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Official WMF rebuke to Trump policy; WMF secures restricted funds

The Wikimedia Foundation's executive director Katherine Maher at WikiConference North America in 2016

On 30 January, Katherine Maher published a WMF blog in which she branded the new US administration's executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries (an action now partially stayed by several federal judges) as one that "threatens our freedoms of inquiry and exchange", and "infringes on the fundamental rights of our colleagues, our communities, and our families".

Maher's statement continues a trend for the Foundation to assume a more active role in advocacy. Unlike the coordinated service blackout by Wikimedia and other sites to protest against the copyright-related SOPA bill before the US Congress in 2012—a bill with substantial support from both major political parties—the blog concerns an action by a specific US administration. Maher's statement illustrates the difficulty of insulating the movement's visions from politics. As one Wikimedian put it on the Wikimedia-L mailing list: "writing an encyclopedia is a political act". Another person cast this in a broader perspective: "being in favour of sharing free knowledge is altogether a political statement, as freedom of sharing knowledge is not something which is accepted by all political regimes (please remember the globality of the movement".

The SOPA incident marked the WMF's hiring of a DC lobbying firm, Dow Lohnes, which advocated for the Foundation from then until the end of 2013, when it merged with law firm Cooley LLP 2014. The WMF retained Cooley to fight the lawsuit Internet Brands brought against two Wikimedia volunteers later in 2012. The Foundation hired a second lobbyist, Thompson Coburn, to monitor copyright legislation.

Maher's blog was variously supported and condemned on the Wikimedia mailing list. There were several complaints of a lack of community discussion beforehand. One contributor wrote that "needlessly and divisively injecting this kind of politics ... is neither healthy nor appropriate". Another replied to a comment that had supported the blog: "I imagine that your response would be different if Katherine's position didn't match your own. ... taking political positions beyond the mission is fraught with risk".

The ban has threatened the situations of many people working in the US technology sector, on the basis of their countries of origin; the Signpost understands that this may include several WMF employees or contractors. As well, the action may create difficulties for the Wikimedia community offline. According to one contributor: "There were speakers and delegates at Wikimania 2012, in Washington DC, who would not have been able to attend under the current ban. I therefore have no problem with the WMF speaking out against such a ban; indeed I applaud them for doing so." Other Wikimedians were supportive: "Having a truly 'neutral point of view' when it comes to anything regarding Donald Trump is not really possible. I support and applaud Katherine Maher's statement on the WMF blog." In a post entitled Politics, Christophe Henner, the chair of the WMF Board, weighed in with a strongly worded statement, ending with this proposition:

... as a movement, we have the potential to have a huge impact on the world. That is not neutral, that is a force of change and change always is political".

Just before publication, Michelle Paulson, the WMF's interim general counsel, posted a follow-up announcement to the list, including clarifications of the WMF's views on taking policy positions. Among Paulson's comments was this:

Today, the Wikimedia Foundation joined with more than 90 other organizations in filing an amicus brief in State of Washington v. Trump currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals of the United States. This case challenges the recent executive order issued in the United

States on January 27, 2017, which establishes immigration and travel restrictions based on country of origin. Other signatories to the brief include Facebook, Levi Strauss & Co., Microsoft, Mozilla, and Paypal.


Latest grants to WMF restricted to specific projects

The Wikimedia Foundation announced two grants in January 2017: US$3 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, announced January 9; and $500,000 from two charities affiliated with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, announced January 26. The Sloan grant will fund improving the data structure of Wikimedia Commons, and has been discussed here; the Newmark grants will fund tools to assist in the prevention of harassment and "toxic behavior" on Wikipedia, and have been discussed here. The substance of each grant was greeted by Wikimedia community members with enthusiasm, though commentators also expressed skepticism on several points.

Discussion extended beyond the grants' substance, as some questioned the WMF's approach to restricted funding. Memories of the WMF's pursuit of restricted funds for the Knowledge Engine, which was widely understood to represent a substantial but undisclosed strategic shift for the organization, may drive some of the concern. One participant made pointed and repeated requests that the WMF publicly release its high-level product roadmap, and pointed to the initial announcement as evidence that such a document exists.

In response to a request from the Signpost, Lisa Seitz-Gruwell, the WMF's chief advancement officer, confirmed that the Sloan grant is the second-largest restricted grant in the organization's history, behind only the Stanton Foundation's $3.6 million grant to fund the VisualEditor software.

As a side note, this answers an open question about the VisualEditor grant. Community members had asked upon the grant's 2011 announcement whether or not it was restricted, but to our knowledge, no official answer was ever supplied. The WMF has a longstanding policy of publishing restricted grants' documents when possible, and a 2010 Stanton grant's plan was published; Seitz-Gruwell confirmed, however, that no grant documents from the 2011 VisualEditor grant have been published.

Shortly after the initial announcement of the Sloan grant, the WMF published three detailed documents from the grant application. The Signpost is not yet aware of any public documents from the Newmark grants; if any are published, we will link them in the comments or in a future update. (Update: See the comments below for two relevant links.) PF, Feb. 6, 2017

As the WMF continues to pursue funding restricted to specific programs and projects, it will likely continue to face questions around the philosophy driving its approach, the plans establishing the context for the restricted funds, and the level of influence exerted by funders or WMF staff pursuing funding. PF

Pete Forsyth was an author of the 2010 Stanton grant plan linked in this article.
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  • There are dependencies here though. First, is this really a partisan matter, or a matter of obvious right and wrong? After all, folks all across the political spectrum have voiced concerns about this specific order. I myself find virtue in some of Trump's policies but not in others. But this specific policy works against long-held foundations of the nation itself. Kind of different. Second, if the order affects WMF's business, they automatically have a natural position to criticize it. On these first two counts, it is more than simply pushing a garden-variety political POV. Third, I as an editor cannot expect to agree with all WMF decisions, of which this is one. Overall, the WMF should exercise caution, but also not be blind/deaf/dumb/morals-free, in hopefully rare cases like this. Stevie is the man! TalkWork 19:46, 7 February 2017 (UTC)[reply]
  • If I start expressing my political opinions on Wikipedia's servers I will be in violation of WP:SOAPBOX. And it would not matter if I think my opinion concerns "a matter of obvious right and wrong". It would still not be allowed. Why should we exempt WMF staffers from that very sensible rule that the rest of us have to follow? --Guy Macon (talk) 21:09, 7 February 2017 (UTC)[reply]
  • That's a nice theory, but WP:SOAPBOX is not limited to encyclopedic content: "This applies to usernames, articles, categories, files, talk page discussions, templates, and user pages." I am a person who volunteers to "promote and support Wikimedia/Wikipedia wherever appropriate, as much as possible" as well as volunteering to write content. Yet I am prohibited from using Wikipedia as a soapbox. I see zero justification for allowing WMF paid staffers to do what I am forbidden to do. --Guy Macon (talk) 20:54, 8 February 2017 (UTC)[reply]
  • I never implied that the WMF is bound by Wikipedia's soapboxing rules. I said that they should have such a rule and asked what about them makes it OK for them to soapbox. All I am getting in response is things that are not different between the two. The difference is not, as you claim above, because they don't create content but instead try to improve Wikipedia and Wikimedia. Many Wikipedia volunteers don't create content but instead try to improve Wikipedia and Wikimedia. Yet they are not allowed to soapbox while WMF staffers are. The difference is not, as someone claimed below, that some WMF employees are Iranian immigrants and might be prevented from traveling to Wikimania or other conferences. Some Wikipedia volunteers are Iranian immigrants and might be prevented from traveling to Wikimania or other conferences. Yet they are not allowed to soapbox while WMF staffers are. I am still looking for an answer that explains what is different about WMF staffers that they should be allowed to soapbox. Again, I am not claiming that they are not currently allowed to soapbox. I am claiming that they are allowed to soapbox and questioning whether they should be allowed to do that. --Guy Macon (talk) 23:43, 8 February 2017 (UTC)[reply]
  • Again, because there are different roles. You might not accept that but it's self-evident to me (and here we go around the "you're wrong, no, you're wrong" circle). If some politician starts shutting down sources of reliable, scientific information I don't expect soapboxing on the politician's talk page but the WMF actively speaking out against this is fine with me as it affects it quality of our content. Or if an organization releases 375,000 images online under CC0 then the WMF can certainly highlight and publicize that, showering praise on the organization, but I don't expect the org's talk page to be filled up with kudos. --NeilN talk to me 00:38, 9 February 2017 (UTC)[reply]
Thanks DannyH (WMF), I've now updated the story with this info. I wonder, will the WMF take a structured approach to organizing information like this? Two places where I'd hope to find these documents are meta:Funding, which appears to be untouched by WMF personnel; or wmf:History of the Wikimedia Foundation, which has not been substantively updated since Sj's efforts in 2012. -Pete Forsyth (talk) 21:16, 6 February 2017 (UTC)[reply]
Well, the links to the Community health initiative page and the grant proposal were included in all of the announcements about the grant -- emails, blog posts and press releases. You linked to this discussion in your piece, and the information is there. It's important for this project that we're as transparent and community-inclusive as we can be. We're currently hiring folks to work on the project, and there's going to be a lot more information posted on Meta and on enwiki over the next few weeks.
I'm not familiar with the two pages you linked to -- as you said, I don't think those are WMF communication channels. To keep updated on current Wikimedia Foundation news, you should probably keep an eye on the Press room and the Wikimedia blog. This post from a couple weeks ago had all the current info on the anti-harassment grant. -- DannyH (WMF) (talk) 21:36, 6 February 2017 (UTC)[reply]
Thanks DannyH (WMF). My apologies to you and to our readers if we were insufficiently diligent in tracking the available information. However, there's a deeper issue at play here. The second of the two links is on a wiki explicitly under the control of the WMF; it describes itself as the "history" of the organization; and it was largely built by a sitting member of the board. Perhaps you or your colleagues could provide some clarification on what constitutes an "official communication channel"? Because this certainly has the appearance of being one.
As a side point, the 2007 book Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency, written by Harvard scholars who have actively supported the Wikimedia movement, argued (IMO convincingly) that effective transparency requires careful focus on the end user. (The authors released the case studies in the appendix under a free license at our request; I transcribed them at Wikisource. Highly recommended reading.) -Pete Forsyth (talk) 21:58, 6 February 2017 (UTC) p.s. I should acknowledge some much appreciated assitance from Mike Peel in that transcription effort. -PF[reply]
Thanks for your apology, I appreciate it. Please let me know if you want any more information about the anti-harassment project. We're really excited about it, and I think the Signpost readers would be interested in learning more. -- DannyH (WMF) (talk) 23:28, 6 February 2017 (UTC)[reply]
Kaldari, your point is a good one, but the WMF's blog post goes well beyond a discussion of employees. I think that is the source of the strong pushback.
Consider the headline, specifically, of this NY Times piece: "Tech Opposition to Trump Propelled by Employees, Not Executives". Going back to the SOPA initiative, the WMF at least made the effort to attain community support before speaking out in its name; but this time, it used language like "Knowledge knows no borders. Our collective human wisdom has long been built through the exchange of ideas, from our first navigational knowledge of the seas to our ongoing exploration of the heavens." -- without first seeking a consensus in its communities.
The legal brief WMF signed onto, along with 100 companies, uses a different kind of language: "The Order represents a significant departure from the principles of fairness and predictability that have governed the immigration system of the United States for more than 50 years -- and the Order inflicts significant harm on American business, innovation, and growth as a result." (emphasis added) In other words, Facebook is not presuming to speak on behalf of all Facebook users, and Levi's is not presuming to speak on behalf of all wearers of blue jeans (I don't think).
I think the WMF is in a process of figuring out the (internal) political dynamics that impact how its messages are received, and I believe that the scope of its critiques is a significant factor. I don't think it's a big deal for WMF to overstep once in a while, but I do think that's probably what has happened here, and I suspect that in the future, it will find more politically viable language for this sort of thing. -Pete Forsyth (talk) 00:51, 7 February 2017 (UTC)[reply]
For those claiming this is a matter of "right or wrong", you realise that Trump (and his administration and supporters) believe they are right and you are wrong, right?
So if "we" "are right" we can use whatever means to do whatever to promote and enforce our "right" position. I wonder why WP and WMF should think so, but I bet Trump agrees with that.
And as you say, WP/WMF is not a US-only organization. Nabla (talk) 18:48, 12 February 2017 (UTC)[reply]


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