Wikipedia honcho caught in scandal quits, defends paid edits

High-placed editors at Wikipedia's U.K. site were caught in a simmering paid-PR scandal. After news broke, one resignation and a little backpedaling has done little to solve the problem.

This past week, Wikipedia was rocked by revelations that high-level editors and the chair trustee of Wikimedia UK were providing personal clients with special favors and increased exposure on the Internet's encyclopedia.

At the center of the debacle were Wikimedia UK Chair Roger Bamkin and fellow Wikipedian in Residence Maximillion Klein, who had been openly advertising SEO pay-for-play services for clients on his Web site Untrikiwiki. Klein did not admit to anything, yet quickly removed damning Web site material, and Wikimedia UK Trustee Roger Bamkin -- at the scandal's center -- resigned.

Members of the Wikipedia editing community had been calling out the paid-PR activity, yet were continually shouted down by opposing editors, effectively derailing whistle-blowers' arguments.

When news of the paid-PR scandal finally broke outside Wikipedia's discussion forums, Klein quickly removed language and artwork advertising his access and services, and posted an unapologetic statement explaining that his business believes there is nothing wrong with paid COI ("Conflict of Interest") editing for special interests on Wikipedia.

After the scandal went public, Bamkin continued to insist there was no issue or conflict with his side businesses and Wikimedia UK. Bamkin's supporters from Wikipedia's GLAM WikiProject (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) defended him with vitriol, and made efforts to devalue the news and derail arguments against topics surrounding Bamkin's actions and paid editing.

But two days after the scandal surfaced, Wikimedia UK announced the sudden resignation of Bamkin as a Trustee.

Does anyone top level at Wikimedia UK or Wikipedia care?
In regard to this scandal, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has spoken out on his Wikipedia discussion page against paid-PR editing. But how much effect that opinion will have in the ensuing conflict remains to be seen.

Bamkin had been assisting his client, the controversial government of Gibraltar, in the creation of new, positive articles as a means to promote tourism and increase tourist revenue for the troubled locale.

Representatives for the Gibraltar Ministry of Tourism bragged to the press about marketing Gibraltar as a Wikipedia tourist product, as well as their assurances they had that their pages would remain free of "negative vandalism."

While talking about Gibraltar's 1 million pound ($1.62 million) investment in the product, the Ministry of Tourism made headlines in Gibraltar's Independent newspaper, which wrote:

The enthusiasm and conviction radiating from both the Min. for Tourism, Neil Costa, and Clive Finlayson who came up with the idea of marketing Gibraltar as a tourist product through Wikipedia, which the Ministry for Tourism has embarked upon, leaves one without a doubt that the venture will truly be a success.

On Bamkin's professional LinkedIn page, he claimed that his Wikipedia clients could expect "£2m [$3.25 million] payback on £50K [$81,150] investment" -- no doubt enhanced by Bamkin's ability to facilitate placement on Wikipedia's front page in the "Did You Know" feature.

That's about $3,250,000 payback on an $81,000 investment.

Wikipedia's main page, with an estimated 8 million views a day, is shockingly valuable real estate.

Wikipedia exposed as a conflicted mess: Derailment for Dummies
The Wikipedia community had decried the unsavory behavior and open profiteering -- which most believe runs contrary to Wikipedia's ethos -- for months before public exposure prompted action. But because those at the the center of the paid-PR issues have the most editing power and clout, they appear to have dismissed discussion to the contrary.

Within Wikipedia, the issue seems to be far from over. Wikipedia's community is still locked in an internal fight over whether there has been any wrongdoing, while those accused (and in support of the accused) maintain that even if there was a problem, it's not really a problem.

Klein's Untrikiwiki statement barely acknowledged the week's headlines that had his and Bamkin's name up in lights from Fox News to Le Monde, Slate to Reddit (and more), playing it down and calling it only:

...public attention from Wikipedians who disagree strongly with our belief that COI consultants can serve in a mutually beneficial liaison that is good for both Wikipedia and organizations that contract us.

Bamkin didn't respond to any press requests for comment.

Instead, he defended himself on the Did You Know discussion page

"It was a mistake to nominate, then approve an article about Gibraltar," he wrote. Bamkin also wrote that his "potential conflicts of interest are well documented."

Wikimedia UK has not acknowledged the wider problem of paid-PR editing and Wikipedia. Instead, it posted a carefully crafted statement separating Roger Bamkin's projects and Wikimedia UK's funds.

However, not everyone in the Wikimedia Foundation is content to keep calm and ignore the issue. Erik Möller, the Wikimedia Foundation deputy director and vice president of Engineering and Product Development, posted a strong opinion on the Wikimedia-l mailing list:

The self-promotional aspect here (the degree to which Monmouthpedia is clearly used by Roger as a way to advance his personal career) is real and somewhat unsavory. Serving on a board of a nonprofit ought to be done first and foremost to serve that organization's objectives, not to promote separate business goals.

Perhaps certain conflicts of interest are not as subject to interpretation as Bamkin and his ilk would like everyone to believe. When it comes to a nonprofit foundation's charitable status, having a scandal such as this hit a nerve in nonprofit-land is painfully sobering. Nonprofit Quarterly tells us that, actually, the Wikimedia UK problem is very real:

Conflicts of interest can take many different forms and the charges being leveled against the core of those running Wikipedia UK is a good example.

The organization only won its tax-exempt status in 2011, but since then it has been beset by scandal. Trustee chairman and IT consultant Ashley van Haeften resigned last month after it was reported that he had been banned indefinitely from editing on Wikipedia. This followed his set to with other members regarding the inclusion of "explicit" material and charges that he had violated editing rules.

...Bamkin obviously broke at least one of the following Wikipedia UK guidelines...

Arguments, vitriol against outside detractors, and community infighting aside, to the outside this looks like an exploitation of volunteer editors for personal profit.

Perhaps the paid-PR scandal is a coming of age for Wikipedia in the era of SEO shills, and the public's increasing awareness about powerful corners of the Internet -- and how subject they can be to the interests of close-knit friends and business associates.

In this light, a Web site as insanely valuable as Wikipedia will always attract gaming for promotion.

When the Web site in question depends on a reputation comprised of integrity, objectivity, accountability, and openness in regard to recording the world's facts and knowledge, the question becomes, "Who watches the watchmen?"

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About the author

Violet Blue is a Forbes Web Celeb, CBSi/ZDNet blogger and columnist, a high-profile tech personality and one of Wired's Faces of Innovation. She is an expert in the field of sex and technology, a sex-positive mainstream media pundit (MacLife, CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Show) and has been interviewed, quoted and featured in outlets ranging from ABC News to the Wall Street Journal. A feature writer and columnist since 1998, Violet has authored and edited many award-winning, best selling books in six translations; a book sample can be found on Oprah.com. She was a notorious sex columnist for Hearst's San Francisco Chronicle, and Forbes calls her "omnipresent on the web." She headlines at global conferences including ETech, LeWeb, SXSW: Interactive and two Google Tech Talks at Google, Inc. and received a standing ovation at Seattle's Gnomedex. The London Times named Blue "one of the 40 bloggers who really count." She is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET.

 

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