What China’s blocking of Wikimedia from WIPO says about copyright and free access
Un article passionnant sur la géopolitique de la propriété intellectuelle (et donc de l’Internet qui en est aujourd’hui le principal véhicule).
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Two weeks ago, the Chinese delegation at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) rejected seven Wikimedia chapters from being accredited as Permanent Observers. The countries supporting China’s decision reportedly include Tajikistan, Pakistan, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Kyrgyzstan, Bolivia, Russia, Iran, and Algeria. With this decision, the Wikimedia chapters of France, Argentina, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Sweden, and Switzerland do not have a Permanent Observer’s seat at WIPO’s negotiating table.
Established in 1967, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is a self-funded agency of the United Nations. Comprising 193 Member States, it deliberates on global standards for intellectual property and copyright policy.
However, this isn’t the first time China has blocked Wikimedia chapters, or its parent organisation the Wikimedia Foundation, from Permanent Observer status at WIPO. As recently as May 2022, China denied ad hoc observer status to six other Wikimedia chapters at WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR). In 2020 and 2021, China blocked the Wikimedia Foundation’s application for observer status as well.
The reason cited by China over the years and this year: ‘the affiliated websites of the WMF [Wikimedia Foundation] contained a large amount of content and misinformation that ran counter to the One-China principle. The delegation hoped that all parties [present at WIPO] would continue to observe this principle, when discussing the issue.’ What this implies: the Wikimedia websites host ‘misinformation’ on Taiwan, the island territory hugging mainland China’s eastern coast. This information possibly challenges the Chinese government’s decades-long belief that there is only legitimate ‘One China’—and truant, secessionist Taiwan is an inalienable part of it.
Why it matters: China’s actions fall in line with its growth as a technologically-advanced global power. Its ability to influence smaller, developing countries to support its domestic censorship policies online could critically impact the nature of discussions that take place at WIPO. This is important because WIPO lies at the forefront of determining global copyright standards—as well as the exemptions to them. It is these exemptions that allow us, as users of the Internet, to freely access knowledge and speech online, rights which fall under the fundamental right to speech in many jurisdictions. However, these ‘limitations’ to copyright enforcement are hard-earned—and are often championed by a variety of civil society organisations observing and influencing proceedings at WIPO. Regardless of the criticisms surrounding Wikimedia and its chapters, blocking them leaves out a powerful lobby for online access to knowledge at the international level.
Perhaps this is why discussions on limitations and exceptions regularly happen at WIPO—these provisions allow members of the global community to use copyrighted content ‘without the authorization of the rightsholder and with or without payment of compensation.’ Civil society organisations observing WIPO proceedings have had a particularly influential role in making the Internet’s information more accessible to its users. ‘
‘With observer status, you can’t vote. But you can inform debates, speak, and meet delegates,’ says Balasubramaniam. ‘Civil society organisations also bring two critical things to the table,’ explains the policy expert. ‘The first is evidence, whether quantitative or anecdotal, on why certain exemptions to copyright laws may be necessary. Secondly, they bring legal arguments and contribute to the development of copyright law at this multistakeholder forum. They do have the power to leverage positive outcomes at WIPO—the point of view of a non-profit organisation usually takes effect when a Member State or regional bloc puts their weight behind it.’
For example, a country’s technological and industrial advancement often appears to accompany a less flexible stance on copyright—and more companies sign up to these views to preserve their own interests. Sinha’s remarks bear special credence for those worried about the future of the ‘free’ world now that China is flexing its muscle at WIPO.
‘Until the 2010s, China was relatively pro access to knowledge,’ recalls the policy expert. ‘This bears many parallels to the first few centuries of American copyright history. America was relatively on the side of access to knowledge because it was developing its domestic industry,’ explains the policy expert. ‘The United States used to pirate texts. 100 years down the line, America established its industries and became a net exporter of copyrighted works versus a net importer of copyrighted works. It then shifted its position from a country that pushed for exceptions and limitations to the copyright regime, to one that wanted the regime to have the maximum protections and rights for creators and rights holders. We see this similarly unfolding in China. As long as it was a net importer of intellectual property, it was much more balanced in its approach to all forms of copyright. And then once its own patent portfolio became bigger than everybody else’s, particularly in the context of 5G technology, it took a u-turn, just like the USA did all those years ago.’
In 2019, China became the top filer of international patents at WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) System, filing 58,990 applications. This dislodged the United States from its 44-year-reign as the top patent filer globally. According to WIPO, over the past ten years, China has filed ‘389,571 patents in the area of AI, accounting for 74.7 percent [sic] of the global total and ranking the first in the world.’ This rapid technological advancement may explain the kind of support it received from developing countries as it blocked the Foundation and chapters—even as that support comes at the cost of speech at WIPO and, potentially, larger access to information online.
‘It’s fairly simple to predict how a country will determine its stance at WIPO: it depends on whether they are net importers or exporters of IP. That answer is then easily overlaid on whether they are developing or developed countries,’ concludes the policy expert. ‘The negotiations that take place at these fora are highly asymmetric. Poorer countries may end up supporting a position of a powerful, copyright maximalist country, not because they’re communists or socialists or capitalists, but because they want access to that country’s markets and capital.’
‘Globally, I see a trend to treat intermediary liability as a panacea for all of the Internet’s problems—and I don’t think that’s the case,’ argues Keton. ‘That’s partly because regulators view these issues keeping in mind the big for-profit tech platform. We build regulation that applies to these huge platforms that have a very top-down approach to content moderation, and it’s possible that these laws don’t eventually consider community-led content moderation efforts. We need to preserve open knowledge projects, because it’s tremendously important that we have the ability as individual citizens to shape our experience on the Internet.’
#Propriété_intellectuelle #OMPI #Wikipédia #Chine #Géopolitique_internet
In that light, embedding necessary discussions on geopolitics within the context of access to knowledge appears to be critical—especially if the public and civil society are serious about preserving hard-earned fundamental rights to speech, expression, and information online. ‘There’s a yawning boredom of late for anything that sounds like principle,’ remarks Iyengar. ‘Even 20 years ago, if you said freedom of speech is being affected, people would be slightly alarmed. Today, this violation of rights is part of our [collective] every day. The shock factor of principles being violated is diminished across the world, and in India, as well. You would much rather hear or write about geopolitics than about principle-based stances.’