Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is familiar with people putting made-up bullshit online. As I mentioned, he founded Wikipedia. But this is on another level: Wales’ words got changed on a Chinese conference website to make it sound like he was pro-Chinese government surveillance.
During a panel discussion at China’s World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Wales talked about how upcoming machine learning innovations could make it impossible for governments to control the flow of information. When his statement showed up on the website in a Chinese translation, however, it looked very different, as the Wall Street Journal reports:
Yet, when the comments were reproduced on the conference’s official website, they read as if put through a translation machine programed to reflect Beijing policy. Mr. Wales’s statement was translated to say coming technology improvements will allow authorities to better analyse online communications.
World Internet Conference brings in speakers like Wales and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, but it’s also a meeting place for some of the most authoritarian heads of state, including prime ministers from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. China, for its part, has a notoriously state-controlled internet. Not exactly the most welcoming audience for suggesting that technology will make oppression harder.
The Chinese government wants to control access to information, but it wants to be a world-class tech player. This incident shows what happens when those two impulses clash — in trying to bring in marquee names, it allowed a vocal opponent of its policies to speak.
It’s less surprising that this happened, and more surprising that the vehemently pro-free speech Wales was invited to talk publicly at all.