Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2019-05-31/From the archives

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FORUM:Should Wikimedia modify its terms of use to require disclosure?: A debate from 5 years ago on whether we should change the terms of use to prohibit undisclosed paid editing

In February 2014 the Wikimedia Foundation proposed a change to the terms of use to ban undisclosed paid editing. The Signpost asked myself, Smallbones, and Pete Forsyth to debate the issue. The full debate with the original introduction follows. - S

About a week ago, the Wikimedia Foundation proposed to modify the Wikimedia projects' terms of use to require disclosure of an editor's employer, client, and affiliation if they are being compensated for making the edits. We have asked two users, one in favor of the measure (Smallbones) and one opposed (Pete Forsyth), to contribute their opinions on the matter.
The views expressed in these op-eds are those of the authors only; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. Editors wishing to submit their own op-ed should email the Signpost's editor.

Smallbones: no commercial editing

Smallbones has been an English Wikipedia editor since 2005 and contributed thousands of photos to the Wikimedia Commons.

A week ago it looked like paid editing was ready to take over Wikipedia. The public relations firm Wiki-PR had been banned for employing hundreds of editors, possibly including our own administrators, to make thousands of edits, taking in perhaps a million dollars. But several editors argued that such a ban could not be enforced, and that we must "assume good faith," even of obvious advertisers. They argued that the problem was simply "point of view" editing, and that it could be dealt with easily, by just editing out the bias. Some even argued that we should get rid of our Conflict of Interest guideline.

The situation has now completely changed, with a proposed addition to the Wikimedia Foundation's Terms of Use, which says that all paid editors must disclose their paid edits and who paid for the edits. It does not ban paid editing, require the outing of paid editors, or allow harassment of paid editors. How could anybody disagree with that? Whether you agree or disagree, your opinion is welcome on Meta.

The proposed amendment would stop future edits by Wiki-PR and similar firms by letting volunteer editors know which articles the advertisers edit, thereby making it easier to check whether the paid edits follow our rules, and change or remove those edits if necessary. The advertisers would have to identify their paid edits to avoid legal action. The only people directly affected would be unethical advertisers who would no longer be able to slip in advertisements on the sly. Paid editors would be indirectly affected as their pool of customers dries up.

Still, I would like the requirements to be stricter, including prohibiting commercial editing of articles by or on behalf of businesses. There would be little difficulty in enforcing this ban. An advertisement, however indirectly, almost always suggests that a specific business placed it. These businesses, including the clients of the Wiki-PRs of the world, would be responsible for the editing of their agents.

Ads are already prohibited on Wikipedia and have been from almost the beginning. First we prohibited link-spam, editing by organizations, and meat-puppetry. Then we prohibited advertising and promotion, and finally marketing and public-relations content. The firm MyWikiBiz was banned in 2006. Every six months or so a new firm is found to be advertising and is usually banned.

Advertisers have often ignored our policies and guidelines. The conflict-of-interest guideline is scoffed at as "unenforceable". Apparently, these rules are too vague and changeable to be taken seriously. Enforcement of the rules by administrators and the Arbitration Committee has been shamefully lax.

By putting the prohibition in the Terms of Use, rather than in each project's policies and guidelines, enforcement is possible by the Foundation's legal team. The prospect of a slam-dunk legal decision going against them will remarkably improve advertisers' understanding of our rules.

The worst aspect of paid editing is how it changes our community. Paid editors are notoriously difficult to work with, ganging up on volunteers, defending their biased edits to the bitter end, wiki-lawyering until our policies and guidelines seem to have no meaning. Paid editors don't engage in collegial discussions of their edits. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" As paid editors increase, they change the rules to make paid editing easier, which encourages new paid editors and drives volunteer editors away.

I'm not a lawyer but let's cover some legal basics. Advertising and marketing include any communication from a business to a potential customer that may result in a sale. Omitting the source of the communication is deceptive advertising, which is illegal almost everywhere. A German court ruled that editing on Wikipedia by a firm was illegal, even though the firm disclosed the edit, because the disclosure on the article's talk page wasn't conspicuous enough. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates most advertisements in the U.S., prohibits any business communication that may result in a sale unless there is clear and conspicuous disclosure of the advertiser. The FTC is now explaining and enforcing their rules on Internet advertising, as are the European Union and the U.S. states of New York and California.

These governments would likely prefer not to have to enforce their rules directly in an environment as complicated as Wikipedia, but I'm sure they will if we don't enforce our rules ourselves and provide guidance to advertisers. "No advertising, no paid editing of articles by businesses" would be remarkably good, concise guidance. It would be best if the individual Wikimedia projects were to enforce the rules, taking into account the quirks of each individual project, but enforcement by the Foundation is better than no enforcement or enforcement by a government agency.

It's up to us, Wikipedia's volunteer editors. Let's get rid of commercial editing and advertising on Wikipedia.

Pete Forsyth: there are better ways of combating unethical paid editing

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, a company that "provides consulting services for organizations engaging with Wikipedia and other collaborative communities." He has been editing Wikipedia since 2006.

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.