Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales on the internet's future

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales talks to the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones

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Censorship is the biggest threat to the development of the internet, according to Wikipedia's founder Jimmy Wales.

Governments have become "more sophisticated" in the ways they suppress criticism, he told the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones in an interview at London's Cyberspace conference.

Mr Wales was in the UK to attend the event and deliver Radio 3's Free Thinking Lecture in Gateshead.

More than 40 countries practise censorship, the founder of the open source encyclopaedia told the BBC.

Developments in hardware meant governments could "filter certain pages instead of blocking whole websites", he said.

"We see that as a serious problem."

Chinese blocking

However, Mr Wales pledged to withstand the trend.

"We are very principled about never co-operating with censorship," he said.

Wikipedia has encountered particular difficulties with censorship in the past in China.

The Chinese government periodically blocked the site between 2004 and 2008, when restrictions were lifted to coincide with the Olympics.

'Motivated'

But Mr Wales said that Wikipedia was in a much stronger position today.

"I suspect there would be one hell of an outcry if you tried to block Wikipedia in China again", he said.

"We're better known in China than ever before, and the internet community in China is more sophisticated.

"Young people know how to get around the firewall, so they do - anybody who is the least bit motivated can get round it."

Another factor helping to combat Chinese censorship is the efforts of native speakers outside the country.

"There's a lot of people who are not inside China who can edit the pages that are filtered out inside China," Mr Wales said.

"The number of people outside China who can speak and write in Chinese is more than the number of Germans."

Next billion

What really excites Mr Wales is the idea of many people in the developing world using the internet for the first time.

Telecoms infrastructure is reaching further afield, and laptops and smartphones are becoming ever more affordable.

"The next billion people are coming online, from India, China and even Africa," Mr Wales said.

"Massive numbers of people are going to come online from cultures we don't normally interact with."

This could have huge implications for governments which are unused to dealing with a well informed networked public.

However, Mr Wales acknowledged one potential pitfall of all the extra users blogging and adding other material.

"There is going to be a lot of noise," he said.

Mr Wales' Radio 3 lecture will be broadcast on 4 November at 22.00 GMT.

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