For-profit tech giants copy Wikipedia. Should they pay up?

Should digital assistants like Alexa and Siri profit off volunteer work?
Amazon's virtual digital assistant uses Wikipedia to answer many of its users' questions. Should the non-profit that runs Wikipedia be compensated? (Pixabay)
Listen10:47

If you ask a question to a personal digital assistant like Alexa, or Apple's Siri, or the Google Assistant, there's a very good chance it's getting its answer from Wikipedia.

But is that fair?

Most of us know Wikipedia as the compendium of information about nearly everything. It's volunteer-driven, and run as a not-for-profit organization by the Wikimedia Foundation. The website doesn't feature any advertising, and depends heavily on user donations.

And it's free for everyone to use.

But when "everyone" includes massive companies like Amazon, who use Wikipedia's knowledge base in their for-profit products, is it time to rethink the model?

Rachel Withers thinks so. She's a freelance journalist who frequently contributes to Slate. She recently wrote an essay suggesting that, yes, the big tech companies should be compensating Wikipedia. A lot.
Rachel Withers (Twitter)

Last month, much was made of Amazon's one-million-dollar donation to the Wikimedia foundation. But perhaps a company worth a trillion dollars could come up with just a tiny bit more than a millionth of its market cap?

"It's tiny in the scheme of things," Withers told Spark host Nora Young. "We should certainly not be praising Amazon for one million dollars.

"I mean Amazon's the most valuable company in the world. They actually gain a lot of value from Wikipedia's database," she said.

Alexa, she noted, doesn't even credit Wikipedia for the answers it gives, even though, in many cases, they are copied word-for-word from its text.

Not only does this mean users often don't realize that Wikipedia is the source of the device's "knowledge," but it also means they bypass the website, which often asks visitors to donate money, to help pay for the website's infrastructure, she added.

"It cuts the consumer off from actually engaging with Wikipedia while using its content."

So how much should the manufacturers of digital assistants be paying Wikipedia to mine its data?

"I also don't think there is necessarily a pro-rata correct rate for this, she said. "The companies should be paying attention to where they're taking value from, and not harming those resources in the process.

It cuts the consumer off from actually engaging with Wikipedia while using its content.- Rachel Withers

"Perhaps at a bare minimum they should be acknowledging where information comes from, and reminding that the information has been gathered by volunteers."

Maybe then more people would donate to Wikipedia, she added, noting that after researching her essay, she made her first donation to the site.

"I'm not innocent in this either. It was just kind of a wake-up call for me as well."

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