German court finds direct Wiki-editing unlawful
Gall Pharma, a German nutritional supplements company, was fined €250,000 by the Munich High Regional Court for edits made to Wikipedia, according to the German Wikipedia's newsletter. The company's edits highlighted that their incense products were available in German pharmacies and elaborated on why their competitor's products were not, a contested claim that could influence buying decisons.
The German court found that:
- The company's disclosure on the Wikipedia article's Talk page did not suffice, because readers can't be expected to see it
- Readers have an expectation that Wikipedia is written by objective and neutral editors
- Wikipedia is a form of advertising and content on the site may constitute an "endorsement" of a product
- These edits constituted a form of covert advertising
The ruling may set a precedence on how the European Unfair Practices Directive is interpreted regarding the legality of Wikipedia astroturfing and it will be interesting to see if the US-based Federal Trade Commission has a similar interpretation of its own Endorsement Guides, which require marketing professionals to disclose their affiliation in online communications:
"When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience), such connection must be fully disclosed."
Many Fortune 500 companies have - perhaps without considering the legal and ethical ramifications - written glowing product reviews on Wikipedia that are not far afield from Gall Pharma's editing. Additionally, huge swaths of Wikipedia's English articles on companies are written by the company's representatives anonymously. Are all these edits unlawful?
What it means for marketing
The news reinforces what EthicalWiki's position has been all along, that directly editing Wikipedia is - at the very least - ethically and legally ambiguous. Many PR professionals have been advocating against Jimmy Wales' "Bright Line" rule that public relations pros not directly edit Wikipedia. It turns out it may not just be his rule, it may also be the law.
That being said, like many of Wikipedia's policies and guidelines, the FTC's regulations have language that encourages common sense. I don't forecast companies will get fined for correcting grammar, removing vandalism or offering content for consideration. Rather the ruling re-affirms that Wikipedia is an atonomous site; that PR professionals are not correct to portray ourselves as just another member of the public editing; and that there are some disclaimers in Wikipedia being the site "that anyone can edit."
Marketing is not without recourse for improving our Wikipedia articles. According to Jimmy Wales, "using the talk pages, wikiprojects, notifying other editors on notice boards, coming to my talk page, emailing OTRS - these are all valid options that work successfully. Editing directly is extremely likely to prove embarrassing for your client."
Any contribution to Wikipedia of any size that is genuinely valuable to the site can be made in a format that leaves content decisions in the hands of impartial editors where they belong. EthicalWiki has overhauled controversies, re-written articles and made 5,000+ word contributions without ever touching the page.
The take-home message? Stop editing Wikipedia and start doing quality public relations and content marketing with the site's editors.