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Can you hear him now? Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales gets into the cellphone game

Jan. 20, 2014 at 10:14 AM ET

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, speaks at Hult International Business School's Executive Speaker Series in San Francisco, CA on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2...
Ryan Anson / AP Images
Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, speaks at Hult International Business School's Executive Speaker Series in San Francisco, CA on Feb. 2, 2012.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has a new personal appeal for your money. This time, however, it's not for donations. Wales wants you to sign up for cellphone service. 

On Monday, he announced that he was becoming co-chair of The People's Operator (TPO), a mobile network that donates 10 percent of its customers' bills to the charity of their choice and 25 percent of its profits to causes through its TPO Foundation.

"The reason this works is because it comes straight out of the marketing budget," Wales told NBC News. "Instead of spending massive amounts of money on TV campaigns and billboards, we give the money to charity, and depend on the community to promote and support it."

The strategy is similar to that of Toms Shoes, the California-based company that gives away one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes sold, Wales said. Like Toms Shoes, The People's Operator is a for-profit company that depends on word-of-mouth and social media buzz from people who believe in its cause. 

"It's all part of a broader movement towards consumer empowerment, because of the ability of people to use the Internet to tell their peers about what they like or they don't like," he said. "The idea is that these utilities, which we all have to spend money on anyway, can they be harnessed for social good."

Right now, the service is only available in the U.K., but the plan is to expand into the United States in the near future. The company doesn't offer subsidized phones, a major draw for many consumers, but it does offer relatively inexpensive monthly and pay-as-you-go plans for its U.K. customers, including 30 days of unlimited texting, talking and data for £14.99 ($24.61) per month. 

After moving into the United States, the company could eventually expand into other countries. 

"If we think in a global context, the next billion people who come online, mostly from Africa, South America and Asia, will be using mobile devices," Wales said. "Many people will be able, for the first time, to learn about and collaborate on political issues online."

Wales has generated plenty of goodwill with Wikipedia, the collaboratively edited Internet encyclopedia that regularly ranks among the top 10 most visited websites. Two years ago, the site joined Google, Reddit and others in protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), something that endeared Wales to the online community. 

Now that he has joined forces with a telecom company, he will have to face a host of new questions surrounding freedom of information and privacy, especially after the revelations leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the government had been collecting phone metadata from millions of Americans. 

"No one provider can really guarantee — the way I think we should guarantee through legislation — total privacy, but we will do what we can," Wales said. As for the progress made since SOPA was stopped, he warned against getting too complacent. 

"Defeating SOPA a massive success for us, and the Internet. It hasn't come back — yet," he said. "Bad laws are like zombies, they always come back. I'm a pathological optimist, so I always think things are going to work out okay, but I think we all have to remain vigilant."

Keith Wagstaff writes about technology for NBC News. He previously covered the tech beat for TIME's Techland and wrote about politics as a staff writer at TheWeek.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kwagstaff and reach him by email at: Keith.Wagstaff@nbcuni.com

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