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Wikipedia Makes The Case For Google & Facebook To Give Back To The Commons, Rather Than Just Take

from the valid-argument dept

Over the past decade or so we’ve seen lots of arguments from legacy industries — mainly recording industries, publishing industries, and film industries — freaking out about Google and Facebook. The go-to response generally seems to be to run to the government and demand that they force the successful internet companies to transfer some of their wealth to the legacy industries. In some cases, these pleas appear to be working — such as with the link tax proposal in the EU.

Generally speaking, this whole thing is pretty disgusting. It’s usually legacy private companies which had a successful business model under a previous system, failed to adapt to a changing world, and then act as if they’re magically entitled to someone else’s money. Of course, that’s not how it should work (even if sometimes it does). But I’m interested in comparing this approach to the approach of Wikipedia, whose executive director, Katherine Maher, has an article in Wired arguing that Google and Facebook should consider giving back to the site, especially seeing as those platforms are increasingly relying on the information within Wikipedia.

While the title of the Wired piece is provocative — “Facebook and Google must do more to support Wikipedia” — it’s a title that Maher notes was not chosen by herself and which might not directly represent her views:

And that’s correct, because the article itself is much more nuanced. Rather than demanding a forced transfer of wealth from government, or simply demanding that Google and Facebook pay up, Maher does a great job of making the case that Google and Facebook ought to give back to the commons considering how much they’re now relying on it. This is especially true today as both companies have started leaning more heavily on Wikipedia to deal with disinformation (i.e., more direct usage of Wikipedia’s content, and not just finding what other people have posted in their usual way):

You may not realise how ubiquitous Wikipedia is in your everyday life, but its open, collaboratively-curated data is used across semantic, search and structured data platforms? on the web. Voice assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Google Home source Wikipedia articles for general knowledge questions; Google?s knowledge panel features Wikipedia content for snippets and essential facts; Quora contributes to and utilises the Wikidata open data project to connect topics and improve user recommendations.

More recently, YouTube and Facebook have turned to Wikipedia for a new reason: to address their issues around fake news and conspiracy theories. YouTube said that they would begin linking to Wikipedia articles from conspiracy videos, in order to give users additional ? often corrective ? information about the topic of the video. And Facebook rolled out a feature using Wikipedia?s content to give users more information about the publication source of articles appearing in their feeds.

Maher points out that (unlike some others) Wikipedia is thrilled to see that the value of what they’ve created is being recognized and is so valuable. It’s a true validation of the idea that many people spent years mocking. But, Maher suggests, if the tech companies are going to rely so heavily, they ought to consider giving back in ways as well. As she notes, Wikipedia itself works because so many individuals are generous in ways they can be:

But at a deeper level, Wikipedia works because people are generous. Millions of people have contributed their time and effort to create and curate tens of millions of articles simply to share knowledge with the world. And they want that knowledge to be free for everyone. But even the most altruistic creator appreciates a nod for their work and the resources to keep going. Everyone knows the difference between tending a community garden for the use of their neighbours, and tending it for a company to throw a corporate picnic.

And tech companies that are using that content could also help out:

As companies draw on Wikipedia for knowledge ? and as a bulwark against bad information ? we believe they too have an opportunity to be generous. At Wikimedia, we already love and deeply appreciate the millions of people around the world who make generous charitable contributions because they believe in our values. But we also believe that we deserve lasting, commensurate support from the organisations that derive significant and sustained financial value from our work.

And it?s not just us. From groups that set open standards, such as IETF, ICANN and W3C, to organisations that support critical open source projects, such as the Software Freedom Conservancy, to Creative Commons, which enables us to share creativity freely, to the digital knowledge and data commons supported by Wikimedia, we do the work that helps the rest of the internet thrive.

There’s a lot more in the piece, and I find it fascinating. It’s also different than the legacy companies, in that it’s coming from a non-profit that has always survived solely on donations. It’s an organization that knows how to ask for support, rather than demand or expect it. At one level, there are similarities to the arguments of the old school legacy companies. But the approach is so very different. Rather than threatening and demanding, this approach is welcoming and collaborative. It’s appealing to the better nature of those companies, rather than just scolding them and screaming about how they’re evil. One wonders what kind of internet and cultural community we might have if the legacy companies had tried that approach in the early days, rather than the antagonistic approach they did take.

I have no idea if this approach will work. But it’s fascinating to see and to contrast it with the legacy players.

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Companies: facebook, google, wikimedia

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Comments on “Wikipedia Makes The Case For Google & Facebook To Give Back To The Commons, Rather Than Just Take”

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Anonymous Coward says:

the Ardin effect

No, this would be a bad idea for companies like Google and Facebook to directly contribute to Wikipedia. Like the saying goes, “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” Wikipedia already practices a much more severe form of censorship than Google or Facebook (even if those two companies have ramped it up a few notches recently), and that censorship, once established, could easily grow to snuff out things deemed unfriendly to Google/FB’s own financial interests.

Take, for instance, the name “Anna Ardin”, one of the most reported-about people throughout the entire world for a short time a few years ago, but whose every mention on Wikipedia has been not just reverted, but completely scrubbed off the face of the site. Wikipedia co-creator Larry Sanger has talked about the site’s “toadies” that reflexively defend Jimbo Wales when he flagrantly breaks his own rules (like the times he erased Sanger’s comments in the article’s talk sections that were critical of him). It would not be hard to imagine information critical of Google or Facebook being similarly memory-holed.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: the Ardin effect

I don’t think censorship is a good term but you do have a point. However, do we really think anything vanishing or being modified isn’t going to get caught? Specially concerning companies so big and visible?

I don’t think it’s an issue at all. And they can contribute via other means such as providing accessible caching to ease server costs for instance. Or help auditing articles that have nothing to do with them by providing man power.

Chick says:

Re: Re: the Ardin effect

Controversies and company-made pages are commonly scrubbed of unlikable facts. They’re using Wikipedia for advertising or PR preservation more than neutral facts.

I trust Wikipedia to tell me about what a Souffle or Quantum computing is, but not anything about any controversial (or non-controversial) public figure, because anybody and everybody “fixes” Wikipedia their own way with little oversight or too much bias on the part of admins. You can “disappear” change logs, even if people believe that you can’t, it can be done, though it’s usually meant to keep records of harmful things that you’d never want to EVER revert, like Javascript exploit injections.

It’s a nerd’s power trip fantasy and that’s why I only somewhat trust it for things that can be objectively quantified or whose interpretations (ie. recipes or definitions of food uses) don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

Philo (profile) says:

Re: Re: the Ardin effect

There are ways to contribute besides cash. For example, companies could allow or even encourage employees to contribute to wikipedia during “working hours.” (the potential abuse factor here is that a company could also create a content army; but they can do that now anyway)

Companies that control content could grant Wikipedia a limited license to all their works and stop trying to enforce copyright when digital content is simply used to support an article.

Cloud companies could offer free virtual services, or discounts.

And the more companies that do this, the less power any individual company has.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Maybe there should be two

I like Wikipedia. But I rarely, if ever turn to them for anything that might be considered controversial. Maybe there should be two organizations, with any contributions split in some way between the two. The first would be Wikipedia, as it is. The second would be Wikipedia Audits (or something) who have responsibility, and authority, to check on entries that are considered ‘controversial’ with the intent to ‘correct’ (maybe by leaving some kind of question on a post, like the ones that exist for citations needed) or to make an irremovable post questioning why a post doesn’t exist, for any reason (with sources from the public that go direct to them).

I don’t know what the split should be, the Wikimedia foundation has the burden of hosting the website and its bandwidth and storage costs. However, while postings are not paid for, the auditing should be paid for, as this would be a fairly thankless job, with the only ‘benefit’ being a more reliable dictionary. The trouble comes up when there is not a ‘Chinese wall’ between any contribution and either posting or auditing efforts. There should be no ability to influence either. That means that the ‘Chinese wall’ should exist for Wikipedia as well. How to implement that is worth further discussion.

For example, companies are often caught trying to ‘enhance’ entries about their companies, and this ‘catching’ could, and should be made stronger by some independent agency that focuses solely on the dictionary (and it is not only companies that try to ‘enhance’ entries, there are partisans galore who attempt this, and my suggestion here is to thwart them all and make Wikipedia a reliable source). This effort should be directed at belaying the concept that the winners write the history. History should be fact, not nuanced by whomever tries to influence it, winner or loser.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Maybe there should be two

Their current model already allows for audits and there are discussions on how to prevent article hijacking. Some more controversial articles need review from very higher ups before anything is modified. And they usually identify quite fast when some idiot is trying to edit an article to hide misdeeds from the past (ie: politicians).

One complaint I’ve read is that the community dedicated to this moderation is getting smaller over time due to draconian (but not necessarily needed) rules imposed by both Wikipedia and their own moderating community. It’s an article I read a while ago so it might not be the case anymore.

Still, anybody can track modifications in any article. They remain there to be seen. So in theory anybody can audit them.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Maybe there should be two

My thoughts are directed twofold. The first to, maybe more publicly, express the efforts of Wikipedia at truthfulness. The ‘Chinese wall’ would go a long way toward accusations of corruption. The second is to remove a long standing perception of Wikipedia that it is not factual. I would like to see that change, and what better way than to show extended effort at being factual, rather than ‘nuanced’.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Maybe there should be two

"Still, anybody can track modifications in any article. They remain there to be seen. So in theory anybody can audit them."

What about when you go to an article’s history and many of the entries have a line struck through them and are missing revision comments? Ironically, the revision page of Julian Assange was once filled with these blanks, which it turned out were censored not by legal concerns but by SJWs basically being SJWs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Maybe there should be two

While I can understand the reluctance of people to publish the names of crime victims, especially children and victims of actual sexual assault, it makes no sense for Wikipedia administrators to go on a crusade to hide the identities of Julian Assange’s girlfriends after they had already been identified and had been “outed” a thousand times over, including in numerous mainstream news articles.

Except of course that some people (SJWs?) consider men going condomless while pretending to be condomed defines full-blown sexual assault, therefore demanding complete censorship of the identity of the “victim” whose name everyone already knows.

It was a similar story with Gamergate-associated character John Walker Flynt, whose name was fastidiously scrubbed off Wikipedia (using administrator powers) because he had since changed both his name and his “sex” to something else, and thereafter, only his new identity was allowed to ever be mentioned on Wikipedia.

That’s the problem with social justice warriors, who insist on maintaining a narrative devoid of uncomfortable truths. They’re zealotry has no bounds or even common sense, and they infect Wikipedia like a nasty social disease.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Maybe there should be two

Many Wikipedia history articles change completely when written in another language, especially those dealing with war and conflict between nations. And just like in actual war, Wikipedia tends to be a winner take all endeavor. As all mainstream news in the US and elsewhere seems to be going in the same direction and becoming increasingly polarized, can we really expect Wikipedia to be unbiased and impartial when nothing else in life is these days?

One thing that would help Wikipedia is a better search function, one tied to searching old versions of articles, which are frequently more accurate and less censored than the current version that wikipedia places all its emphasis on. With articles that have been deleted and re-created (sometimes several times over), it would be nice to be able to read the older versions that were auto-deleted just because some vandal tagged a dormant article and no one caught it in time.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Maybe there should be two

Well, those questions might be a function of the independent audit group I am suggesting. The point is to make Wikipedia ideologically independent and report facts. I understand that ‘facts’ can be interpreted differently (the winners write the history), but Wikipedia should report those things that actually happened, and maybe link to some different site that does interpretation.

That site should be viewed with severe skepticism, and though separate should not be left out, nor edit apposing points of view.

This is a discussion, what are your answers to the problems?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Maybe there should be two

I don’t think it’s so easy to make facts neutral. Language itself is deeply political, and even the most basic reporting of facts involve choices that some people will dispute.

Is Chelsea Manning "an American activist, whistleblower, politician, and former United States Army soldier" as Wikipedia describes her? Is that the appropriate order for those terms? Is it right to list those things in the first sentence while relegating her conviction under the Espionage Act to the second? And what is the correct way to handle her gender? Is it right to say "she" in reference to events prior to her transition? Should "Bradley Manning" have a separate page?

(For the record, I’m not disputing any of Wikipedia’s current choices on that front – yes, folks, I’m a delicate SJW snowflake and a leftist maniac! – just pointing out how much there is that could be politically, ideologically disputed in the first two sentences of her page)

Is "cultural marxism" a "conspiracy theory" as Wikipedia defines its modern usage? Is calling something a "conspiracy theory" an opinionated statement due to the term’s connotations, or a neutral description of any assertion of the existence of a conspiracy?

Is it called "Myanmar" or "Burma"? Major nations disagree, with the UK and Canada still using "Burma" among several others, while the UN says Myanmar, and US presidents have switched between the two. The country’s official stance as of 2016 is that both are acceptable, but most view the choice of name as a political statement about the legitimacy of the government. Which name should the page be under? How and where should this controversy be explained?

Even simple semantic choices can be political. Should Edward Snowden be listed on the "List of whistleblowers" page? What about the "list of American spies" page? (He is currently listed on both.)

Ideologically independent facts are not as easy to come by as you might think.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Maybe there should be two

Another good one: what primary term would you use to describe the State of Palestine on the page of that name?

Wikipedia currently calls it "a de jure sovereign state". And already there is a political debate on the Talk page about whether that is appropriate wording and whether, by the same justification used for that terminology, Israel qualifies as a state. The debate involves questioning the precise English-language definition of the term "defined territory" and the appropriate international authority on the definition of a "state".

Indeed, this is an interesting exercise. Choose any reasonably controversial political, social or historical topic, and see if you can write just an opening paragraph for the Wikipedia page that you don’t believe anybody would object to on the grounds that it was political/ideological/opinionated.

John Smith says:

The language of your article on this and the “link tax” are very slanted in their language. Calling it “success” when money and jobs are hoovered into search engines at the expense of fewer creative works being produced is debatable. We could abolish minimum wage laws and people would “succeed” only if they cut their wage demands to what the traffic will bear, even if that traffic is expendable and unsustainable. The alternative is to protect the interests of those who drive the revenue.

If TV Guide made all the money from television production, that would not be just. How many people go online with the search engine as their endpoint? Give sites control over linking royalties and this would level the playing field.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Calling it “success” when money and jobs are hoovered into search engines at the expense of fewer creative works being produced is debatable.

The Internet with its search engines, along with the self publishing platforms have enabled an explosion of publication, as those who create new works are no longer dependent on others to get their works published. Much of that creativity was always there, just it had no outlet if a publisher did not pick it up for publication. Now it has an outlet, and those services, search engines and self publishing platforms provide a valuable service, allowing works to be published, and people to find those works.

These days more people are making some money from their creative efforts than ever before, so what you call a loss of jobs is no such things, but rather a change in who and how money is made from creative efforts.

takitus (profile) says:

Contribute by freeing data

Maher’s article makes an excellent case. As she’s a bit short on the details of how Amazon, Facebook, etc. should contribute, her argument does come across as a veiled “hey, send us some donations!”. But there are many other ways in which these companies could contribute—in server space and analytics, for example. Most crucially, if major internet services benefit from the free data produced by these projects, they might respond in kind—by freeing, rather than siloing, the data that they create.

Google Books was, in this sense, an example of a step in the right direction. By creating a very large body of (basically) free/open data, this project has probably fueled hundreds of Wikipedia articles—which, in nice symbiotic style, are used by Siri and Alexa devices to provide quick summaries.

Although I’m sure money and infrastructure would be the most welcome short-term contributions that Google, et al could make to Wikimedia, free data is the lifeblood of commons projects. But far more valuable, in the long term, would be a pledge to reverse the siloization trend (something they’re primarily responsible for, after all) and to open-source their own projects.

I.T. Guy says:

“More recently, YouTube and Facebook have turned to Wikipedia for a new reason: to address their issues around fake news and conspiracy theories.”

So are these platforms going to treat the MSM in the same way? It’s easy to go after flat-earthers and no-plane-ers but what about the “official” means of lies… er… News?

Anonymous Coward says:

UN-hidden. -- If all dissent will start copy-pasting what's hidden,

then it’d break Techdirt of that sneaky tactic, of claiming it’s done by “the community” instead of an Admin, when ALL the comments which are hidden are dissent, NEVER of fanboys. — But I don’t advocate that, never promote anyone wasting time here, somewhat self-defeating!

But here’s the original in all its awfulness:

Maybe you could give Wikipedia some tips as to which approach worked for you when Google and Facebook started sending money your way, Mike.

Anonymous Coward says:

UN-hidden. -- If all dissent will start copy-pasting what's hidd

then it’d break Techdirt of that sneaky tactic, of claiming it’s done by "the community" instead of an Admin, when ALL the comments which are hidden are dissent, NEVER of fanboys. — But I don’t advocate that, never promote anyone wasting time here, somewhat self-defeating!

But here’s the original that Techdirt censored:

Maybe you could give Wikipedia some tips as to which approach worked for you when Google and Facebook started sending money your way, Mike.

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