Wikipedia Blackout Workarounds

Today (January 18th 2012), Wikipedia's English website was replaced by a large, mostly black notice urging users to educate themselves about the legislation currently being considered in the US.

Briefly, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) are designed to allow websites to be blocked in the US, if there is reason to believe they cause the dissemination of copyrighted material.

However, critics have raised concerns that the new laws could be manipulated to effectively censor all kinds of websites with very few options for their owners in terms of getting them unblocked again.

This article is not focused on that issue - although clearly, if the concerns are well-founded, it is a significant obstacle to maintaining free speech and freedom of access online.

Instead, I'm looking, ironically, at how hard it can be to prevent people from accessing your information - and, in particular, at how easy it is to work around the Wikipedia blackout.

1. Understanding the Blackout

Regardless of which page you load on Wikipedia today, it should look like this:

But it won't look like that straight away - instead, you should see the original page flash up briefly, before the blackout notice appears.

That's because the blackout has been applied as an after-effect, once the page has loaded. For Wikipedia, it's a sneaky way of altering the pages to human viewers, without having to remove the original text content or have pages appear to have been deleted completely.

Wikipedia's enviable search rankings, therefore, should not be affected by today's blackout.

It also means that, most likely, the blackout notice is being added using Javascript, after the normal page content has loaded. This suggestion is supported by the fact that, if you switch off Javascript support in your browser - or deactivate it in your security settings - Wikipedia loads as normal.

There may also be the option to have your browser prompt you for permission to run scripts, meaning you can say 'no' to the Wikipedia blackout and 'yes' to other websites that you trust.

2. Going Global

The blackout is limited solely to English-speaking Wikipedia pages. Change the language, and you should be able to load the entries as normal.

For some people, that will simply mean reading Wikipedia in another fluent language - if you know French, German, or any other major language of the world, today is your time to shine.

If you don't speak another language, there's always the option of using translation software - some toolbars include this as standard, so you could find the process fairly seamless, although there's no guarantee that the finished translations will make much sense.

You can also choose the 'Simple English' version of Wikipedia - this has over 75,000 Wikipedia articles written in words and grammar that beginners, children and non-native English-speakers should be able to understand.

It's not as big as the main English Wikipedia, but it covers many major topics, and you can find it in the section headed 10 000+ at the bottom of the main Wikipedia homepage.

3. Going Mobile

Some Twitter users have already pointed out that the Wikipedia mobile app continues to work, with only a black notice at the top of each entry, rather than overlaying the text itself.

If you have a smartphone, you could consider this approach. But even if not, the mobile site offers a workaround for desktop and laptop users.

Once your desired Wikipedia entry has loaded, complete with the blackout notice, look at the URL in your browser's address bar.

Change the first part from:

OR simply:

Either of those options should load your chosen article with the mobile page layout.

Personally, I like this option because:

  1. you don't have to change your browser settings
  2. you see the original, full-English article content
  3. each page still shows the blackout notice

However, if you're worried about using Wikipedia at all today, there are further options that can keep you away from its URL completely.

4. Travel Through Time

Yes, I do really mean that. No, it's not as hard as it sounds.

If you don't want to use Wikipedia today, then simply load Google's cached version of any pages that show up in your search results.

It's fast - you don't have to type anything in, alter any URLs or change any browser settings.

It's arguably among the more ethical options - you're not working around the blackout, you're simply retrieving the pages as they appeared on a different date.

And, of course, you're paying the price of seeing the pages as they were a few days ago, so you don't get the most recent updates. If you want to feel like a pariah today by self-imposing some kind of usability issues, as a display of solidarity with Wikipedia and the reasoning behind its blackout, then there's your justification.

Retracting and Redacting

There's an important lesson in all of this for webmasters with any kind of sensitive information on their servers.

First of all, remember that Google caches a significant proportion of everything it indexes. So, even if you retract a page or hide the information on it, there is likely to be at least one copy still out there.

The Wayback Machine is even more of a worry - if your site's been around for long enough and is popular enough, you may find it reproduced in the Wayback archive. This is one more place to look to see whether information has been republished there, if you later realise you've said something you shouldn't have done.

Many web design blogs and guides will recommend different CSS for different types of visitor - a high-contrast option for those with visual impairments, a no-frills layout for mobile users - but again, be aware of how this affects your own control of your data.

In Wikipedia's case, the simpler mobile layout is unable to support the Javascript needed to overlay the blackout notice - making it impossible to fully obscure the original text of each article.

Finally, recognise the global nature of the internet. If your site is available in other languages, then somewhere out there is a toolbar or plugin that will translate those non-English pages back into English.

The internet - as the Wikipedia blackout is intended to highlight - is a source of free knowledge of all types; and, while the blackout aims to raise support for that notion, it is the very wealth of tools and tips that already exist that is helping users to dodge the blackout itself.