikipedia volunteers from authoritarian regimes like Hungary and elsewhere, and I’m wondering your current thoughts on the environment we’re dealing with now, and what can be done in advocating for encryption?
There are really fundamental issues, and they’re ultimately the fundamental human rights issues around the ability for ordinary people engaged in the local conversations, dialogue, discussions about how to improve the world and how to improve their lives. You’ll occasionally see, it’s sort of a fad that comes and goes, the idea that encryption should be banned or that’s the simplest kind of version or encryption should have backdoor keys or something like that. […]
And, you know, the thing that I always remind people is that encryption — you can’t ban math, The algorithms are out there, they’re well known and it’s pretty straightforward to implement. So the idea that we’re going to move away from encryption isn’t even a legitimate policy option.
And even if it were, it’s definitely not a good idea. Because the bigger issue, which everybody is really dealing with and coping with right now is security on the internet needs to be much stronger.
Encryption is absolutely fundamental, any sort of security framework is. And, you know, we see today the importance of encrypted communications, peer to peer — families in Ukraine and Russia, contacting relatives, talking openly about what’s going on there with privacy is absolutely critical.
What do you think is the best way to approach this argument towards getting policy people, especially national security people, on this argument?
I mean, it’s tricky, because they often don’t really understand technology very well. They have their particular problem that they’re trying to solve and certain things that used to be possible are simply not coming back and will never be possible again.
And so the idea that you might sort of in a very centralized way tap into some mafia person’s home phone and listen to their conversations by you know, climbing the pole and putting something on there. Like, that’s just not going to happen. They’re using encrypted messenger apps of all kinds.
They miss the loss of that capability, right. But that’s life, like, you know, like, technology moves on and so the things you used to be able to do you can’t anymore.
I think for me, the important thing is that the general public doesn’t necessarily understand technology all that well, nor should they, it’s not their job. I do think a lot of policymakers are not doing their job very well by failing to really dig in and understand technology.
For the general public, and you know, the kinds of arguments you know, the think of the children type of things — I think have to be countered with compelling narratives so people can understand.
You know, I talked about, you know, when Wikipedia moved to HTTPS, we used to be on HTTP. So, encryption is one of the things I talked about is the importance of — imagine a young person in a very conservative authoritarian society, who has questions about human sexuality. And they really don’t need anybody spying on their connection. They’re trying to learn something. Who knows where it’s gonna lead?
And the idea that all your web browsing should be transparent to the authorities doesn’t seem like such a great idea thinking about someone who is thinking they might be gay in Iran. And they just want to research, they’re gonna learn more. It’s a real human rights issue. And so I think explaining it to people of the benefits is really cool because a lot of people are like, I’m on Whatsapp with my mom and I don’t really have anything to hide with that. I don’t have anything to hide is not really a compelling argument when you dig into it.
What do you think about the future of the Internet?
So I’m really intrigued by a lot of what’s going on in the Web3 space but also skeptical of a lot of it. I mean, right now, it seems to be in bubble like conditions. You know, where there’s a lot of stuff going on that probably doesn’t make sense in the long run. Happy to see people testing and exploring ideas, but some of it’s not gonna work.
But the things that I do think are interesting are concepts of DAOs, distributed organizations to new ways of thinking about lightweight partnerships — this extending even to sort of fairly casual groups of people. I think that’s interesting. I don’t know what we’re gonna see develop in the space, but I’m intrigued by it.
And I’m interested in — I actually do think there is something in the concept of a digital wallet, if I can explain what I mean by that. If you can imagine 5-10 years in the future that your web browser or your mobile device or whatever, you actually can deposit $100 into your web browser, and just spend as you browse the web, buying something for $2.
It’s much like credit cards, right? Not in any newfangled currency, but in normal currencies, dollars. Canadian dollars since we’re in Canada, Pounds, euros, whatever. But that idea of cash in the browser, which is independent of banks, sort of independent of —it’s just like cash, like cash in your pocket, right? I think that’s super interesting, and potentially a real game changer for lots of things.
And, okay, well, why that rather than just having a credit card in the browser, which we already have, and I think there the answer is going to be if we can get (the we meaning technologists but not me personally) the transaction costs down. So every time you you’re using PayPal or a credit card, you know, a couple of percent for the transaction that goes to service providers or banks and everything like that.
Now, if you can imagine a way that I could send you $20 to buy something, some piece of content or a subscription to the local newspaper, whatever. And suddenly, the transaction costs are down to 1/10 of 1%. It’s suddenly going through a traditional bank — it’s silly and suddenly, that gets super interesting. That actually, I think that could be huge.
And we’re not there yet. Still, transaction costs are enormous on blockchain based claims. But I do think that’s interesting. You know, the ability to send and I say $100, because I think initially, you’re not going to, at least in the model I’m envisioning, put your life savings in your web browser. Too many risks.
But you know, just like you don’t walk around with your life savings in your wallet. What do you have in your wallet, 20 bucks cash, and less cash than we used to have but we still do. So I just think that’s interesting. I think that that is where I see a definite mass market use case of encryption and digital assets that I think could be quite compelling.
What are your thoughts on cryptocurrencies/bitcoin?
I have a lot of different interests in the space. So as you can guess from what I’ve just said, I’m really interested in lowering transaction costs. So I think as long as we’ve got transaction costs as high as they are now, it makes it really hard to move on to certain mass market use cases.
And I’m intrigued as well by Ethereum
You know, I think right now one of the, I mean, literally like the last two weeks, we’re seeing the unfolding of a bit of excessive exuberance, or irrational exuberance today around the sort of derivative products, you know, the DeFi stuff — different things are hedged with other things and it’s quite non transparent and then suddenly something big blows off and the contagion effect across different platforms can be substantial.
And this is, you know, in some ways, it’s new and in some ways, it’s not new at all. You know, we in the US, for example, there were banks that issued their own notes.[…] Yeah, the Wildcat banks and all of that, and no surprise what happens is some bank gets overextended and their currency collapses and that’s fascinating, but not necessarily something new.
But just because it’s old doesn’t mean us humans — we often make the same mistakes over and over. So I’m not sure where it’s going really, I mean, I think it’s very interesting.
I’m wondering based on what you talked about — reducing transaction fees — what you think about the Lightning Network?
Elizabeth Stark is a very good friend from the old days. No, it’s really interesting. I think that kind of thing that’s really focused on scalability and transactions is really what it’s all about, because, you know, I haven’t been paying that much attention to, for example, gas fees on Ethereum but they’re definitely higher than that. And they’re quite high and they have to come down a lot in order to make a lot of use cases real.
What are some stories on digital privacy and security stories you want to highlight?
Yeah, I mean, those are, those are the ones that I’ve been talking about. There’s obviously all kinds of different use cases. And I mean, actually, one of them is very interesting, which is much less dramatic, right? But it is one that I do tweet about from time to time because it irritates me.
So sitting in the UK, where and it’s EU law, but I guess it’s imported into UK law so it’s not really about UK versus EU. Due to GDPR, a fairly large number of US news sites don’t accept traffic from Europe, because GDPR purports to be globally enforceable, and the cost to comply with GDPR for a small town newspaper in Alabama is too high for them to even care or bother. They don’t want to get in trouble and they don’t want to do anything wrong.
And so they just say sorry, we don’t accept traffic in Europe because the revenue they’re earning from — how many people in Europe are reading the Decatur daily newspaper? Decatur is a small town outside my hometown. The answer is not enough for them to care about.
That sort of thing is is increasing the fragmentation of the web and there’s a — I need to look it up — there was a guy who was doing an ongoing report on how many newspapers were not reachable from Europe. And there’s something like 800.
And you know, I worry a lot about the balkanization of the internet. But I also I view it with a sort of a slight slight optimism in the sense that, you know, there’s an old saying, which I don’t think I would endorse fully but it’s a good saying, which is that the internet interprets censorship as a fault and routes around it.. And I don’t think that’s completely correct, because a lot of censorship efforts are reasonably effective, but I do think that the more you make it, you know, like, do I believe sitting in London where I live that small town newspaper in Alabama is a threat to my data privacy? No, I do not.
I think Facebook, which is regulated by GDPR, probably is, right and so that means a lot of people will find it much more interesting and appealing to take technical measures.
So as I understand it, the top, I don’t know how many places, of apps being downloaded and installed in places like Russia are VPN, circumvention type of apps. And that’s really interesting.
And in a way I’m like, oh, good, because people really should be more concerned about censorship, they should be concerned about when you see a government like Russia broadly overreaching in the middle of a war and well, actually, that makes their population more resilient in the sense that they’re going to, you know, they haven’t blocked Wikipedia and they haven’t blocked Youtube, but I think in part because they know, the minute you block Wikipedia, then you’re gonna get a lot more VPNs going because people don’t think Wikipedia is extremist content. And they like it, they use it. And it’s like, the breaking of the Internet. It’s like don’t break Wikipedia. So I’m a big fan of that type of technical measure to avoid sort of bad policy decisions.
The same thing happened in Hong Kong as well.
Yeah, I’m sure. And I do think, you know, the reason I’m not so fully endorsing that [Internet routes around censorship saying], I will say, is, when a government has a relatively light touch, they can successfully divert the population away from certain content, you know, just because people are lazy.
You know, also people are lazy that sounds critical of them. But I mean it in the way programmers are said to be lazy, it’s good. You thought of a better way of doing something. Yeah, but then also people are lazy and fearful. They’re like, oh, if I’m seen downloading some funny software, is that gonna make me look suspicious?
It’s like well, no, it basically everybody who you know has done it, they can’t arrest the whole country. So I think that’s helpful.