Larry Sanger remembers the promise of the web. He co-founded Wikipedia in 2001, with the hope that it could sustain a “free and open” Internet—a place where information, dissent, and creativity could thrive. At Wikipedia, he proposed a system of rules that encouraged users to “avoid bias” and maintain a “neutral point of view.”

That Internet is gone.

I reached out to Sanger following the revelation, from my original reporting, that former Wikimedia Foundation CEO Katherine Maher, who is now CEO of NPR, had explicitly rejected the principles of a “free and open” Internet, collaborated with government officials to censor dissent, and spurned the concept of objective truth altogether, in favor of left-wing relativism.

Sanger told me he was shocked, but not surprised.

Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, should prompt champions of the free and open Internet to push back against the rising censorship regime before it is too late.

Christopher Rufo: What are you thinking as you’re watching these statements from former Wikipedia CEO Katherine Maher, who is now the CEO of NPR?

Larry Sanger: I’ve been following your tweets. You’ve kind of shocked me. The bias of Wikipedia, the fact that certain points of view have been systematically silenced, is nothing new. I’ve written about it myself. But I did not know just how radical-sounding Katherine Maher is. For the ex-CEO of Wikipedia to say that it was somehow a mistake for Wikipedia to be “free and open,” that it led to bad consequences—my jaw is on the floor. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised that she thinks it, but I am surprised that she would say it.

Rufo: In another clip, she says explicitly that she worked with governments to suppress “misinformation” on Wikipedia.

Sanger: Yes, but how did she do that in the Wikipedia system? Because I don’t understand it myself. We know that there is a lot of backchannel communication and I think it has to be the case that the Wikimedia Foundation now, probably governments, probably the CIA, have accounts that they control, in which they actually exert their influence.

And it’s fantastic, in a bad way, that she actually comes out against the system for being “free and open.” When she says that she’s worked with government to shut down what they consider “misinformation,” that, in itself, means that it’s no longer free and open.

But the thing is—I’m using the words carefully here—the Wikimedia Foundation doesn’t have an authority in the Wikipedia system: the website, its talk pages, the various bureaucratic structures. It just doesn’t have the authority to shut things down. So, if Big Pharma or their government representatives want to shut down a description of their research of a Covid-critical biochemist, I want to know how that happens. And I think the other people who are at work on Wikipedia, we want to know how that happens.

Rufo: I’ve talked with some reporters who cover “misinformation” and they have noted that Katherine Maher has ties to multiple NGOs that are deeply connected to U.S. intelligence services. Do you have any suspicion that she has been working with American intelligence to shape Wikipedia entries from a distance?

Sanger: I have suspicions. We do know that Virgil Griffith did research on how different agencies and corporations use Wikipedia to manage their reputation. He found that Langley, Virginia, had a whole lot of edits back in 2007. Why would they have stopped that?

I will say this: it’s outrageous, frankly, that a purportedly “free and open” resource, built by the public, built to deliver a neutral representation of the views on every subject, has not just been taken over by the Left, but has been co-opted by and is working with the government—that’s not a thing I would’ve imagined happening 20 years ago.

Rufo: Take me back to that time. What was the vision of a free and open Internet?

Sanger: Everybody had that vision. We didn’t have to have a special vision of a free and open Internet. That was the Internet. That was just its nature. We thought it was always going to be that way. The thing that excited us about the Internet was that anyone could publish anything, as long as it was legal. And the notion of restrictions on free speech was nowhere to be found. In the 1990s and 2000s, Democrats and Republicans were competing with each other to demonstrate how much in favor of free speech they were. But, as a philosopher, I knew that this was not automatic, that it could easily change. We could lose these freedoms.

Rufo: And what do you make of Katherine Maher, as an archetype? She’s against the idea of an objective truth, against a free and open Internet, and sees the First Amendment as an impediment to censorship. What does that represent to you?

Sanger: The fact that she is not immediately hounded out of her job—and she won’t be, I’m sure—shows you how profoundly and how quickly the culture of not just the Internet, but of the United States and the West in general, has changed.

The fact that you had to do some research and surface these videos, that they weren’t immediately caught as smoking-gun evidence of how bad things have gotten, shows you that the attitudes that she expresses are what we expect these days.

I’m at once shocked at what she says, and yet, not terribly surprised, either.

Rufo: In your opinion, what should happen at NPR, given what we now know about its new CEO?

Sanger: If NPR wanted to prove that they were still committed to free speech, to being ideologically neutral, and simply nonpartisan, they would let her go right away.

I don’t expect them to do that. They don’t listen to people like us. They don’t care what we think. But nevertheless, this is an important story because it shows just how cynical it is. It is getting to the point where you can’t accuse people like Katherine Maher of hypocrisy anymore because they’re not being hypocritical. They’re actually saying it out loud: “We don’t really believe in this freedom stuff anyway.”

Photo by Ali Balikci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


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