A longstanding battle over the standards to be used in office software suites for document formats intersected last week with the debate over conflicts of interest among Wikipedia editors, producing quite a furor. The incident involved someone being hired by Microsoft to change the information in Wikipedia articles about those standards, primarily Ecma Office Open XML.
Office Open XML (or OOXML), a standard adopted by Ecma International last December, is one of two specifications trying to establish itself for electronic documents, the other being OpenDocument (or ODF). This has been in the context of an often bitter and public debate between Microsoft and open source advocates, which played a role in the controversial departure of a former CIO for the state of Massachusetts, Peter Quinn. On this occasion, Doug Mahugh, an Open XML Technical Evangelist for the company, became concerned about the Wikipedia articles in question and offered to pay someone to fix them. The offer was openly acknowledged by the person who received it, Rick Jelliffe, in a blog post titled, "An interesting offer: get paid to contribute to Wikipedia".
Jelliffe is an Australian programmer who founded an XML tools vendor called Topologi (note: the Wikipedia link for Topologi currently redirects to an apparently unrelated Linux distribution, Topologilinux). His biography on the O'Reilly website describes him as a standards activist, making him someone whose established credentials and relative independence would serve Microsoft's purposes. He and Mahugh both indicated that Microsoft did not seek any kind of editorial control over Jelliffe's efforts.
The revelation exploded into a media frenzy about the possibility of paid editing activity on Wikipedia. Perspectives on the incident ranged widely, some taking it as confirmation that Wikipedia policies are inadequate to deal with disputed issues, others seeing it as Microsoft living down to its reputation for heavyhanded and counterproductive public relations. David Gerard offered another explanation, commenting, "There's something about open-source and free-software related articles that attracts REALLY OBNOXIOUS partisans", so that articles involving those issues frequently are overwhelmed by advocacy.
Responses from the Wikipedia side in the press were generally negative about Microsoft's approach. Jimmy Wales said that he was "very disappointed" and reiterated his concerns about paid editing (see archived stories). David Gerard and Mathias Schindler also corresponded with Mahugh and Jelliffe, encouraging further dialogue to improve the articles.
Various press reports included several clarifications from Microsoft. The company indicated that it had previously attempted, unsuccessfully, to get the Wikipedia articles fixed; that it perceived the problem as being partly driven by corporate competitors such as IBM; and it added that no payment had yet changed hands. On the first point, it was subsequently determined that Mahugh had made a single edit to the talk page in August 2006, then one more after hiring Jelliffe. Mahugh indicated his primary regret was "that I didn’t fight harder for cleaning up the Office Open XML entry before we turned to somebody outside Microsoft", although he expressed skepticism that such an approach would have worked.
Jelliffe, editing under his own name, has been more active as a Wikipedia editor. Since disclosing the Microsoft offer, he has primarily been active on talk pages related to the standards in question, although he has directly edited Open standard and Standardization. On account of the publicity surrounding the incident, the articles on the standards have been quite heavily edited recently to address some of the points raised. Prior to registering an account, Jelliffe also created the Wikipedia article about himself back in November 2005.
While he did not know at the time that Wikipedia policy discourages such efforts, Jelliffe has since become more familiar with such details and posted an analysis of how the conflict of interest policy applies to his situation. He focused on the question of whether it was appropriate for him to "edit material relating to Microsoft". Regarding his assignment, Jelliffe concluded "there is no conflict of interest created by me accepting an editing job from Microsoft to neutrally edit articles that are not about Microsoft, and not about their products, but about technical aspects of an Ecma standard that is before ISO." [emphasis in original]
This drew a response from Tim Bray, an executive with Sun Microsystems and thus on the opposite side of the document standards debate, but also a "personal friend" of Jelliffe. Bray expressed his opinion that Jelliffe was "deeply wrong" about this issue, although he felt Jelliffe would be an evenhanded editor. Bray argued that the draft was a Microsoft creation and would never have become a standard without the company's efforts.
The incident produced some spinoff effects in addition to the main points of debate. After reading the TechCrunch summary, Microsoft employee Dare Obasanjo decided to conduct an "experiment" by making one-sided edits to the TechCrunch article. TechCrunch owner Michael Arrington took umbrage at this, calling it vandalism and saying he lost a great deal of respect for Microsoft after defending them originally.
Outside the immediate orbit of affected parties, real vandalism was promoted by one of the usual suspects. The Colbert Report's Stephen Colbert mentioned the story on Monday (using "wikilobbying" for his recurring segment, "The Wørd"), and encouraged users to edit articles to state that "reality has become a commodity". Vandalism ensued, with pages relating to "reality", "commodity", Colbert, and others quickly protected. A similar incident occurred in late July and early August (see archived story).