Jimmy Wales accused of editing Wikipedia for donations

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Jimmy Wales at a Wikimania event in 2007.
Image: EvgenyGenkin.
(Image missing from commons: image; log)

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has been accused of editing pages in the encyclopedia in return for a donation to the Wikimedia Foundation. In an article published Tuesday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that former Novell computer scientist Jeff Merkey alleged Wales had made edits to his article on his behalf, in exchange for a donation to the Wikimedia Foundation. The news hit the website Slashdot later Tuesday, where the incident was dubbed "DonorGate".

According to The Daily Telegraph, Merkey claims that he was told by Wales in 2006 that the Wikipedia article about him could be made more favorable in exchange for a donation. Merkey made a donation of US$5,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation, and Wales made edits to the Wikipedia article about Merkey around the same time. Merkey published his claims on a public Wikimedia mailing list and sent a statement to The Associated Press.

Cquote1.svg Of course I would never offer, nor accept any offer, whereby a donation would buy someone special editorial treatment in the encyclopedia. Cquote2.svg

Jimmy Wales

In a response Wales called Merkey's statements "nonsense", saying "Of course I would never offer, nor accept any offer, whereby a donation would buy someone special editorial treatment in the encyclopedia. I do routinely assist people with WP:BLP issues, and I do courtesies for many people. Donations have no bearing on that at all." WP:BLP refers to Wikipedia's policy regarding biographies of living persons on the encyclopedia.

After deleting the Wikipedia article about Merkey in 2006, Wales wrote to Wikipedia editors he had done so "because of the unpleasantness of it" and requested that they "be extra careful here to be courteous and assume good faith". After erasing the article, Wales placed the article under protection with editing access limited to established users. Merkey ceased his $5,000.00 per year payments to the Wikimedia Foundation after reviewing what he called "evidence of diversion and mismanagement of the charities funds by Wales and the Wikimedia Board of Trustees".

Cquote1.svg The Wikimedia Foundation, its staff and board members, and the users of Wikipedia itself hold the core principles of 'no conflict of interest' in the highest regard. Cquote2.svg

Jay Walsh, Wikimedia Foundation

In a statement responding to a post about the incident on the site Techtree.com, Wikimedia Foundation's Head of Communications Jay Walsh addressed the Foundation's principles regarding conflict of interest: "The Wikimedia Foundation (the Foundation which operates and maintains Wikipedia and other free knowledge projects) has never solicited or accepted donations for the purposes of making edits or offering protection to Wikipedia articles. Nor has Jimmy Wales ever solicited or accepted donations for the Foundation in this capacity. These allegations are completely false. ... Jimmy has been unfailingly ethical and frugal in the use of all Foundation funds. The Wikimedia Foundation, its staff and board members, and the users of Wikipedia itself hold the core principles of 'no conflict of interest' in the highest regard."

After leaving Novell amidst allegations of misappropriation of trade secrets, Merkey was sued by his former employer. He filed a harassment lawsuit against organizations including the website Slashdot in 2005. Merkey filed a suit against Delta Air Lines and Natural Selection Foods in 2006, claiming his son had become sick from E. coli contaminated spinach.

Merkey is banned from editing Wikipedia due to a ruling by Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee. The Wikipedia Signpost, Wikipedia's community-written and community-edited newspaper, reported that a Wikipedia user account used by Merkey was blocked in October 2005 for "Personal attacks, legal threats, harassment, disruption". Merkey was later allowed to come back to edit Wikipedia in May 2007 under a different account. As the result of a ruling by Wikipedia's Arbitration Committe in a July 2007 arbitration case, Merkey and two users who had harassed him on Wikipedia were banned from editing the encyclopedia for one year.

Last week Jimmy Wales faced accusations by former Wikimedia Foundation executive Danny Wool that he misused the non-profit organization's funds, and attempted to expense a visit to a Moscow massage parlor and high-priced bottles of wine. In an interview with CNET TV, Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner described Wool as "a disgruntled former employee" and called his claims "a whole bunch of unsubstantiated rumors and gossip". Wales's former girlfriend, journalist Rachel Marsden, recently leaked purported instant message transcripts with Wales, which implied Wales had used his influence to change the article about Marsden on Wikipedia. Wales ended his relationship with Marsden and made a public statement to that effect on Wikipedia, and in response Marsden opened an auction for some of Wales's clothing on eBay.


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