On 26 October, Wikimedia Foundation launched Wikimedia Enterprise – a paid service targeted at commercial users of Wikimedia. At first glance, this initiative seems to be mainly about securing new revenue sources and thus improving sustainability of this civic platform. But in reality it is a milestone in developing Wikimedia as an access to knowledge infrastructure, and a strategy for adjusting to ongoing changes in the online ecosystem. During the last Open Future Session, we hosted Lyam Wyatt and Lane Becker from the Wikimedia Enterprise team, who talked about this new project.
The building of the Enterprise API (an Application Programming Interface – a software gateway through which service’s data can be accessed from the outside) is a result of the Wikimedia 2030 Strategy, adopted by the global movement in 2018. One of the strategic goals was to develop a new commercial service and a business model for providing Wikimedia content. This was to be done in order to increase sustainability through a new revenue source – as until now Wikimedia has been funded almost solely through donations.
But the new service also fulfils another strategic goal – that of improving the user experience. “Improve the user experience of both our direct and indirect users, increase the reach and discoverability of our content and the potential for data returns, and improve awareness of and ease of attribution and verifiability for content reusers,” states the relevant recommendation.
In 2018, Katherine Maher–CEO of Wikimedia Foundation at that time–wrote that the companies that benefit from Wikipedia should invest back, and provide sustained financial support that will make the platform more sustainable. Maher wrote this at a time when Youtube and Facebook began using Wikimedia content at large scale, to combat disinformation by providing factual content.
Interestingly enough, that was also the time when the debate about the link tax and value gap was happening in Europe. Of course, the case of Wikimedia is very different from that of commercial publishers, who were requesting payments from services using snippets of their articles. In the case of the publishers, the starting point is a commercial business model, which by necessity relies on sharing content on major social networks. Wikimedia, in turn, is committed to being a source of free knowledge. And while the publishers seeked a regulation to force payments, Wikimedia developed a new business model – and a governance structure for it.
Lane Becker, who works on the business model for the new service, highlighted the peculiarities of negotiating fees for the new APIs. The service offered by Wikimedia is unique and invaluable to the greatest platforms like Google, which rely on it as a key source of raw knowledge. Economic calculations of the value of Wikimedia, accrued from the labor of thousands of volunteers working over twenty years, estimate it at billions of dollars, at par with the greatest corporate services. But at the same time business negotiations concern content that is already freely available – providing very little leverage to Wikimedia’s negotiators.
The Enterprise API is often perceived as a service catering to the internet giants: companies like Youtube, Google or Facebook that use Wikimedia content at massive scale. But there are actually many other services making use of this free content, and many more that could do so. Wikimedia APIs are notoriously hard to use and the Enterprise team described that many smaller projects are unable to reuse Wikimedia because of the effort required to access and organize the data. To them, Wikimedia is not accessible, even if content is freely licensed. So the Enterprise API project, while initially targeted at the largest commercial reusers, will hopefully lower the playing field. A commercial-grade API, once developed, will be available to anyone, and greatly lower the barrier to reuse.
The Enterprise API will not just level the playing field. It will also transform it. This will be a new reality, where Wikipedia can be accessed either as content that is both “libre” and gratis, or as content that is “libre”, but paid. We need to wait to see how this hybrid ecosystem develops, and whether the more structured API will bring new institutional users, allowing smaller services to start benefiting from the Wikimedia platform.
Liam Wyatt reminded us of the fairytale about Goldilocks, a story about a girl searching for the “just right” solution. Wikimedia has been doing just that, aiming to secure not too little, but also not too much money. Too little funds from the new API would mean that the project will not help Wikimedia improve its sustainability. But too much could also be a problem, as it creates a risk of dependence. A clear point of reference in the open movement is the Mozilla Foundation, which depends for its funding on just a single commercial partner.
To avoid this challenge, the Board of Wikimedia Foundation has decided that commercial revenue cannot cross the 30% cap. This has also been accepted as fair by the community and is also in line with American taxation laws for non-profits. The important balancing occurs between the new, commercial revenue and the donation-based model, on which Wikipedia relies : an overly high income could lead people to donate less to Wikimedia.
30% of Foundation’s current yearly revenue is still a lot of money – around 50 million dolars. This will create for the Foundation a new governance challenge, as it needs to ensure that the revenue support, and does not trump the mission. The commercial revenue will feed the overall budget of the foundation, so that they can be used for all sorts of statutory purposes.
The case of the Enterprise API is fascinating, as it shifts focus from the most visible part of the Wikimedia project: the production of encyclopaedic content by the community of volunteers. Instead, it focuses on code and infrastructure as tools for increasing access to knowledge. In doing so, it shows the limits of enabling reuse solely through legal means.
It turns out that it is now code and not law that is needed to get Wikimedia content into new ecosystems. These are largely commercial–that’s the nature of the mainstream web today, in general–but they are at the same time the spaces where users can indirectly benefit from free knowledge.
The new API will also give commercial reusers a better understanding of how Wikimedia knowledge is created. For example, better access to the history of edits will give them a sense of when vandalism occurs, and allow them to properly deal with this. Something that is hard to do today, when reusers often access the latest, “flat” version of knowledge, stripped of the rich edit history.
At the same time, the Wikimedia team noted that it is hard to enforce any additional standards or requirements. This goes back to the challenge of negotiating a commercial deal for free knowledge. There is a sense that the companies entering the contract will secure a strange hybrid of a commercial deal and a corporate social responsibility effort.
The Enterprise API project also acknowledges changes to the digital ecosystem and to the practices of users. Data on the use of Wikimedia shows that its knowledge base is increasingly accessed indirectly. The best known examples are the infoboxes shown in Google search results. They are based on Wikimedia content and help fulfill the mission, but most users do not click through to the Wikipedia site. So from a very practical perspective, they do not see the Wikimedia fundraising banners.
The Enterprise API is therefore an important step towards adjusting Wikimedia to the current ecosystem. One in which free content is reused, and thus accessed indirectly. And in which, therefore, commercial and institutional users become central to fulfilling the mission. In this environment, the basic truth still holds – that the value of knowledge increases through redistribution and reuse, rather than through keeping it exclusive. But a different financial stream needs to be designed so that usage remains sustainable.
As the Wikimedia Enterprise team told us, ultimately money might be less important than the new means of building a free knowledge ecosystem.
“Working with these technology companies, when we sit at the table, we are not equals, even though we feel very strongly that we should be equals”, stated the Wikimedia team during our conversation. It seems that understanding and finding this stronger position, a position of equality, is the ultimate goal of the Enterprise API. From a big picture perspective, this is an effort to build a position for this unique civic platform in an environment that is often hostile to the principles that Wikimedia espouses. And one in which Wikipedia needs to believe that it is an equal, and a strong player that can define some of the rules, and set some standards based on the idea of free knowledge.
We can see the full significance of this case only if we look at it from the perspective of the current debate on platform economy. What Wikimedia is doing with this project is building solutions that ensure that value is created for the community of creators and the institutions that produce the knowledge. The Enterprise API experiment should be followed not just by the free knowledge communities, but by policymakers thinking about value gaps, data governance and interoperability in the platform ecosystem.