There are better ways of combating unethical paid editing

My op-ed piece on the proposal to modify the Wikimedia Terms of Use was published in the Wikipedia Signpost:

An effort is underway for Wikimedia to codify a principle that has been a cornerstone of my Wikipedia training and consulting practice, Wiki Strategies, since our launch in 2009: essentially, that certain conflicts of interest must be publicly disclosed.

Focused community consideration of this principle is long overdue, and I applaud this effort. Undisclosed conflicts of interest pose a significant threat to Wikipedia. Action is needed. Why? Because of things like this:

Last month, a company offering Wikipedia services proposed establishing a business relationship with me. The founder spoke at length about the importance of dealing with Wikipedia ethically; he proudly contrasted his approach with his less scrupulous competitors, like Wiki-PR, who use sock puppets. But then he described his international network of Wikipedia editors: 20% disclose their role.

80% do not disclose that they are under contract.

While he may sincerely wish to treat Wikipedia ethically, this person is dead wrong to believe his approach is ethical. He fails to see the dissonance. Adopting a new policy would highlight that problem in an unambiguous way, supporting the Wikipedia community’s efforts to confront and fend off unethical approaches. So the proposal, at its core, reflects a good idea.

But a TOU amendment is not the way to accomplish those goals. While it may be a good fit for Wikipedia, it may not fit other projects, like Commons or Wikisource, as well. If a museum were to pay someone, for instance, to upload their CC-licensed files to Commons, does a lack of disclosure constitute a real problem? Perhaps; but I’m inclined to say it doesn’t. I’m skeptical about a provision that would define worthwhile contributions to our shared vision as violations. We should avoid outlawing good behavior.

The better path is to establish local policies on projects that need them, such as English Wikipedia. A Board-passed amendment is an unnecessarily top-down approach. If the problem mainly pertains to Wikipedia, why wouldn’t the Legal department simply propose to Wikipedia (in various languages) that it adopt local policies? The discussion would be healthy; I believe policies would pass. Why ask users to go straight to the Board of Trustees? The proposed action is out of step with Wikimedia’s system of governance; I don’t see any compelling reason for it to be done this way.

Regardless of how a policy is established, the way we announce it is important and delicate. We owe much of our success to our broad invitation to participate in the Wikimedia vision. Our concerns about conflict of interest are justified, of course; but we should keep in mind that we frequently benefit from alignments of interest. For instance, museums sometimes upload thousands of public domain images. Companies sometimes draw attention to articles about themselves that have become badly outdated. Such efforts bring us closer to fulfilling our vision. Any announcement of a transparency amendment must be worded in a way that respects the good faith and the contributions of many independent organizations.

Finally, although it is stated that disclosure is a minimum requirement – that is, a necessary condition for ethical engagement with Wikipedia – some readers will incorrectly conclude that disclosing a financial interest is sufficient, putting too much stock in this minimal step. We must not take too much satisfaction in a policy change like the one proposed, but remain attentive to the need to articulate Wikimedia’s ethical needs in a wide variety of scenarios.

Regardless of whether this amendment passes, undisclosed conflicts of interest are toxic to the Wikipedia community, and make it difficult for us to fulfill our vision. What can we do to address the problem?

What should the Wikimedia Foundation do?

  • The Board of Trustees should refer the proposal to project communities like English Wikipedia, with a recommendation to pass local policies. Any TOU change should happen after, and in support of, local policy changes.
  • The WMF should redouble efforts to keep its own house in order. It has the ability to influence its staff, contractors, service providers, funders, and business partners. There is much room for improvement. To wit:

Staff members have been hired into positions that require engagement on Wikipedia, with minimal ethical or practical guidance on how to go about it. This includes me (in 2009), and the problem remains: in 2014 a WMF employee prominently left her position after a dispute over her Wikipedia editing. While many facts of that dispute are (properly) invisible to public review, surely the organization must bear final responsibility for such a substantial misunderstanding.

In addition, WMF has at times given bad advice to other organizations about how to engage ethically with Wikipedia. That should never happen, given the wealth of resources and expertise available to them in our community.

Maintaining an ethical approach to Wikipedia engagement demands constant vigilance and diligent self-inquiry, going far beyond mere disclosure. WMF has great influence over the thought and behavior of its staff, contractors, funders, service providers, and business partners. That influence should be consistently put to good use.

What should the English Wikipedia community do?

  • Whether or not the TOU amendment passes, Wikipedia should create a local policy requiring this kind of disclosure.
  • Wikipedia should document best practices, and implement processes that allow non-disclosed paid editors to progress smoothly toward compliance.
  • Wikipedia should ban editors who do not engage with that process in good faith.

What should people paying or earning money around Wikipedia do?

Many of us are passionate about Wikipedia’s success, and also spend or earn money relating to Wikipedia. We should be proactively building a shared understanding of Wikipedia ethics.

  • We should create and publish our own statements of ethics. Mine is here:
  • We should read each other’s statements, share reflections, and look for patterns. As of today, I am turning on the “comment” feature on my statement; I welcome commentary, public or private.
  • In the long run, we should establish ethical codes that can be voluntarily adopted by those working in the Wikipedia sphere — similar to the way we adopt a free license when we choose to edit Wikipedia.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here:
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