Are corporations that use Wikipedia giving back?

Companies rely heavily on Wikipedia for information, but it's not always a two-way street

YouTube’s plan to combat conspiracy videos with information sourced from Wikipedia got push back from a number of different quarters — including, surprisingly, Wikimedia itself. Seems Google didn’t mention the plan to the foundation before unveiling it at SXSW earlier this month. Whoops.

Wikimedia executive director Katherine Maher responded with an even-keeled statement reiterating that, while the crowd-sourced encyclopedia’s information is, indeed, free to use, well, it might be nice if corporations that used it gave a little back.

“Wikipedia’s content [is] freely licensed for reuse by anyone,” Maher wrote, “and that’s part of our mission: that every single person can share in free knowledge. We want people all over the world to use, share, add to, and remix Wikipedia. At the same time, we encourage companies who use Wikimedia’s content to give back in the spirit of sustainability.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time Google has utilized the work of Wikipedia’s army of devoted contributors and editors — and the company is hardly alone here. In recent years, the site’s vast wealth of peer-edited knowledge has, for better or worse, become the backbone of a number of wildly used services — including, notably, smart assistants. Ask Alexa, Assistant or Siri who the Queen of England is, and they’ll all pull that information from the same place.

In a conversation earlier this week, Wikimedia’s Chief Revenue Office, Lisa Gruwell told TechCrunch that this sort of usage doesn’t constitute any sort of formal relationship. Most companies more or less hook into an API to utilize that breadth of knowledge. It’s handy for sure, and it’s all well within Wikimedia’s fair use rules, but as with Maher’s letter, the CRO expressed some concerns about seemingly one-sided relationships.

“Our content is there to be used,” explained Gruwell. “It’s freely-licensed and it’s freely-licensed for a reason. At the same time, it’s like the environment. It’s there to be used, but it’s not there to be exploited. We do need the people who use the content to give back in some way. That’s what we encourage. There’s no paywall. We don’t charge for data. If you can afford to give, we ask that you give, and if you can’t, you still get use it. That’s kind of the social contract we have with our readers.”

“Exploitation” is, of course, a tricky word when it comes something like Wikipedia. Much like NPR or PBS, it’s a service that’s offered up freely to anyone, but one that relies upon charitable donations to stay afloat. Smart assistants are certainly playing by the applicable rules when it comes to leveraging that information base, but the way it’s presented can ultimately have a siloed effect on Wikipedia.

In the case of a primarily voice-based assistant like Alexa, even when Wikipedia is cited, there isn’t a direct connection to the source material. That means users don’t have immediate view of primary sources (a key part of Wikipedia’s DNA). It also means that Wikimedia’s donation information isn’t front and center.

“I don’t mean to sound like the Lorax here,” said Gruwell. “If you overuse something and you don’t give back to it, you can harm it. In the case of Alexa and Siri, our content gets intermediated. Wikipedia works because people can contribute to it, people can edit it. Also, once a year, when we ask people can donate. When they get their information not from us — but Wikipedia content through something like Siri or something like Alexa — that opportunity to either contribute back as an editor is broken, and that opportunity to contribute, to donate is also broken.”

A majority of the Foundation’s support comes from individual donors, courtesy of six million users who give, on average $10. Support from corporations (excluding foundations) makes up about four-percent of the company’s donations, according to Gruwell. Of course, it’s possible that some of the big anonymous funders have direct ties to these companies, but the list of top corporate donors is actually a bit surprising.

Here are the numbers for the 2017-2018 Fiscal Year:

  1. Google (more than $1 million)
  2. Humble Bundle ($456,000)
  3. Craigslist Foundation ($250,000)
  4. Cards Against Humanity ($35,000)

Gruwell told me that, in spite of the recent dust up with YouTube, “of the top five big Internet companies, the big technology companies, our relationship with Google is by far the best, both in terms of what they contribute to the organization and generally working with us. I will say in many instances, they do reach out to us and they do work with us. We do have partnerships with them. I think it’s a good relationship certainly, compared to the others.”

Other big players also contribute, by way of matching donations. Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google (again) all contributed around $50,000 by matching employee gifts. Amazon, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found on that list.

In an era when all sides of the political spectrum are shouting “fake news” at one another, source citing and fact-checking are growing increasingly important. Both have long been a fundamental tenant of Wikipedia, as the site attempt to maintain neutrality on even the most hot button of topics.

“Like every platform on the Internet, I think we are concerned and sometimes face bad actors,” said Gruwell. “Those concerns are real. We’ve done a lot of things just in terms of trying to build tools like machine learning tools to detect bad faith contributions. In our community, they’re watching particular pages. They’re certainly doing their part.”

As smart assistants, YouTube and the like grow increasingly a part of our day to day lives, it becomes more and more important that Wikimedia can do its job. And donations don’t grow on trees.