Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 44 (2019) 351–359  ©2019 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation  http://doi.org/10.22230/cjc.2019v44n3a3417


“Hacking in” Wikipedia Zero in Angola

Sophie Toupin, McGill University

Sophie Toupin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. Email: sophie.toupin@mail.mcgill.ca .

ABSTRACT

Background A few years ago, a number of people in Angola were banned from editing Wikipedia Zero because they were concealing large files in the Wikimedia feature, from where the files could be shared in a private Facebook Zero group.

Analysis To interpret this case study, the concept of “hacking in” is proposed as part of an open media and technological infrastructure.

Conclusions and implications  This short case study focuses on the ways in which users shape media infrastructure. These users tried to bypass the restricted conditions imposed on them first by a technology and a media ecology that increasingly resembles a walled-off garden and second by Wikipedia Zero’s associated discourse, which reinforced its designer’s intentions for the technology.

Keywords New media; North-South; Post-colonialism

RÉSUMÉ

Contexte  Il y a quelques années en Angola, un certain nombre de personnes ont été bannies d’éditer la plateforme Wikipedia Zéro puisqu’ils dissimulaient des fichiers volumineux dans la fonction Wikimedia, après quoi ils partageaient ces fichiers dans un groupe privé de Facebook Zéro. 

Analyse  Afin d’interpréter cette étude de cas, le concept de “hacking in” est proposé pour comprendre une infrastructure médiatique et technologique ouverte. 

Conclusion et implications  Cette courte étude de cas focalise sur la manière dont les infrastructures médiatiques sont façonnées tout autant par les utilisateur.e.s que les concepteur.e.s; des utilisateur.e.s qui tentent de contourner les restrictions imposées à elles et eux par une technologie et une écologie des médias qui ressemble de plus en plus à un jardin clôturé et, deuxièmement, par le discours associé à Wikipédia Zéro, renforçant ainsi les intentions de ses concepteur.e.s en matière de technologie.

Mots clés  Nouveau média; Nord-Sud; Post-colonialisme


Introduction

In 2014, an Angolan Wikipedia editor named Mantunis was asked to stop uploading copyrighted material through the Wikimedia uploading function (Wikimedia Forum, 2016). Below is an online exchange between two Wikipedia editors regarding why these files were deleted and the reasons why they were uploaded.

16:34, December 13, 2014, Wikipedia logs

[The file] which I deleted originated from TV. Most likely files deleted by other administrators have similar origins (internet, TV). I highly recommend you to read [Wikipedia] Commons: Licensing before making new uploads. You could ask help [from the] Portuguese-speaking administrator. 

EugeneZelenko
  (User talk:EugeneZelenko/Archive21, 2016)

22:17, December 13, 2014, Wikipedia logs

Hello EugeneZelenko,

I do not speak English, only Portuguese, I personally do not want to delete my Wikimedia files because I need those files, because I have a Facebook community where I publish the link to those files and the community downloads, [b]ecause here in Angola the internet is very expensive so Wikimedia is the only way to post files, and they get downloaded. I hope you understand me and consider this.

Thank you very much for your attention.

Mantunis (alias Cebola Da Cash Birdman)
  (User talk:EugeneZelenko/Archive21, 2016, author’s translation)

15:57, December 14, 2014, Wikipedia logs

Sorry, I don’t know Portuguese :-( Sorry [to] disappoint you, but [the] Commons [does not provide] free hosting for materials of questionable copyright status. Please read [the] Commons:Project scope and Commons:Licensing. Feel free to find [an]other hosting service for your community. 

EugeneZelenko
  (User talk:EugeneZelenko/Archive21, 2016)

Following a series of copyright violations, a number of Angolans were banned from editing Wikipedia Zero, which is an initiative to make Wikipedia accessible to individuals living in the Global South, where internet access is scarce or unaffordable (Koebler, 2016). Wikipedia Zero means people can access a text-based internet through their mobile phones without having to pay for data usage, but not multimedia content whether pirated or not. In December 2014, Eugene Zelenko, Russian-speaking Wikipedia editor, discovered a series of violations to copyright material uploaded on Wikimedia and reported it to the Wikimedia forum, alerting the Wikimedia Foundation and the larger Wikipedia community (Wikimedia Forum, 2016). The Wikimedia Foundation is not responsible for the content produced on and by the Wikipedia community, but support and advice the editors’ community when needed. The Wikipedia editor account Mantunis was one of 24 aliases linked to the account and IP address of Cebola Da Cash Birdman. Using multiple aliases, Cebola Da Cash Birdman had succeeded in getting around numerous account bans and had uploaded more than 415 files to Wikimedia—a repository where multimedia files are stored—via Wikipedia Zero.

Wikipedia editors and the Wikimedia Foundation determined that certain individuals were using the Wikipedia platform as a vehicle to share copyright content in violation of its rules. It was discovered that some individuals were concealing large files (Portuguese-language television series, images, songs, music videos, etc.) through the Wikimedia feature, from where they could be shared in private or public Facebook groups. The Wikipedia Foundation announced in February 2018 that it would discontinue its Wikipedia Zero project in 72 countries (Wikimedia Foundation, 2018). While the organization said that its adoption had decreased, it is also important to acknowledge the push back from activists and scholars who identified Wikipedia Zero as a violation of internet neutrality or more forcefully as a form of digital colonialism (Koebler, 2016; Taylor, 2016). Net neutrality is the idea that all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and governments should treat data as the same, without charging users differentially or limiting access to certain content, platforms, or applications.

Case study

This short case study addresses two related and interconnected research questions pertaining to the conceptual and material aspects of technological and media infrastructures. First, to what extent does the Wikipedia Zero platform allow some individuals to transcend the mode of use intended by the platform’s designers? Second, to what extent can this so-called illicit practice be understood as a creative adaption, a tactic that might be labelled as “hacking in?” By answering these two questions, the aim is to complicate a practice that could have easily been seen as simple piracy.

Two conceptual frameworks are used to shed light on these questions. First, it employs infrastructure studies (Larkin, 2008) to discuss how a logic of control or policing is imposed on a technology and on a practice often regarded as illegal. Then it explores the ways in which media and technological infrastructures have embedded controls and power, and how those controls may be subverted or adapted to particular contexts and conditions. A frame of creative adaption is used to explore this ephemeral communication practice, which might be considered a form of “hacking in” in the Global South. Indeed, some Angolans seem to have been creatively adapting to a situation that initially gave them very limited free access to the internet. Through play and technical savvy, they were able to adapt a platform such as Wikipedia Zero to gain wider internet access. 

Methodology

Researchers must be sensitive to questions of positionality and privilege. Particularly, they must be concerned by the fact that most studies on and about Africa have been and are being written by scholars from outside the continent, who are not Africans. In this sense, it is important to take a solidarity approach to writing, and extend such method to making visible stories from the continent in addition to making a more thorough analysis of such practice. Moreover, this research is informed by Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (2012) who, in Theory from South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa, claim that “it is the Global South that affords privileged insight into the workings of the world at large” (p. 1). Shifting the centre of gravity toward the Global South allows to focus attention on innovative everyday practices that are engineered in response to a Western and capitalist modern order rooted in structures of power and extreme inequality.

This study relies mostly on secondary materials such as books, academic articles, and a few specialized online newspaper articles written in English or French. Moreover, it draws upon insights gleaned from visiting and lurking around Wikipedia and Wikimedia logs (including logs in Portuguese), in addition to reading Wikipedia listservs where members of the Wikipedia editors’ community have written about the practice of “hacking in.” The methods used here can thus be characterized as a critical reflection on and an interpretation of this communication practice and the larger surrounding context. Finally, the scope of this specific research is limited as it is not part of a larger research project, but is a particular interest of the author, whose PhD dissertation and data collection in Southern Africa focuses on liberation technology.

Media and technological infrastructures

To shed light on the first question, this article focuses on the ways in which users can attribute values and meanings different than those originally inscribed to technology, suggesting both a different construction and relationship to media and technological infrastructures. It draws on Brian Larkin’s (2008) understanding of infrastructure, which he sees as both a technical and conceptual object. He highlights the ways in which political exteriority is crucial to making infrastructures work; after all, objects function with reference to the meanings attached to them. Such meanings can, however, vary greatly depending on the positionality and situatedness of those developing or using the infrastructure.

For Larkin (2008), infrastructures are initiated with intentions in mind, but the material component of these objects may still fail or break down, regardless of concept or intention. To illustrate his point, he gives the example of the ways in which Hausa tribe blacksmiths in Nigeria saw railroads built by the British state in the early twentieth century as a source of raw material. Instead of understanding railroads as a form of progress or advancement in the circulation of goods and people, the Hausa tribe saw them as sites of material resources for their own projects and immediate benefits. The British railway police saw the Hausa’s actions as theft, counter to their own colonial interest, and began to exert force to control such actions. The “theft” of raw material was so disruptive to the British that policing it became one of the railway’s most important tasks. By using the raw materials for their own benefits, the Hausa tribe disrupted the meaning behind the development of railroads.

In talking about a form of control or policing, Larkin (2008) explains how “colonial governments attempted to tie infrastructure to a mode of rule” (p. 247). By organizing celebrations around the opening of a new bridge or a railway, the British colonizers attempted to stabilize the symbolic logic of infrastructure—and thus secure its material persistence (Larkin, 2008). 

Creative adaptation

To further examine the ways in which a media and technological infrastructure is disrupted in its meanings and materiality, this article draws on the framework of what Dilip Gaonkar (2001) calls creative adaptation and what Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga (2015) calls creative resilience. This enables an interpretation of what some Angolans did with technological and media infrastructure as “hacking in.” Indeed, their creative adaption practice can be seen as hacking the intended use and purpose of the Wikipedia media infrastructure by circulating cultural goods otherwise not available for free via mobile phones. This form of hacking is in line with Gabriella Coleman’s (2014) definition of hacking as “a clever technical solution arrived at through non-obvious means” (p. 1) and with that of Lilly Nguyen (2016), who situates hacking in the Global South largely and more specifically in Vietnam, “within the illicit circulations of global commodities” (p. 638). This practice of “hacking in” the intended use of an infrastructure in the Global South can, as Nguyen (2016) argues, be connected to a form of illicit practice or piracy. To that end, Lawrence Liang’s (2014) definition of piracy is helpful: “People create vibrant spaces outside of official plans and spaces … [that] are marked by their high degree of illegality” (p. 58).

What follows is a short discussion on alternative modernities that gestures toward a larger framework of analysis through which one can understand the practice of creative adaptation. Gaonkar (2001) situates creative adaptation as part of an alternative modernities framework. He argues that the enactment of alternative modernities is influenced by the culture and politics of the specific locations they are in. In other words, alternative modernities emerge out of a specific context that is embedded in a larger historical, economic, social, and cultural context. The same is true for Western modernity, which is often understood as being the hegemonic reference point for talking about modernity tout court. As Gaonkar (2001) explains, both alternative modernities and Western modernity can be understood as “cultures.” Gaonkar (2001) also warns us that the dominance of Western modernity is nonetheless deeply ingrained in the rest of the world, since it has travelled through economic and cultural relations (see also Shome & Hedge, 2006). Having said that, both frameworks (i.e., modernity and alternative modernities) are embedded in differing sets of assumptions, which are informed by particular contexts and conditions. Alternative modernities interrogate Western discourse about modernity by emphasizing a context-based understanding and questioning of the present. Such a framework makes visible the cultural, historical, and civilizational aspects that give rise to the context-specific practices that Gaonkar (2001) named creative adaptation. Creative adaptation is not only a way to soften the impact of Western modernity imposed on a people, Gaonkar (2001) suggests, it is also a way to comprehend the multiple ways people question the present.

The concept of creative resilience as developed by Mavhunga (2015) also sheds light on this case study and the concept of “hacking in” as a form of creative adaptation and, to some extent, as a form of creative resilience. Mavhunga argues that in Africa, technological innovation might be less about the technology or the innovation itself and more about the spirit of creative resilience that Africans deploy in times of crisis. To examine this concept, Mavhunga (2015) focuses on healthcare innovation during the liberation movement in Zimbabwe. The innovations he looked at include the creation of healthcare labs in the bush, new types of medicine created as a response to napalm bombing by the Rhodesian regime, and the “self-curing process with emphasis on the restoration of pride in cultural and spiritual identity” (Mavhunga, 2015, p. 298). All of these became the “medicine” against colonial white supremacy. Ultimately, Mavhunga (2015) argues that despite extreme contexts and conditions, “the most important aspect of science, technology, and innovation in this case is not the science, technology, and innovation itself, but the African spirit of creative resilience born of the specificities of struggles people are enduring” (p. 317).

Zero-rating context

Before moving to the analysis based on the aforementioned conceptual frameworks, this article will briefly focus on understanding Angolan users’ short-lived practice of hiding, circulating, and consuming material. This practice needs to be understood in a context of limited internet access, restrictive media, and limited technological infrastructure. Moreover, it is crucial to understand zero-rating as it applies to Wikipedia and Facebook. Zero-rating is defined as a practice whereby mobile phone carriers or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) do not charge for the consumption of data by a user, as long as they are using that data to access a particular set of text-based websites, in this case Wikipedia and Facebook.

Before its Zero project, Wikipedia was providing the encyclopaedia free of charge on USB keys and CDs to those without internet access in the Global South. Facebook also started its Zero version around 2010 (called Free Basics) in a bid to grant limited Facebook access to what it described as the one billion rising (Zuckerberg, 2013). In tandem with many phone carriers in the Global South, Facebook developed a product to import “free,” but limited, internet via mobile phones. Before launching its own Zero version, Wikipedia was accessible through Facebook’s Free Basics as part of an internet bundle that also gave free access to a number of websites focused on health information and weather.

In her ethnographic studies of Wikipedia Zero and Facebook Free Basics in Ghana, Genevieve Gebhart (2016) discovered that most Ghanaians believed these free services were in fact promotions aiming to attract customers. Moreover, she wrote that misinformation about how to access these services was widespread. Furthermore, Gebhart (2016) stressed that knowledgeable users perceived these services—Facebook Free Basics and Wikipedia Zero—as a form of digital exclusion. On the African continent, users’ perception of these services were either misinformed and/or critical (Gebhart, 2016; Taylor, 2016). 

Analysis

How can we attempt to interpret this case study according to the concept of “hacking in” as part of an open media and technological infrastructure? Larkin’s (2008) examination of the colonial infrastructure is instructive for understanding the logic Facebook and Wikipedia Zero tried to impose on the Global South. Infrastructures have values embedded in them, but their users also attempt, whether successfully or not, to recode such values. Over the past decades, the internet has seen a hegemonic rise of “free” platforms. In the U.S., this logic is embedded in a corporate understanding of internet culture. While Wikipedia is different from other platforms (van Dijck, 2013), its digital culture still presupposes an easy access to technological infrastructures and to a particular media ecology. As a result of a restricted environment, practices such as “hacking in” have emerged in a variety of places around the world as an attempt to question and challenge the present. Nguyen (2016) does highlight such a context in her study of how smart phones not available in Vietnam are nonetheless illegally brought into the country and used. She argues that “hacking consists of a strategy for breaking into global techno-culture” and that this practice “was situated amid pervasive desires for closer ties to the rest of the world” (p. 648). From this stance, it was not surprising that tinkerers in the Global South found a way to curb restrictions put in place either by their government and/or the Western giants and their national phone carriers, among others.

The Wikipedia Zero infrastructure being “open” rather than “closed” in Angola enabled a particular category of users to circumvent the initial spirit of Wikipedia. As the Hausa tribe did in the previously mentioned example of the railroad, these users used the media and technological infrastructure to their own advantage, rather than respecting the intended purpose of the infrastructure. By not respecting the intended purpose of Wikipedia, these users were exploiting the open standard of the platform’s design. In other words, they had to hack the system of connective media infrastructures to gain wider access to services that would otherwise be inaccessible. “Hacking in” a locked system, or even an open system such as Wikipedia, points toward an ability to modulate the available infrastructure to the users’ desire and the Facebook Zero (or Free Basics) community they serve.

Those involved in this practice go against the established and default standards and norms related to the prescribed use and purpose of Wikipedia. The exchanges on the Wikipedia logs between Mantunis and Eugene Zelanko highlight this situation. This kind of practice can be understood as a form of creative adaptation that emerges out of a constraining political economy and limited telecommunication infrastructure. Their practices seem to be closer to the decades-long tradition of sharing and selling copied cultural products, such as bootlegged films and albums, in the context of informal street economies in the Global South (Larkin, 2008; Sundaram, 2009). Such media practices have developed in part because of the exorbitant pricing of original content available on cassettes, CDs, DVDs, and now the internet. That pricing is often the same in the Global South as it is in Western countries—in the case of internet access it is often significantly higher—and is therefore financially out of reach for many (Liang, 2014). However, this situation is changing since the mobile price of data bundles has been lowered (Wikimedia Foundation, 2018). Moreover, many writers in the Global South have documented the ways in which the Global North has taken (some would say stolen) all kinds of resources from the Global South, including cultural products. In a world predicated on the continued underdevelopment of the Global South, such practices might be considered as a larger response to the theft of indigenous techniques and practices, and natural and human resources.

Mavhunga (2014) provides an interesting and empowering take on how media infrastructures are creatively repurposed in the Global South. He argues that Africans are not mere users and recipients of technologies (cell phones, computers, Wikipedia Zero, and Free Basics, etc.), but rather “designers” of them. Here the word designer is understood in an expansive way. By looking at the ways in which some users in Angola transform and adapt technological infrastructures within a restrictive environment, it might be possible to better account for old and new practices on the African continent (Mavhunga, 2014). From an existing media infrastructure with open standards, certain Angolan users were able to hide and circulate, for a while, cultural products that would otherwise have been inaccessible. This is reflected in the introductory exchange between Mantunis and Eugene Zelanko, where Manutis says that the internet is very expensive and Wikimedia Zero is the only way to share cultural products.

Conclusion

This emerging and ephemeral media practice not only offers a critique of the prevailing global economy of knowledge in which Wikipedia and Facebook are embedded but also of an internet culture that the middle class in the West—and to some extent the elite in the Global South—might have taken for granted. This short case study attempts to interrogate a practice that could have easily been seen as a breach of etiquette or simply as piracy by introducing some of the complexity and tension that underlines the practices of hiding copied multimedia files in Wikimedia and circulating them through a Facebook group. The aim is to stimulate reflection on how to enrich and productively complicate an understanding about “hacking in” practices of creative adaption within a technological and media infrastructure.

Moreover, the case study suggests some of the ways in which users shape technology—alongside its designers and the culture that crystallizes around it. In some cases, users are trying to bypass both the conditions imposed on them by a restrictive media and technological infrastructural ecology—a site that may exist within the broader internet, but does not truly offer access to it—and by Facebook and Wikipedia Zero’s associated discourse, digital culture, and expected practice, which reinforces the intentions behind the technology. This case study also allows the identification of some of the areas where the global economy of knowledge is susceptible to disruption. Finally, in the face of the arrival and termination of the Wikipedia Zero projects in the Global South, to what extent can Angolan creative adaptations be seen as a form of culturally and politically specific alternative modernity that takes shape within internet culture and the back end of internet infrastructure? 

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