Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Wiki Influence

Feb 6, 2007

Microsoft last month was accused of violating Wikipedia's policy on transparency of information by attempting to contract an outside expert to make changes in Wikipedia entries. The deal was meant 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," according to the Associated Press.

Wikipedia enjoys popularity because of the global and extensive information it offers to Internet users. Its foundational policy maintains that the content is to be written and modified by individual users, and not by "public-relations firms, campaign workers, and anyone else perceived as having a conflict of interest."

The content is written by an unlimited number of specialists, in contrast to other encyclopedias. Limits on the number of writers would restrict the number of articles and the range of topics, and would also define objectivity as scientific expertise, rather than reasonable consensus-building. Wikipedia has now more than 1.5 million articles in its English version, while Encyclopaedia Britannica has only 65,000 entries.

It was learned last month that Microsoft "technical evangelist" Doug Mahugh sent an email to Rick Jelliffe, chief technical officer of the Australian company Topologi. Jelliffe is an expert in OASIS Open Document Format (odf) and in Office Open XML (ooxml), two rival file formats. He was asked by the Microsoft employee to check the Wikipedia entry related to the two types of files and to "correct the errors and the slanted language" that he could find.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said he was disappointed in Microsoft's actions. He said that the transparent way for Microsoft to react when they found mistakes and inconsistencies in a specific entry would be to write a "white paper" that contains Microsoft's view on the correct interpretations and to link this to the article discussion forum.

This episode highlights the influence of corporate funding on policy and scientific research. Just last week, Greenpeace and other advocacy groups questioned why Washington think tank American Enterprise Institute offered $10,000 to critique the recent findings of U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It also recalled the use of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt), a marketing technique used in the past by IT companies, including Microsoft and IBM. Microsoft spokeswoman Catherine Brooker said she believed the Wikipedia articles were written by IBM employees and the job that was offered to Jelliffe was intended to fix the malicious result of FUD tactics. Jelliffe himself stated as much in this blog post: "I think I'll accept it: FUD enrages me and MS certainly are not hiring me to add any pro-MS FUD, just to correct any errors I see."

As Wales's reaction suggests, this event had to do more with the foundational principles of Wikipedia that we could see prima facie. It broke an ethical code that assures Wikipedia users of full transparency, impartiality, and continuous improvement of information.

According to journalism professor Andrew Lih, "Malicious contributors are kept in check because vandalism is easily undone. Users dedicated to fixing vandalism watch the list of recent changes, fixing problems within minutes, if not seconds. A defaced article can quickly be returned to an acceptable version with just one click of a button. This crucial asymmetry tips the balance in favor of productive and cooperative members of the wiki community, allowing quality content to prevail."

For this and other reasons, Wikipedia became popular and was ranked as the second most globalized website, after Google, in the 2006 Web Globalization Report Card (published every year by Byte Level Research). The report analyses each website according to the following five criteria: web site performance, global navigation, global consistency, localization, and languages. These criteria underscore the importance of websites like Wikipedia in the current era of globalization. With 80% of users outside the United States and with support for more than 100 languages, Wikipedia is an example of a website that has to maintain its underlying principles.

Microsoft may have made a public relations gaffe, or publicity killing, by asking Jelliffe to modify an article for them. But the fact that the email encouraged Jelliffe to disclose his deal with Microsoft, and reassured him that Microsoft did not have to approve any of the Wikipedia edits before they were made, shows that things are not black and white. Nothing was hidden, but the Wikipedia policy was nevertheless violated. This story reminds us that a community like Wikipedia's editors, as global and as extended as it is, is vulnerable to manipulation by commercial interests—and that information is power.

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