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Wikimedia U.K. faces ethics probe, funding squeeze

The Wikimedia Foundation has stepped in with an ethics investigation into Wikimedia U.K.'s conduct in a paid-PR scandal that isn't likely to go away anytime soon.

4 min read
Two weeks ago, a that embarrassed the organization behind the Internet's community encyclopedia. Bamkin was accused of doing special favors on Wikipedia for a paid client, the tiny territory of Gibraltar.

A week later, Bamkin quit, but was not exactly apologetic.

But that's not the end of the story. Wikimedia U.K. has had control of its funding taken away and is under investigation by the parent Wikimedia Foundation.

A joint statement issued by the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia U.K. said an ethics investigation will begin, and Wikimedia U.K.'s name will need to be cleared before the British chapter would be able to access the current year's donations. The Wikimedia Foundation wrote:

Over the past six months, a Wikimedia U.K. trustee led two Wikipedia-related projects, Monmouthpedia and Gibraltarpedia, in a way that seemed to some observers to blur his roles as a Wikimedia U.K. trustee, a paid consultant for the projects' government partners, and an editor of the English Wikipedia. This raised questions in the Wikimedia community about whether a trustee was able to balance appropriately the interests of his clients with his responsibilities to Wikimedia U.K., the values and editorial policies of Wikipedia, and whether any conflict of interest that arose as a result was effectively managed.

To better understand the facts and details of these allegations and to ensure that governance arrangements commensurate with the standing of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikimedia U.K. and the worldwide Wikimedia movement, Wikimedia U.K.'s trustees and the Wikimedia Foundation will jointly appoint an independent expert advisor to objectively review both Wikimedia U.K.'s governance arrangements and its handling of the conflict of interest...

Once the review is completed, it will be reviewed by both the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia U.K. and then published. At the same time, Wikimedia U.K. has agreed with the Wikimedia Foundation that the foundation shall process payments for the United Kingdom during this year's fundraiser...

The Wikimedia Foundation is the organization that funds Wikipedia. Here's how it works: Countries are broken into individual chapters. Each chapter, like Wikimedia U.K., is a charitable, not-for-profit foundation that must adhere to its country's laws for charity status, and must adhere to the Wikimedia Foundation's rules in exchange for using the Wikimedia name and its brand benefits, among other things.

Until yesterday, people in the U.K. who wanted to give money to Wikipedia ended up at the Wikimedia U.K. Web site (where U.K. law applied in regard to things like tax receipts and gift-matching).

Now those people will end up at the main Wikimedia Foundation fundraising site in the United States. The U.K. donations will go to the U.S.-based foundation.

With Wikimedia U.K. no longer allowed to handle its own donations locally, tax-wise it is the same as if Wikimedia U.K. were not a charity at all.

It remains to be seen how this might impact Wikimedia U.K.'s budget for next year, but it's a serious slap in the face for Wikimedia U.K.

Bamkin has not admitted to any ethical breach. Most of his colleagues at Wikimedia U.K. have defended him with vitriol and unapologetically stand by his conduct in advancing the interests of his clients.

On the public Wikimedia e-mail list, Bamkin has expressed his disappointment in the joint statement in a situation he sees as "an unfortunate bit of publicity for Wikimedia U.K. and the Foundation." He maintained that he made his business interests clear to Wikimedia U.K., yet then contradicted himself on his own page saying "It could be that you were unaware of my declared conflicts of interest, however it wasn't your job to be aware..."

Bamkin also reasserted the necessity of retaining his paid-PR Wikipedia clients with the parenthetical, "I have to eat."

Nonetheless, the Wikimedia Foundation has announced that independent investigators will be deciding the fate of $2 million in funds, tied to whether Wikimedia U.K. and its trustees can be cleared of ethical impropriety.

When Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was told about Bamkin's client in relation to Wikimedia U.K. Wales wrote:

It is wildly inappropriate for a board member of a chapter, or anyone else in an official role of any kind in a charity associated with Wikipedia, to take payment from customers in exchange for securing favorable placement on the front page of Wikipedia or anywhere else. - Jimbo Wales (talk) 00:54, 17 September 2012 (UTC)

The paid-PR scandal is the second scandal to hit Wikimedia U.K. this year. Just two months ago, Wikimedia U.K.'s chair was forced to resign after he was accused of violating rules around linking to explicit sexual material in the biographies of living persons, as well as using multiple accounts ("sock puppeting") and launching ad hominem attacks.

Perhaps now is a good time for the Wikimedia Foundation to play a stronger role in the guidance of its wayward U.K. organization.

Correction, October 2 at 11:54 a.m. PT: This story originally misstated the status of $2 million in funding. Wikimedia Foundation says no funds for Wikimedia UK have been frozen.