A few months ago, Wikipedia’s parent entity, The Wikimedia Foundation, set about “condemning the black hat practice of paid advocacy editing and sockpuppeting on Wikipedia,” it said in a press release.
Getting paid to write a Wikipedia article can be a violation of Wikipedia’s terms, a Wikipedia editor told Business Insider.
It is a particular violation when that paid editing is coming from fake accounts, known as “sockpuppets” or from real accounts owned by people who get paid to write specific things, known as “meatpuppets.”
As part of Wikimedia’s crackdown, it sent a cease-and-desist letter to a company called Wiki-PR. The Wiki-PR website advertises itself like this: “Let the largest Wikipedia consulting firm help you claim your top spot in Google search results.”
The cease-and-desist letter said:
“As we have discussed with you previously, we have come to the opinion that, based on the evidence that we have to date, that agent(s) of your company have engaged in sockpuppetry or meatpuppetry to, among other things, make it appear as if certain articles are written by unbiased sources when in fact those articles are authored by Wiki-PR for money.”
Wiki-PR CEO Jordan French tells Business Insider that he was wrongly vilified by the cease-and-desist letter.
He says that not all paid editing is a violation of Wikipedia’s policies and that his company helps people who want to contribute to Wikipedia, or to fix wrong information published about them on the site, but don’t have the time or expertise to navigate Wikipedia’s complex editing structure.
Business Insider talked with French about the situation and heard his side of the story. Here’s an edited transcript:
Business Insider: What happened between the Wikimedia Foundation and Wiki-PR?
There was an investigation. They made a bunch of errors and confused us with someone else, largely. They hired a law firm, Cooley, to send us a cease-and-desist letter and issued a press release.
BI: What do you mean by errors?
The issue of sockpuppeting, there’s no evidence they could present [that we were doing that] so they called it behavioural. Then they called it meatpuppeting.
We’ve been painted like we’re some kind of evil entity out there scrubbing truths from Wikipedia that are bad about people and companies.
What are we actually doing? We’re starting with legally actionable libel. People call us. They’re upset. They’re crying. They’re pissed. They typically have a lot of money. They are one hair trigger away from suing the Wikimedia Foundation and/or trying to subpoena to find out who the editors are who smeared them, whether it is an anonymous IP [address], which is almost always the case, or an actual editor.
BI: You are a lawyer, correct?
I’m licensed in New York and Massachusetts. I worked for a few years as a federal investigator. I also have the background of an IP attorney.
BI: Even though you hired people to edit Wikipedia pages, these were not fake accounts? They used actual accounts and email addresses? In what way was Wikipedia claiming this was a violation?
I don’t know. I’ve read their terms of service over and over again. I see nothing about sockpuppets in there. I see nothing about paid editing. I see nothing about any of the terms used in the cease-and-desist letter.
BI: In the Wikimedia Foundation press release, it said that it banned about 300 sockpuppet accounts. How many people were working for you?
Probably in total something like 45.
BI: To your knowledge these 45 people didn’t have multiple accounts?
No. They wouldn’t. Typically they are people who have edited Wikipedia before. They know the rules. You don’t want to get total amateurs in there because they are going to mess it up, so what good is that?
BI: Since the cease-and-desist letter, is Wiki-PR still in business?
Of course. As long as there’s libel on Wikipedia, we’ll [have work].
We’re not touching Wikipedia. There’s no reason to directly edit. We’re helping people with other ways to do it. [We are telling them things like] here are the editors and other people you should talk to solve whatever the problem is. Consulting has always been a huge part of our business.
BI: What is it that you do for people if you are no longer actually editing Wikipedia pages themselves?
We don’t offer legal advice. But our theory is that it’s better to engage the community and get the facts on the page. And there are a lot of ways to do that. You don’t have to directly edit them on there.
Typically, a client contacts us after they’ve tried some self-help solution and usually that means they get into a “reverting” war with some who-knows editor, or some person that doesn’t like them.
We’re basically consulting with clients on how to rectify situations. We guide them through the rules that will matter, the rules that will [keep changes from being] revoked. These things can sometimes take months.
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