This article was published on April 5, 2022

A web3 clone of Wikipedia may help Russians, but it’s dividing the tech community

Decentralization can have drawbacks

A web3 clone of Wikipedia may help Russians, but it’s dividing the tech community

While a brutal armed conflict rages on Ukrainian soil, an information war is unfolding online.

Russia is seeking to control the narrative by muffling dissent. Last month, the Kremlin blocked several social media platforms and threatened lengthy jail terms for spreading “false information” about the invasion.

A series of domestic alternatives to American apps are now being promoted, from RuTube to Rossgram. Critics describe the latter as “absolute shit.”

The next service that may require a Putin-approved replacement is Wikipedia.

Regulators last week threatened to fine the site up to 4 million rubles (around $47,000) if it doesn’t remove “prohibited information” about the “special operation.”

Russians are now rushing to secure the site’s content before a potential ban. In March, the country had almost twice as many downloads of Wikipedia as any other nation.

These fears have caught the eye of advocates for web3, the nebulous term for a decentralized internet built on blockchains.

Building a web3 Wikipedia

Proponents of Web3 argue that blockchain can eradicate censorship. Among the supporters are Swarm, an Ethereum-based decentralized storage platform, and Kiwix, an offline reader for online content.

The pair want to add a mirror version of Wikipedia to a peer-to-peer network that’s always available — even when internet access is restricted.

Kiwix says Wikipedia’s entire collection of 6 million articles with images can be compressed into just 80Gb, which could then be hosted on Swarm as a read-only snapshot.

Instead of storing the content on centralized servers, the data would be distributed across numerous nodes, which makes it censorship-resistant.

“The idea is that we split the big file into chunks, and those chunks are scattered across the network,” Swarm’s Antonio Gonzalo told TNW. “As a host, you don’t know exactly which files you’re hosting, which can prevent sudden takedowns.”

If the main domain was blocked, anyone running a node and connected to the network could still access and share the information. Users would cover the costs via a built-in incentive system enforced through smart contracts.

Some foundations for the project have already been laid. At a March hackathon, participants created read-only versions of Wikipedia and offline search tools for the site.

Some of the ideas, such as Beezim, are very elaborate, including even a search bar. For example, this is the homepage of the offline Wikipedia. Credit: BeeZim
The BeeZIM project won a prize for building a decentralized Wikipedia with an embedded search engine. The tool’s inventor demoed his creation in a YouTube presentation. Credit: BeeZIM

Controlling the narrative

Russia is far from the only country that’s tried to censor Wikipedia, but the Kremlin’s threats have provided a compelling use case for blockchain boosters.

The backers claim a web3 Wikipedia could provide provenance of facts, protection from authoritarian control, and financial compensation for contributors.

The vision has won support from crypto enthusiasts — but not everyone shares their excitement.

Molly White is one of the prominent skeptics. The Wikipedia editor, software engineer, and creator of the website Web3 Is Going Just Great warns that paying contributors will distort the site’s objectives.

“The majority of people contributing to Wikipedia are doing so out of a desire to improve an encyclopedic resource,” she told the Verge. “With web3 you have a whole mix of motivations, including wanting to support a srupecific project, wanting to do good in various broader ways, and just wanting to make a lot of money. Those things can be in conflict a lot of the time.”

White points to another for-profit online encyclopedia based on blockchain: Everipedia. Seven years after launching, the site is largely comprised of content copied from Wikipedia, articles contributors wrote about themselves, and crypto spam. Everipedia also has a reputation for publishing inaccurate information about tragic events.

These worries join more general concerns about web3’s technical limitations, financial backers, and popularity with scammers.

Nonetheless, a decentralized Wikipedia could provide a useful service. It certainly sounds more appealing than a prospective Putinipedia.

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