Microsoft pays for Wikipedia edits

Software engineer was reportedly offered a contract by Microsoft to edit online entries about ODF and OOXML

A software engineer in Australia has said he was offered payment by Microsoft to edit certain entries in the Wikipedia online dictionary, opening a heated debate about the ethics of such a move.

Rick Jelliffe, chief technology officer of XML tools company Topologi Pty. Ltd., said he will probably accept a contract from Microsoft to edit Wikipedia entries on ODF (OpenDocument Format) and OOXML (Microsoft Office Open XML), competing document format standards.

In blog posting on the O'Reilly Web site, Jelliffe said he recently received an e-mail from Microsoft saying they wanted to contract someone "independent but friendly" for a couple of days to provide "more balance" on Wikipedia concerning the ODF and OOXML formats. He said he rarely uses Microsoft products and does not imagine he is viewed as a Microsoft enthusiast.

Jelliffe, who lives in Sydney, wrote "The XML & SGML Cookbook" and describes himself as a standards enthusiast. He says he has added material to Wikipedia entries in the past, and that he doesn't consider himself as being hired to add pro-Microsoft information, just to correct errors.

His disclosure unleashed a heated debate about the ethics of a company paying someone to edit Wikipedia entries, and the effect such payment has on the credibility of the site. "From now on we should take the Wikipedia entry on OpenDocument with a grain of salt," wrote Daniel Carrera, an ODF developer, in an e-mail.

Other comments on Jelliffe's blog posting weren't so kind. "Since you openly admit being paid by Microsoft you immediately destroy any credibility as a neutral commentator. End of story," one person wrote.

The matter is particularly sensitive given the Wikipedia entries in question. Microsoft created OOXML to compete with ODF, an electronic document format backed by Sun Microsystems, IBM, and open-source companies. ODF appeals to users interested in open-standard document formats that will ensure they can continue to access their existing files and to lessen their dependence on Microsoft. While the formats are competitive, some companies, such as Corel Corp. and Novell Inc., have said they'll support both.

It's not yet clear what would happen if Jelliffe does make changes to the pages. Wikipedia "tends not to look favorably in terms of conflict of interest and paying someone is a conflict," said David Gerard, a volunteer spokesman for Wikipedia.

Jelliffe could potentially be blocked from contributing to the site. The English language site is administered by about 1,000 volunteers who have the authority to block editors from contributing to the site, Gerard said. Publicity people who update the Wikipedia page about companies they represent routinely get blocked from the site, he said.

However, given the attention brought to this particular incident, Gerard finds it likely that readers will closely watch for changes made by Jelliffe and respond with their own updates and changes, resulting in an overall improvement to the relevant pages.

Gerard said the situation is regrettable though. "We're disappointed that Microsoft thought it had to work by stealth like this," he said. The company would be better off donating the money to Wikipedia and earning the goodwill that would result, he said.

A representative from Microsoft's external press office in the U.K. couldn't confirm that Microsoft had made the offer to Jelliffe.