An Open Letter to Jimmy Wales: Your Conflict-of-Interest Policy Will Lead to More Corruption, Not Less

by Scott Baradell | PR and Pop Culture

An Open Letter to Jimmy Wales: Your Conflict-of-Interest Policy Will Lead to More Corruption, Not Less

Dear Jimmy,

I see you’ve found yourself in a dust-up with Microsoft over its refusal to observe Wikipedia’s conflict-of-interest policy. As the AP reports:

Microsoft Corp. landed in the Wikipedia doghouse Tuesday after it offered to pay a blogger to change technical articles on the community-produced Web encyclopedia site … Microsoft acknowledged it had approached the writer and offered to pay him for the time it would take to correct what the company was sure were inaccuracies in Wikipedia articles on an open-source document standard and a rival format put forward by Microsoft.

Catherine Brooker, a spokeswoman for Microsoft, said she believed the articles were heavily written by people at IBM Corp., which is a big supporter of the open-source standard … Brooker said Microsoft had gotten nowhere in trying to flag the purported mistakes to Wikipedia’s volunteer editors, so it sought an independent expert who could determine whether changes were necessary and enter them on Wikipedia.

Jimmy, I don’t know whether Catherine is telling the truth or not — but I have no reason to doubt her, and I hope you’ll agree that her explanation is at least plausible. In fact, you’re probably surprised, as I was, that Catherine was willing to be so candid.

Jimmy, I love Wikipedia. It’s an amazing creation — one that I use every single day. Like you, I want it to be as accurate and objective as possible. I admire the fact that you strive tirelessly for these ideals.

But it’s time for a reality check. With your blanket policies against corporate contributors and others, you are digging yourself a hole — one that promises to get deeper for the foreseeable future, and damage your brand in the process.

Note this description of Wikipedia from the same AP article:

While Wikipedia is known as the encyclopedia that anyone can tweak, founder Jimmy Wales and his cadre of volunteer editors, writers and moderators have blocked public-relations firms, campaign workers and anyone else perceived as having a conflict of interest from posting fluff or slanting entries.

In one sentence, the article states the crux of your current dilemma: Is Wikipedia really “the encyclopedia that anyone can tweak” when you have rules that shut out so many interested — and yes, even self-interested — contributors? Doesn’t this create more problems than it solves?

Frankly, I’m afraid you’ve oversimplified the concept of “conflict of interest” — as well as the cure for it. Let me break down the problem, as I see it, in two parts:

1. Many Wikipedia contributors may be motivated by self-interest that is not as easy for you to identify (and thus eliminate).

How naive is it to operate under the assumption that Wikipedians have no point of view on the entries to which they contribute?

If I am an academic who, for example, is an ardent supporter (or ardent opponent) of President Bush, should I be allowed to contribute to the Bush entry on Wikipedia? Well, technically, I have a conflict of interest — so I shouldn’t.

I would guess, however, that for the great majority of Wikipedians, having a passion about various topics is what draws them to post or edit entries in the first place. If you remove the self-interest, you remove the passion. And passion is what drives people to contribute — for free — to an online resource.

2. With entire classes of contributors shut out, Wikipedia will be increasingly vulnerable to corrupting forces.

As the Wikipedia community increasingly resembles an insiders’ cabal, Wikipedia’s insiders will have more and more influence to peddle. And believe me — it will be peddled.

We live in a free market system. There are lots of unethical people out there. If you continue to define Wikipedia by the contributors rather than the contributions, “Wikipedia-approved” editors and contributors will inevitably succumb to corporate bribery, small-scale and large.

And unlike Rick Jelliffe, they’ll keep it on the down-low. Microsoft’s dalliance with pay-for-post is the tip of the iceberg.

This would ultimately undermine — if not destroy — Wikipedia’s credibility.

So, Jimmy, while it might seem the easier solution is to block corporate and other contributors, I’m confident you’ll find — over time — that policing the content, rather than the contributors, makes a lot more sense.

Good luck. I’m rooting for you.



P.S. — here are some other points of view on the Microsoft thing:

What Is The Check On Wikipedia’s Power?
Wikipedia Watchdogs Need Their Own Doghouse
Why Microsoft PR got accused of cutting up the Bible
Battleground Wikipedia
When Wikipedia Gets It Wrong
Microsoft: If You’re Going to Game Wikipedia, Do It Right

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9 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Jimmy Wales: Your Conflict-of-Interest Policy Will Lead to More Corruption, Not Less

  1. SB

    I’m holding my breath waiting for a response as we speak, Mike. If you don’t see anything from Jimbo in the next couple of hours, please call 911 ;)

  2. SB

    When I wrote the post, I assumed that most bloggers would take Wikipedia’s side against the always-loathed Microsoft. I think it’s telling — and a good sign — that Wikipedia is beginning to take some flack for its arrogance here.

  3. Ike

    Wikimania makes for great theory, but it has a fundamental flaw:

    You can’t weed out all supposed “self-interest” on an open-source platform when so many developers are relying on Open Source for their livelihoods.

    Jimmy doesn’t see the contradiction, because for him, the Open Source movement is THE solution, not simply A solution.

  4. Ryan Anderson

    Scott – you’re absolutely right, and I’m on Microsoft’s side here. Every corporation and person should have the right to defend the accuracy of claims made about them in print. Sounds like MS went through the suggested channels first… it’s sad that they were forced to take such a tactic by a policy that doesn’t understand that PR does not = lies.

  5. thekohser

    Scott, I know this is late to the game to be posting a comment now about this, but…

    Check out what “Mercenary Wikipedian” has to say here:

    He’s apparently an admin-level (or at least has the editorial reputation of one) Wikipedian who is saying, “To hell with it, I’m going to edit for money, all I want.” And, since he’s doing it in secret, it’s going to be quite difficult for the WikiPolice to catch him.