New Ethics Scandal Rocks Wikipedia

A week after allegations of high-level Wikipedia editors promoting paid content, questions remain on how much damage the actions will inflict on the popular wiki site.

The story broke September 18, when CNET reporter Violet Blue posted a detailed analysis of internal Wikipedia discussions surrounding the apparent activity of former Wikimedia UK Chair Roger Bamkin and a Wikipedian-in-Residence Maximillion Klein, who were apparently using their positions within the Wikipedia editorial process to push content onto Wikipedia's Did You Know section on the site's home page.

These allegations have been vehemently denied by both men, but two days after the first CNET story broke, Bamkin stepped down from his Trustee position.

"Roger has always conducted himself with openness and honesty with regards to his business interests, which the Board greatly appreciates. However we have reached the decision together that it is best if Roger steps back from the Board, and thus the Board has accepted his resignation. I look forward to working with Roger in future," stated current Wikimedia UK Chair Chris Keating.

(For more on Wikipedia controversies, see Why Wikipedia Doesn't Belong In The Classroom and Why Wikipedia Does Belong In The Classroom.)

The Pitch Of Gibraltar

Throughout the controversy, Bamkin and Klein, while not exactly denying that they were working with the British territory of Gibraltar to create a separate Gibraltarpedia site for the purposes of increasing the amount of information about the territory on Wikipedia. Links to the Gibraltarpedia section appeared 17 times on the Wikipedia front page in August, 2011, which is a relatively high rate of occurrence.

Klein's consulting business untrikiwiki previously advertised SEO consulting services that implied that the firm could take advantage of Wikipedia as a very powerful SEO source. Language previously appearing on the untrikiwiki site included the following:

“A positive Wikipedia article is invaluable SEO: it's almost guaranteed to be a top three Google hit. Surprisingly this benefit of writing for Wikipedia is underutilized, but relates exactly the lack of true expertise in the field. ... WE HAVE THE EXPERTISE NEEDED to navigate the complex maze surrounding 'conflict of interest' editing on Wikipedia. With more than eight years of experience, over 10,000 edits, and countless community connections we offer holistic Wikipedia services.”

Since the story broke, that language has been removed, and Klein has issued a rather cool response on his blog:

"We’ve never made a single edit for which we had a conflict of interest on Wikipedia – ever. Although we have advertised such a service, we’ve not aggressively pursued it – and we have not accepted any clients interested in on-Wikipedia work." 

Yet there is still the odd presence of Gibraltarpedia on the Wikipedia home page, and a £1 million investment in the project revealed by Gibraltar's own Tourism Board, which Blue uncovered in a follow-up story Sept. 20.

Money? Yes. Scandal? No. 

But just because there was money changing hands, Wikimedia UK insists that there was nothing improper going on.

"Roger [Bamkin] has always been open with Wikimedia UK about his commercial interests and has declared them in public at appropriate times. He has not voted in any Wikimedia UK decisions about Monmouthpedia since the start of his consultancy relationship with MCC or on any decisions about Gibraltarpedia or QRpedia. All our decisions about this have been taken by the other trustees, with the aims of the charity in mind. Roger has not received any Wikimedia UK funds for any of these projects, except for out-of-pocket expenses incurred in his role as a volunteer in the early development stages of Monmouthpedia before becoming a consultant, paid in line with our normal expenses policy," Wikimedia UK said in a press statement.

While all may be above board within Wikimedia's own standards, there is little doubt that this will undermine the level of trust people place in Wikipedia as a source of information. That trust was never universal, but Wikipedia, for all its faults, has usually seemed moribund by its own policies and biased outside influences, not improper internal manipulations.

Wikimedia may benefit from this in the long run; by experiencing this crisis, as unsavory as it may be, the non-profit organization behind Wikipedia may learn more about what not to do and how its members should conduct themselves. SEO businesses that advertise themselves as Wikipedia experts, however, may end up suffering more obstacles in their paths, if Wikimedia does take the right lessons away from this incident.

But that remains to be seen. Wikipeida is about to wrap up its 12th year of operation, and if the team hasn't figured out a strong ethical stance and operational response by now, I find it hard to imagine that this incident, another in a line of problems, will be the one that finally gets things on track.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.