Wikipedia Seeks to Tighten Its Relationship with Big Tech

Big Tech has heavily relied on content from Wikipedia in recent years, particularly in the wake of concerns about “fake news” online. Last week, the Wikimedia Foundation, which owns Wikipedia, announced that it is launching Wikimedia Enterprise, a commercial service catering to major corporate clients. It aims to provide special services to corporations already using site content under its free license, specifically providing easier and more reliable access than under the current free system.

Past reliance on Wikipedia by Big Tech has resulted in numerous scandals where the Masters of the Universe inadvertently spread hoaxes and false claims originally added to the online encyclopedia, something the Foundation claims the new service will help prevent. Income from the service will supplement the Foundation’s current donor-driven revenue stream, according to the announcement.

Known as “OKAPI” previously, the Wikimedia Enterprise service has been in development since last year. While Wikipedia content is released on a free license allowing use by anyone with attribution, large-scale use is currently made possible through a typically bi-weekly database dump. The Wikimedia Enterprise service would change this with an API or Application Programming Interface, programs widely used to link online services, to allow real-time access to all site contents for paying users. Wikimedia Enterprise will be managed by Wikimedia LLC, a for-profit entity the Foundation established, which it states in an FAQ creates a legal firewall for the Foundation and avoids using donor money for the service. Wiredreports several Big Tech companies are already negotiating the use of the new system.

Currently, Big Tech firms seeking up-to-date versions of Wikipedia use their own in-house services to scrape and incorporate content from the site. This method is currently used for Google’s “knowledge panels” that accompany search results. Earlier this year, Google expanded its use of the site to also have them appear in pop-up menus next to links with the stated rationale of providing information on the “reliability” of a given source. Facebook has used Wikipedia in a similar fashion since 2018 to provide information on sources and last year introduced its own “knowledge panel” system. Google’s YouTube has also used Wikipedia to “fact-check” claimed “conspiracy theory” videos.

Reliance on Wikipedia by Big Tech is premised on the supposed need to counter “fake news” online and guarantee “reliability” of information. Corporate media have praised the site in the fight against “fake news” and called it a model for Big Tech to follow. Such praise follows a strategy by the Foundation to argue for Wikipedia’s reliability, a strategy originally recommended in a public relations audit by Minassian Media, run by the Head of Communications for the Clinton Foundation. That strategy suggested capitalizing on concerns related to the 2016 Presidential election, where Donald Trump’s victory was widely attributed to “fake news” by the media.

Using real-time information from every Wikipedia page, however, has frequently seen these services used to disseminate false information after vandals exploited the site’s largely open editing process. Google has been notoriously vulnerable as when it spread the claims that “Nazism” was the political ideology of the California Republican Party, a Wikipedia vandal’s edit that had been up for about a week. Recently, Google’s knowledge panel also spread claims that the Conservative Political Action Conference included “Neo-Nazis” and “rapists” among its attendees because of Wikipedia vandalism. False information has also been spread through Google’s Home virtual assistant device. Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri devices also use the site.

In its FAQ, one claimed benefit of the service is being able to implement mechanisms that would prevent the spread of vandalism through Big Tech services. However, virtual assistants also use Wikidata, a Wikipedia-affiliated site where contributors create data profiles on various subjects. Use of Wikidata has similarly spread false information through virtual assistants and even Wikipedia itself due to the integration of Wikidata into most sites owned by the Wikimedia Foundation. This notably occurred when vandals labeled then-First Lady Melania Trump a “porn star” for over a week before the vandalism was removed. Wikidata is currently not included in the Enterprise API.

Other benefits cited for the Wikimedia Enterprise service include reducing costs for corporate clients who rely on in-house services to provide real-time Wikipedia data to users and allowing smaller businesses that would face difficulties developing their own system more able to compete with major firms. The service would further provide an alternative revenue stream for the Wikimedia Foundation itself. Currently relying mainly on donations from individuals as well as institutions, including through the Wikimedia Endowment, the Foundation states the Enterprise service is intended to provide another major source of funding with unused profits distributed to the Foundation, Endowment, or various connected organizations.

Among the issues the service is intended to address is the tendency for businesses to use Wikipedia content uncredited. Wikipedia criticism site Wikipediocracy found that Amazon’s Alexa would use site contents without noting it originated on the online encyclopedia. The Enterprise API would not completely prevent the problem of uncredited use of the site as media outlets and academics have often used Wikipedia without credit, such as news outlets like the BBC and various academic textbooks copying extensively from the site’s biased page about the GamerGate anti-corruption movement in gaming. One study found Wikipedia editing has helped shape scientific literature. This reliance has often led to the spread of hoaxes.

For many supporters of Wikipedia, the introduction of Wikimedia Enterprise is seen as a welcome development. Reports have previouslynoted Big Tech using the site allowed them to profit off it without compensation while cutting into Wikipedia’s own traffic and thus the number of people who would see their regular banners requesting donations, although major tech companies have contributed millions to the Wikimedia Endowment. Consequently, many reports about Wikimedia Enterprise, such as in Wired, cited the development as Wikipedia “finally asking Big Tech to pay up” for their use of its content. Such arguments were cited by the Foundation themselves to support the move.

Members of the Wikipedia and affiliated site communities, however, are worried about becoming dependent on corporate clients. One user claimed the Foundation was “letting the wolves in at the door” with Wikimedia Enterprise. Some members expressed concerns fewer people would donate knowing such an alternative revenue stream exists, though Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales argued it could reassure donors their money would support the cause of Wikipedia, rather than basic maintenance costs. The community liaison for Wikimedia Enterprise stated only one donor complaint has so far been received about the new venture. The use of Amazon’s cloud-hosting service by Wikimedia Enterprise, rather than its own system, was also criticized.

While the Foundation insists clients could not influence Wikipedia content, financially partnering with Big Tech would likely deepen existing pressure over “diversity” and “inclusivity” issues on Wikipedia and associated sites. Such claims are among the few remaining criticisms of the site by corporate media. The Foundation’s response to such criticism has entailed greater intervention in the governance of site communities, sparking editor revolts. In February, the Foundation approved a “code of conduct” it proposed last year, which pushes a left-wing identity politics agenda with measures such as requiring contributors use “preferred pronouns” in conversations. The Wikimedia Foundation cited the “code of conduct” as helping address a supposed “gender gap” on Wikipedia.

Pressure from left-wing media and activists over the site’s “gender gap” has recently been found by one study to have got Wikipedia content pushed towards a pro-women bias. The Foundation further cited the “code of conduct” as potentially resolving “equity issues” in a statement last year endorsing Black Lives Matter protests, a statement ignoring associated violence and rioting and declaring “no neutral stance” exists on “racial justice” issues. Editors reflected that stance by pushing the agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement on Wikipedia.

Numerous studies and analyses have found Wikipedia already advances a left-wing bias, which has been frequentlycriticized by site co-founder Larry Sanger. Big Tech’s reliance on Wikipedia has also helped spread such biased characterizations as labeling Gateway Pundit a “fake news site” in its introduction, thus displaying the label in Google’s knowledge panel. Breitbart News links on Facebook meanwhile contain notes displaying Wikipedia’s inflammatory claim that Breitbart publishes “intentionally misleading stories.” Editors invoke the same “fake news” narrative behind Big Tech and Wikipedia’s tightening relationship when purging conservative media from the site, which helped editors support Joe Biden’s 2020 Presidential campaign, including by censoringNew York Post revelations on Biden family corruption allegations.

T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.

T.D. Adler