A Wikimedia UK board member who had only been in the role for four months resigned late last year after raising conflict-of-interest issues at the organisation, which is one of the 39 local chapters founded to support and promote the projects of the San Francisco-based Wikimedia Foundation*. But it was only weeks after the resignation, when international press coverage attracted the personal attention of Wikimedia founder Jimmy Wales, that the organisation invited an external review of its work.
The reasons for the departure of elected WMUK board member Joscelyn Upendran were not disclosed at the time, but emerged in the subsequent governance review (chronology here - PDF), which has now been published (PDF). The review was conducted by Compass Partnership, consultants in non-profit management, and commissioned jointly by WMUK and the Wikimedia Foundation.
A week or two before she resigned, Upendran sent an email to WMUK's chair (contained in the review chronology) expressing her concerns that "the charity has in effect agreed to take on responsibility (to fund, maintain… etc) for a service that is ‘co-owned’ by a trustee". According to the consultants, Upendran, a solicitor, suggested that "the conflict of interest may present a legal risk under charity and company law". She resigned soon after, on 31 August 2012.
Caught between a Rock (of Gibraltar) and a hard place
In June last year, current WMUK trustee and former chairman Roger Bamkin signed a private commercial contract with the government of Gibraltar, the territory began to feature prominently on Wikipedia's "Did You Know?" box on its front page - one of the most popular web pages in the world - notching up 17 appearances in August alone.
Unaware of the private contract, the BBC reported Bamkin as saying: "Projects like Gibraltarpedia are a test of our mission," while Wales Online enthused: "[Bamkin] picked Gibraltar, at the southern tip of Spain, as his next project after being flooded with invitations from places around the world hoping to be the second Wikipedia town."
Lucky duckies, you're thinking.
However, Upendran had already raised concerns about the potential conflicts of interest. Charity trustees are expressly forbidden from using the organisation to promote activities from which they derive personal gain. Wikimedia UK had only recently succeeded in gaining charity status in late 2011 - after being rejected at the first attempt.
Bamkin owned the IP related to the graphical QR barcodes Gibraltar used to link physical signs to Wikipedia entries. Compass concludes in its review of WMUK's operations that:
On 31st of August 2012, Joscelyn Upendran emailed Chris Keating again to formally resign her position on the board. Amongst her reasons, she cited “the QRpedia situation” and added that the board’s handling of this amongst various recent events had led her to feel “that personal loyalties may be getting in the way of what is really best for the charity and of dealing with any actual or perceived conflict of interest issues”.
The solicitor did not believe the chumocracy could address this. However, as the consultant's chronology of events notes (PDF, page 17), none of this was disclosed to the Wikipedia community at the time; a WMUK statement merely noted that Upendran had resigned. It was only after a CNet report disclosed the extraordinary tangle of interests involved at Wikimedia UK that the Wikipedia community appeared to become aware of the situation.
In a statement, Jimmy Wales was unambiguous. He declared that "it is wildly inappropriate for a board member of a chapter, or anyone else in an official role of any kind in a charity associated with Wikipedia, to take payment from customers in exchange for securing favorable placement on the front page of Wikimedia or anywhere else."
Bamkin stayed on as a trustee until he finally resigned several days later - after UK Wikipedians had vowed to sue the organisation to remove him from the Board, and Wales intervened again to suggest a five-year moratorium on Gibraltar-plugs appearing in the DYK box.
The Compass Partnership consultants found several areas in need of improvement at Wikimedia UK - recommending major overhaul of its governance - and noted that management of conflicts of interest and trademark usage, in particular, should be reviewed. It found that the UK chapter only requested formal use of the Wikipedia trademark "18 hours" before the Gibraltar project went live, despite discussing it months earlier.
Can the UK organisation now win back the confidence of UK Wikipedians? That depends rather on what it does. Incredibly, Bamkin's successor as WMUK chair, Ashley Van Haeften, also resigned within a few months of taking up his position. The resignation of Van Haeften - who is still a trustee and is chair of the Chapters Association - was attributed to controversy surrounding his ban from editing the English-language version of Wikipedia following rows about the inclusion of pornography. But this was beyond the scope of the Compass review.
Reg readers have written in to let us know that Wikipedia is continuing to ignore Wales's call for a moratorium on Gibraltar-plugs. Here's one from last week:
Gibraltar continues to be promoted heavily by Wikipedia
"The Wikimedia Foundation is not planning to review nor approve any licensed uses of the Wikipedia trademarks for the purposes of community projects at this time," notes WMUK in a briefing note, here. ®
* Wikimedia Foundation's flagship project is Wikipedia, although it also oversees mega image store Wikimedia Commons, Wiktionary, Wikiquote, Wikibooks, Wikisource, science classification store Wikispecies and many other projects.