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Wikipedia Is Finally Asking Big Tech to Pay Up

by | Mar 16, 2021 | New, News

No one is perfect – that’s why pencils have erasers.

— Wolfgang Riebe

From the start, Google and Wikipedia have been in a kind of unspoken partnership: Wikipedia produces the information Google serves up in response to user queries, and Google builds up Wikipedia’s reputation as a source of trustworthy information. Of course, there have been bumps, including Google’s bold attempt to replace Wikipedia with its own version of user-generated articles, under the clumsy name “Knol,” short for knowledge. Knol never did catch on, despite Google’s offer to pay the principal author of an article a share of advertising money. But after that failure, Google embraced Wikipedia even tighter—not only linking to its articles but reprinting key excerpts on its search result pages to quickly deliver Wikipedia’s knowledge to those seeking answers.

The two have grown in tandem over the past 20 years, each becoming its own household word. But whereas one mushroomed into a trillion-dollar company, the other has remained a midsize nonprofit, depending on the generosity of individual users, grant-giving foundations, and the Silicon Valley giants themselves to stay afloat. Now Wikipedia is seeking to rebalance its relationships with Google and other big tech firms like Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, whose platforms and virtual assistants lean on Wikipedia as a cost-free virtual crib sheet.

Today, the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates the Wikipedia project in more than 300 languages as well as other wiki-projects, is announcing the launch of a commercial product, Wikimedia Enterprise. The new service is designed for the sale and efficient delivery of Wikipedia's content directly to these online behemoths (and eventually, to smaller companies too).

Conversations between the foundation’s newly created subsidiary, Wikimedia LLC, and Big Tech companies are already underway, point-people on the project said in an interview, but the next couple of months will be about seeking the reaction of Wikipedia’s thousands of volunteers. Agreements with the firms could be reached as soon as June.

“This is the first time the foundation has recognized that commercial users are users of our service,” says Lane Becker, a senior director at the foundation, who has been ramping up the Enterprise project with a small team. “We’ve known they are there, but never really treated them as a user base.”

For years now, Wikipedia has made freely available a snapshot of everything that appears on the site every two weeks—a so-called “data dump” for users—as well as a “firehose” of all the changes as they are happening, delivered in a different format. This is how big companies typically import Wikipedia content into their platforms, with no special help from the foundation.

“They all have teams dedicated to Wikipedia management—big ones,” Becker said, adding that making the different content speak to each other required “a lot of low level work—cleaning and managing—which is very expensive.”

The free, albeit clunky, option will still be available to all users, including commercial ones. This means that Wikimedia Enterprise’s principal competition, in the words of Lisa Seitz-Gruwell, the foundation’s chief revenue officer, is Wikipedia itself.

But the formatting problems with the free version offer an obvious opportunity to create a product worth paying for, one tailored to the requirements of each company. For example, Enterprise will deliver the real-time changes and comprehensive data dumps in a compatible format. There will also be a level of customer service typical of business arrangements but unprecedented for the volunteer-directed project: a number for its customers to call, a guarantee of certain speeds for delivering the data, a team of experts assigned to solve specific technical flaws.

In another break for a project like Wikipedia, which was conceived as part of the world of free software, Enterprise will host its version of Wikipedia content not on the project’s own servers but on Amazon Web Services, which it says will allow it to meet the needs of its customers better. In explanatory materials, the foundation takes pains to justify the decision and stresses that “it is not contractually, technically, or financially bound to use AWS infrastructure.”

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As these comments suggest, the Wikipedia movement, which has proudly stood by its early Internet idealism, is wrestling with how much to cater to the needs of the commercial giants with very different norms not just about free software, but also transparency and “monetizing” its users. However, the foundation officials shepherding the Enterprise project argue that Wikipedia would be foolish to disengage from the big companies, since they provide the primary ways for people to read its articles.

By offering more useful data, Enterprise will help ensure that commercial operators display the latest, most accurate version of articles and crack down on vandalism quicker. A contractual relationship will also more formally recognize that these companies are extracting value from a voluntary project, and therefore must “contribute back to the commons,” Seitz-Gruwell says. They should be required to help sustain the resources that their businesses rely on—like a logger planting trees. Similarly, Wikipedia can use the contracts to insist that it be credited in certain ways or help direct volunteers to the site.

The Foundation says it doesn’t expect Enterprise ever to become the primary source of funding for the foundation’s roughly $100 million budget. User donations, supplemented by grants, should still carry most of the load, Seitz-Gruwell says, but having a reliable additional revenue stream from companies would offer stability for the foundation, particularly as it embarks on an ambitious agenda for the year 2030 to reach more parts of the worlds and more communities with “free knowledge.”

“We have a big job ahead of us, no doubt about it,” she says, adding that it “requires revenue growth.”

Once you concede that big platforms will control the flow of commerce and information online, you can focus on how to get your cut. A proud Silicon Valley holdout, the Wikimedia Foundation is finally doing just that. But of course, for a project like Wikipedia, and other industries whose products have been siphoned by the platforms, the flip side of Big Tech-funded stability is the threat of dependency. Wikipedia will now necessarily be orienting itself to the demands of the commercial Internet, even if it comes in return for sizable payments to support a better, stronger, more diverse community.

Wikipedia is an extraordinary resource, a cumulative effort over two decades to describe the world, both its long past and its of-the-moment twists and turns. As it’s grown, it’s remained committed to its core non-commercial ideals. Big Tech companies, on the other hand, have proven themselves to be rapacious capitalists—they take as much as they can, and ask for permission later. They will imitate a competitor in a heartbeat to gain control of a service they consider valuable. Wikipedia’s decision to enter into an agreement with them and begin an explicit relationship, as opposed to an unspoken one, carries the risk that the commercial world’s values—as well as its ample rewards—could come to dominate.

For Wikipedia to reject this steady stream of money, to throw up objections based on principle, would perhaps seem as quixotic and stubborn as those homeowners who turn down a big check from a real estate developer planning a new skyscraper. The building usually goes up anyway, while the house sits in its shadows, a relic of the past. And the owner has missed out on a big payday to boot.

After decades, Wikipedia is choosing to work with the forces of commercial development. Not to strain the analogy, but it hopes to start relationships that can bring some sensible urban planning to the Internet, with the equivalent of parks, affordable housing and, crucially, restraints on runaway development. One can only hope that it finds partners worthy of such faith.

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