User:Charles Matthews/Conflict of interest

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An essay prompted by recent debate at Wikipedia:Conflict of interest, now a unified guideline set on the topic.

We may be in for a 'third wave' of policy discussion, where the first (dying down when I arrived) was on neutrality, and the second has been the big drive on verifiability, sources and original research.

I'm writing here about conflict of interest (COI) from the particular perspective of an active member of the Arbitration Committee (AC). Please put comments on the Talk page.

COI is moving up to a frontline area of policy[edit]

This seems inevitable, as WP grows. The more people who read our pages, the more edits we shall have that are promotional or with an agenda, that come from editors with an evident conflict of interest.

The making of COI policy is subject to a separation of powers[edit]

When COI leads to behavioural problems, things are likely to end up in Arbitration cases.

What I mean by the heading that the AC is in essence the judiciary, and the whole editing community is the legislature. ArbCom votes are there to clarify which principles we shall use, and the principles are there to give some coherence to the case law. The case law is not judge-made policy, and has only a restricted value as precedent.

Conclusion: the AC cannot do it all.

The AC anyway handles COI obliquely[edit]

We might put up a finding of fact that some editor has a conflict of interest. Just as we don't look directly at content issues, we are more likely to look at unacceptable behaviour. COI is then more a consideration for a remedy, such as a topical article ban.

COI guidelines should not just restate policy on NPOV[edit]

A bland form of COI guideline just states that if you edit neutrally, you are handling your COI; if not, you are not. That doesn't amount to a useful guideline, in my opinion. This has been a recent topic of debate at WP:COI, prompted by the status of 'discipleship'.

Lobbyist editors are conflicted[edit]

Any editor taking it upon his or herself to edit in favour of some sectional interest may be heading into COI territory. I would say 'especially policy pages' (e.g. User:MyWikiBiz would be conflicted, on paid editing), rather than just 'even policy pages'.

What is OK, then?[edit]

Anyone who may be putting outside interests ahead of the encyclopedia's interests is subject to COI. Put it this way: dog lovers should edit about cats. Less expertise, more objectivity. It may seem that the trade-off is bad for the encyclopedia, but that is why COI needs a thorough debate. The implications seem generally much less well understood than the NPOV and 'attribution' areas, as I was implying in the introduction.

AGF means COI is hard to handle in practice[edit]

Policy on COI cannot simply override 'assume good faith'. We don't want to add to the ad hominem attacks going on all over the site. Ad hominem is fallacious, unless it actually speaks to fitness: it is not fallacious to say an ex-con might not make a good security guard. I think it is not fallacious to say that lobbyist editors may not make good policy editors, where conflicted.

On the other hand the 'democratic' side, the notion that people are entitled to have their interests considered and not just dismissed, is a potent argument in practice. We cannot admit 'you are only saying that because ...' (you are an animal rights supporter in real life), as acceptable Wikipedian talk.

Gaps in the policy[edit]

We have not explicitly dealt with the business of 'declaring an interest' and then carrying on regardless of the broad deprecation. We have no way of putting it gently that conflicted editors should stop it. They should, but they are going to feel their good faith has been impugned.

On the topic of corporate interest in articles, we have not got strong policy. Almost by definition companies are going to assess material posted here in terms of their bottom line. Almost by definition anyone employed by a company is going to be a conflicted editor in relation to any of the company's products mentioned here. Almost by definition political aides will have a massive conflict of interest, in relation to political candidates on the same or opposing side. We have tended to be polite and give case-by-case advice in the past.