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Look who’s visiting the WMF

by Gregory Kohs

This blog post is one of a five-part series of investigative reports by Gregory Kohs, documenting conflicts of interest among individuals and organizations who have financial ties with the Wikimedia Foundation.

In May 2014, as it does just about every month, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) welcomed in-person visitors from various organizations and companies. Seven of the commercial businesses represented on the visitor list have Wikipedia articles. Allow me to demonstrate which of these seven articles possibly have been edited by paid employees of the organization, or by editors with a conflict of interest regarding the subject. If not properly disclosed, these sorts of edits may violate Wikipedia guidelines or even a new Wikimedia Foundation Terms of Use that covers all of their hosted projects.

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Paul Hastings (THL)
Rishi Sharma and Peter Cooper from the law firm Paul Hastings paid a visit to the WMF in May. The Wikipedia article about their firm was edited five times in 2014 by User Paul Hastings LLP (TCL), even as recently as last week. The Bright Line Rule (“do not edit Wikipedia articles directly if you are a paid advocate”) decreed by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales isn’t posted in the WMF headquarters guest reception lounge, apparently. The top editor of the article is Teotret (TCL). The next most-frequent editor is 216.241.250.30 (TCL), which traces to Paul Hastings headquarters. Documentation of this controversial incident at Paul Hastings has been repeatedly scrubbed from the Wikipedia article. So, we can conclude that the Paul Hastings firm is “on the clock” maintaining their own Wikipedia article.

Gemalto (THL)
Top contributor is Aaaatu (TCL), of whose edits since March 2011, more than 70% are related to Gemalto. Second-place contributor is SCMG4284 (TCL), a single-purpose account. Number three editor is Tim Cawsey (TCL), who works in corporate communications, managing branding & content for Gemalto. The fifth most-frequent editor is Kabbott.6bis (TCL) — could that possibly be Ken Abbott, head of web communications at Gemalto? And even our friend and paid Wikipedia “consultant” David King (CorporateM (TCL)) has pitched in a bit to help Gemalto’s Wikipedia article. (In King’s defense, his edits mostly hacked away at the PR fluff.) Don’t forget the edits by 2.4.14.87 (TCL), which geo-locates to Marseille, which is exactly how you get to one of Gemalto’s main branches.

Free Press (organization) (THL)
Since May 2011, this article has complained to readers that it “appears to be written like an advertisement”, but it hasn’t been sufficiently fixed that anyone felt entitled to remove that tag. The top contributor to this article has been a single-purpose account, Celinejesse (TCL). I haven’t determined which Free Press staff member she is, but it’s quite apparent that she works for Free Press, with edits like this. The next three leading editors of the article are affiliated with Dr. Jonathan A. Obar, who with the Wikimedia Foundation currently works as a Public Policy Teaching Fellow as well as a Wikipedia Education Program Coordinator for the Wikipedia Education Program. The top IP address editing the article is 70.21.127.178 (TCL), which geo-locates very close to Free Press headquarters in Washington, DC. It spent a week in January 2008 editing nothing but the Free Press article. Another leading editor of the article in 2011 is Hcshapiro (TCL), while coincidentally Holiday Shapiro wrote a blog for Free Press in 2008 and lived in Florence, Massachusetts, home of the Free Press. The most recent activity on the article was the complete removal of a section labeled “Criticism”.

Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen (THL) (or, “Swiss Radio”)
This article appears to have been written without influence from paid employees of Swiss Radio. Congratulations, Wikipedia!

Woods Bagot (THL)
This company was likely brought in to WMF headquarters to discuss improvements to office space design. The firm is also apparently fairly good at designing its own Wikipedia article. The article was created in 2006 by a user who initiated himself to Wikipedia by editing for three days, exclusively about Woods Bagot and uploading professional photos of Woods Bagot buildings; then he disappeared from Wikipedia for more than three months. The article has since been tended to by likely corporate accounts named Woods Bagot (TCL) and WBTwitter (TCL), as well as IP addresses 203.192.136.94 (TCL)220.101.72.97 (TCL), and 202.147.41.22 (TCL), which geo-locate to Melbourne and Sydney, where Woods Bagot maintains key office locations.

Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (THL)
We saved the two insurance companies for last, because insurance is tedious and predictable, unless you’ve got one of those special “Wikipolicies” that lets anyone edit out your most critical coverages without your even knowing about it. Anyway, Guardian’s top Wikipedia editor is 63.72.235.4 (TCL), which is an IP address owned by Guardian Life Insurance in Jersey City. The number-two editor is Chauncey.alcorn (TCL) — wouldn’t it be a coincidence if this was the real Chauncey Alcorn, who has been the Corporate Communications Specialist at Guardian Life Insurance for four years? His first Wikipedia edit ever, removed over 1,400 bytes of “controversy” section content from Guardian Life. Maybe the WMF wanted a competitive bid to compare against Guardian, so they also entertained a visit from a good, honest Midwestern insurance company…

$$$

CNA Financial (THL)
The final of the seven articles in our sample also shows many signs of conflict-of-interest editing. The editor who added more text to CNA’s Wikipedia article than any other editor was Dav3wil5oncna (TCL). (Get it? “Dave Wilson CNA”, perhaps?) This editor spent several hours on Monday, January 11, 2010 (during normal office hours in North American time zones), adding huge amounts of text to the article, then disappeared from Wikipedia completely. We can note that in 2010, CNA’s marketing communications specialist was named David Wilson. But maybe Dave didn’t entirely disappear, because five minutes after his final logged-in edit to Wikipedia, the IP address 159.10.134.170 (TCL) picked up right where Dave had left off, and we know which company owns that IP: CNA Insurance. In fact, that IP address edited the article more often than any other IP. In 2011, another new user spent some time on the CNA article — this time going by the name Davidkwilson (TCL). But he just made a very minor change, removing a pesky paragraph about a criminal investigation against CNA. His removal was instantly reverted, but last year another attempt at removal was made by the creatively-named Cnaeditor (TCL). The criminal investigation was added back eight days later, but if you’re persistent enough on Wikipedia and wait just over 24 hours, you can ultimately sweep the criminality under the rug.

The big picture on conflicted, self-interested editing

I am amused at how impotent Jimmy Wales’ Bright Line Rule is, given that approximately 85% of the companies his Foundation invites to visit the office on New Montgomery Street in San Francisco are violating it. No worries that the visiting company may be hiding a criminal history, using single-purpose corporate accounts, all against the new Wikimedia Foundation Terms of Use — the WMF welcomes them into the office, anyway. Only rarely is anything done to “correct” their articles to a more non-biased, neutral point of view. Conversely, if a paid editor of Wikipedia (who actively wished to disclose all of his clients up front, from the get-go) attempts to attend a Wikimedia chapter conference, he is told that he is banned from setting foot in the building.

And here’s the nifty thing: if you post  a link to this blog post on Jimbo Wales’ Talk page, just watch what happens.

 

Image credits: Flickr/archer10 (Dennis), Flickr/giulia.forsythe ~ licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

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