‘Free – as in free beer and free knowledge”, is how the Wikimedia Foundation describes the two gratis and libre philosophies that guide their most famous online collaborative project, Wikipedia.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has put it more boldly: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”
Cambodia is next in line to put that theory to the test – when the Wikipedia site is made free to customers of mobile provider Axiata, which operates Smart mobile in Cambodia.
Beginning soon, Smart 3G-enabled phones will be able to connect to the site without data charges.
Khmer Wikipedians, of which Cambodia has a small but loyal offline contingent, say it will mean “more inclusivity and equality in access”.
The initiative is a part of Wikipedia Zero, a campaign by the Wikimedia Foundation to ‘enable mobile access, free of data charges, to Wikipedia in developing countries’ and will help remove obstacles for Cambodians to access the sixth-most visited site on the internet, says Khmer Wikipedia founder Oum Vantharith.
“Like many other small language communities in developing countries, Khmer Wikipedia shares common obstacles in reaching to its users,” Vantharith says.
“There are always barriers in accessing free knowledge for users in developing countries. Among those, digital divide and cost are the main barriers. This limits the spread of free knowledge and discriminates certain group of users who don’t have appropriate means – technology and/or money – to benefit from Wikipedia”.
Internet penetration in Cambodia is still fairly low − 3.1 per cent − due to sparse electricity connections in rural population. But the cost of an internet connection has fallen steeply in the past two years, while smartphone ownership is high, says Cambodia-based legal consultant and Wikipedia administrator Anirudh Singh Bhati.
“For a developing market, Cambodia has been doing very well − telecoms is a largely unregulated market and [the Cambodian government’s] policy stance has substantially changed the industry landscape in the past two years.
“Back in 2010 and 2011, if you wanted a 1.5 mbps [megabits per second] internet connection you would end up paying $100 per month, and now you can have high speed 4 mbps broadband for a monthly fee of $24. If you compare Cambodia with India and other parts of Southeast Asia, Cambodia has a relatively high per capita ownership of smartphones.”
“This means more people can access free knowledge in Wikipedia than ever below – more inclusivity and equality in access.” It also has the potential to increase content for the fledgling Khmer language Wikipedia, Vantharith says.
With close to 4,000 articles, Khmer Wikipedia is the only Cambodian encyclopedia to be compiled in the Khmer language and currently grows by two articles every day.
Bhati, who co-founded Wikimedia India, believes Wikipedia is playing a significant role in collecting and disseminating information for smaller language groups.
“Wikipedia is available in over 256 languages, and it has become the focal point for many smaller languages resulting in Wikipedia projects becoming the largest repositories of information in those languages. For example, the Myanmarese Wikipedia is one of the largest websites with local content and so is Khmer Wikipedia,” he says.
Southeast Asia, with the exception of the Philippines and Indonesia, have been largely uncharted territories for Wikimedia, with a lack of participation and collaboration among volunteer contributors in the real world, Bhati says, adding that he believes “corporate social responsibility” is a motivating factor behind companies’ decision to support Wikipedia Zero.