What Actually is Wikipedia's Conflict of Interest Policy

Whatever your position on the Rick Jeliffe/Microsoft/OOXML story, Rick’s spirited defense of why he thinks what he did doesn’t violate Wikipedia’s conflict of interest policy is worth a read, if only for its concise clarification of what that policy appears to be. But I think it’s worthwhile for more than that, since this story exposes a fascinating issue about the evolution of online media.

Just as the web itself was originally the sole province of amateurs and enthusiasts, but was soon discovered by marketers, and as new innovations like Google PageRank seemed to give power back to the people, but were thereafter encroached on by aggressive SEO, wikipedia has tried to secure an island of pure intent on the net. They have set aggressive policies to try to prevent abuse, but there is no doubt that a huge amount of the editing activity on wikipedia is still partisan and self interested.

It’s a hard problem, and it’s particularly difficult around current topics. Why? Because for current topics, wikipedia’s policy disallows primary sources, who are often the most knowledgeable, but who do often have a stake in how history appears. But on the other hand, if you don’t prohibit people with a stake in the issue, you get potential abuses, like people hired to work a particular position. (FWIW, this happened to the IETF as well. It’s “rough consensus and running code” policy was outflanked by big companies who just sent enough people to the meetings to affect the “rough consensus,” and gradually, the IETF became driven more by politics than pure technical excellence in some areas.) But on the other hand, open source projects have survived an influx of paid contributors, and in fact much appreciate the support from companies who obviously have a stake in the outcome, so just being paid is clearly not the issue.

One aspect of the problem is separating the individual from the corporate mandate. One of my favorite experiences in the history of open source came during an X Consortium meeting. People used to speak as peers, as engineers, but occasionally, they’d put on their corporate hat, and suddenly instead of saying “I think,” it would be “Digital thinks,” or “Apollo thinks,” or “IBM thinks.” And one time, I remember someone starting, “Digital thinks…” and then catching himself, and saying, “I don’t care what Digital thinks. They’re wrong about this…” If Microsoft could handle Rick saying “f*** it, they’re wrong about this,” it might be more palatable for them to pay him to participate in the discussion on their behalf. But it’s not clear that that was the case.

I don’t really want to get into the specifics of this case — I don’t know enough of the details to have an opinion that I’d fight for. I’m more interested in the general question of how Wikipedia manages self-interest (which is always present.) What’s your take on this issue? What could wikipedia do to recognize self-interested parties yet also keep them in check, rather than pretending that self-interest isn’t a factor?