Wikimedia puts change to paid editing rule up for vote

The proposal would provide clear guidance on how editors can disclose potential conflicts in compliance with Wikipedia's existing prohibitions on deception, misrepresentation, and fraud, say those in favor.

NEW YORK: The Wikimedia Foundation, the group that runs Wikipedia, is proposing an amendment to the online encyclopedia's terms of use that would address further undisclosed paid editing.

The purpose of the proposal is to provide clear guidance on how editors can disclose potential conflicts in compliance with Wikipedia's existing prohibitions on deception, misrepresentation, and fraud, according to Jay Walsh, communications consultant and adviser to the Foundation.

The amendment would also inform users about the potential legal ramifications of undisclosed paid editing and about existing community policies that may go above and beyond this baseline requirement, he explained.

The Foundation has previously made clear statements about its opposition to the practice of paid advocacy editing and “sockpuppetry,” a term for using an online identity to deceive others. Its terms of use already prohibit “engaging in deceptive activities, including misrepresentation of affiliation, impersonation, and fraud.”

The amendment would not affect PR practitioners who have been following the rules Wikipedia has previously outlined, according to Walsh.

“PR professionals, like everyone else, have always been expected to be honest about potential conflicts of interest when editing Wikipedia,” he said. “For PR pros that have been honest about their relationships with their clients, the [proposed amendment] should not change anything.”

The change is a response to a long-standing issue affecting the Wikipedia community, explained Walsh, who cited firms such as Wiki-PR as a reason for the change.

Since last October, Wikimedia has been in dispute with Wiki-PR, an agency whose primary service is editing Wikipedia pages. The Foundation sent the firm a cease-and-desist letter in November after it allegedly failed to comply with Wikipedia's terms and conditions by engaging in paid advocacy editing.

However, Wiki-PR has told PRWeek that it does paid editing for clients, but not paid advocacy work.

“[Undisclosed paid editing] has become more relevant in the past two years with the rise of highly organized consultants providing these kinds of services, which in many cases violate our terms of use,” Walsh said.

William Beutler, president and founder of Beutler Ink, which helps companies work “ethically and transparently” with Wikipedia to improve articles, believes this amendment will highlight to PR firms that Wikipedia's rules need to be respected.

“I do not think Wikipedia's rules have been clear in the past, so any move that can be made by the Foundation or the community itself to clarify rules of engagement to editors or interested outsiders is a good thing,” said Beutler, who has been a Wikipedia editor since 2006.

The proposed amendment will be up for discussion until March 21. At that point, it may be presented to the Foundation's board of trustees for approval and adoption.

As of Tuesday, 500 people were in favor of the amendment, and 180 were opposed, according to the discussion page associated with it

Veteran contributors, however, have noted that the proposed changes might have unintended consequences, according to Beutler, who cited Internet open-access activist Aaron Swartz's suicide after violating digital library JSTOR's terms of use as the “main example.”

But concerns such as this are all a part of how a proposal discussion unfolds, according to Walsh.

“Ultimately, the Foundation is working to make these policies clearer and easier to understand, so anyone who is contributing will know where they stand,” said Walsh. “Obviously, the conversation will continue for several more weeks.”

Last September, Walsh stepped down from his role as communications head at Wikipedia after almost six years to found a consultancy. Walsh is contracted to work as an independent adviser and consultant to Geoff Brigham, general counsel and head of the legal and community advocacy team at the organization. Brigham is leading the comms unit in the interim until Wikimedia hires a new communications chief.

Matthew Roth left his post as Wikimedia's global communications manager last month to join Flickr as senior community manager.

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