Michael Olenick – Wikipedia’s Deep Ties to Big Tech

Contrary to its image as a cash-strapped, transparent public service, Wikipedia is a wealthy NGO with close ties to big tech companies that it tries to obscure

Michael Olenick  is Executive Fellow, INSEAD Business School 

Cross posted from the INET website

There are no polls, but it is a safe guess that the general public thinks of Wikipedia, the ubiquitous online encyclopedia, as one more plucky non-governmental organization in which poorly remunerated, public-spirited scholars and savants struggle to bring enlightenment to an extensively unappreciative world. Feeding this soothing impression are comments by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales that the non-profit is “teetering forever on the edge of bankruptcy,” his assurance that Wikipedia is “super transparent with the public,” and even his occasional threat to run ads to assure Wikipedia’s financial stability. Most users probably also assume that Wikipedia’s content, even if sometimes mistaken or incomplete, is basically harmless, with occasional errors the price of straitened production conditions and limited staff.

The truth, though, is rather more complex. Wikipedia’s use of an objective and authoritative writing style, without commensurate safeguards for quality or disclosure of conflicts, creates an ethical conundrum for both Wikipedia and parent Wikimedia.

Wikipedia Is Wealthy & Works with Big Tech

Despite frequent protestations to the contrary, Wikimedia – the San Francisco-based parent non-profit of Wikipedia – has enormous financial reserves. There is no immediate need for more funds and its long-term strategy plan, Wikimedia 2030, lacks specificity about how additional money might be spent.

According to its latest financial disclosures, the Wikimedia Foundation has net assets adequate to run its servers for 75 years if it receives no further funds nor interest on its savings. Beyond that, the servers can hum along an additional 63 years from funds in a Wikimedia Endowment held by a partner charity, the Tides Foundation. Put into perspective, Wikimedia servers can function just under nine years from a one-time donation Wikimedia sent to Tides Advocacy in their last financial statement. They have about $1 million in reserves for every employee. Wikipedia is in no danger of going dark in our lifetime.

As a non-profit, Wikimedia does not have direct access to the wealth their for-profit Big Tech cousins enjoy. Instead, the firm relies on donations which, as illustrated below, are more than adequate to meet its needs. Its latest fundraising report lists about six million active donors large and small.

However, it is not lost on the firm that Wikipedia content powers extraordinarily wealthy businesses. “There has long been a feeling among community members that these companies should do more to reinvest in the Wikimedia communities for the benefits they gain from the content and resources they use,” wrote members of the team implementing a new service, Wikimedia Enterprise, a for-profit Delaware-based company to charge Big Tech for easier electronic access to Wikipedia content.

Lest there be any ambiguity about who “these companies” are, they explain high-volume commercial reusers include “the ‘infoboxes’ .. shown in search engine results,” “voice-operated virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa,” and “augmented information .. such as in-flight entertainment systems or smartphones.” For those who still don’t get it, the term infoboxes links to a Wikipedia article about Google’s knowledge panel.

Wikimedia argues for-profit high-volume information “reusers” (its term) have repeatedly asked for a dedicated service to efficiently funnel information away from the site and money towards it. Big Tech wants a contractual arrangement along with a service level agreement (SLA). Wikimedia argues it is unable to offer a contract or provide an SLA under its current legal scheme.

When asked, Wikimedia representatives responded that the Big Tech businesses are uncomfortable supporting the non-profit through donations and that they’d prefer a more explicit fee-for-service arrangement. Furthermore, the ongoing practice of embedding Wikimedia content into the websites and information outlets of others deprives Wikimedia of an ability to advertise for donations which, over the long-run, may impact its ability to fundraise. Of course, many non-profit organizations charge for services. For example non-profit hospitals, universities, daycare’s, gyms (YMCAs), subscriptions (Consumer Reports), and museums all charge for services without for-profit subsidiaries.

Wikimedia argues it currently subsidizes Big Tech by providing the labour required for the coordination of information dissemination. The implication is that there are resources at Wikimedia with an incremental cost to feed data to Big Tech. A question asking for a guesstimate about how many people spend how much time on this activity went unanswered, along with all other written questions.


Based on current spending patterns and absent any major expansion, Wikimedia does not need more money. The firm’s most recent disclosures show net assets of $180.3 million. A charity Wikimedia works closely with, the Tides Foundation, holds an additional $62.9 million in a separate Wikimedia “endowment” an amount projected to reach $100 million in 2021. Wikimedia sends $5 million per year to the Tides Foundation for the endowment with the funds marked as grants in disclosure statements. It also sent an additional $8.72 million to Tides Advocacy, a different but related organization, in the year ending 2020.

The company’s most recent audited financial statement, for the year ending June 30, 2020, shows Wikimedia spent $55.6 million on salaries and wages plus $2.4 million on internet hosting. Other expenses include grants (disproportionately to Tides) of $22.9 million, professional service expenses of $11.7 million, and other operating expenses of $10 million. The vast majority of Wikimedia’s value to ordinary people – the website we know and use – costs the firm about 30 percent of their $112.5 million operating budget ($33.75 million) to maintain according to Lisa Seitz Gruwell, Chief Advancement Officer at Wikimedia. Its 2020 revenue was $129.2 million with $120.4 million of that from donations.

Table 1 (all figures in millions)

Year Ending

Net Assets

Salaries & Wages

Awards & Grants[6]

Internet Fees[7]
































Wikimedia has 255 employees, 141 who earn salaries of over $100,000. Another 22 independent contractors earn more than $100,000. Outgoing CEO Katherine Maher was paid $374,658 in 2019 while the lowest-paid officer, Angela Reid, Chief of Community Engagement, earned $163,037.

The Wikimedia Endowment

As noted above, Wikimedia created an endowment in 2016 at Tides separate from the Wikimedia Foundation. The endowment, set up by Jimmy Wales, aims to raise $100 million. As of its last funding disclosure, the endowment has $62.9 million in savings and Lisa Gruwell recently stated it is likely to reach the $100 million goal in 2021. Besides the $5,000,000 annual donations by Wikimedia, others also donate directly including at least one $2 million donation from Google. The endowment is in addition to the $180.3 million in net assets Wikimedia currently holds on its books.

The Wikimedia Endowment at Tides lists its purpose: “Tides or the Wikimedia Foundation may choose to transfer the Endowment from Tides to the Wikimedia Foundation, or other charities identified by the Wikimedia Foundation that are engaged in activities that further the Wikimedia Endowment’s purpose.”

Wikimedia Lacks Transparency

Tides runs a series of charities that enable donors to anonymously pledge money which Tides then uses for grants to progressive organizations. There are several related but legally separate Tides charities, the largest being the Tides Foundation with 2019 net assets of $558 million. Tides are Donor Advised Funds: anonymous donors may direct Tides what to do with their donations though they may also choose to leave funding decisions to Tides. Tides discloses its largest benefactors by the amount donated without listing the identities of the individuals or organizations. Disbursements are reported but whose money went to which cause is entirely opaque.

Wikimedia both donates to the Tides Foundation and simultaneously receives money from the organization. Despite repeated donations of $5 million, and a badge listing Wikimedia on their homepage along with other major donors, Tides does not list the $5 million donations from Wikimedia except for one year.

Screenshot from the Tides homepage, March 17, 2021

In 2014 and 2015, Tides Foundation listed the top nine benefactors; the Wikimedia grant is presumably one of two $5 million entries. However, beginning in the year ending 2016, Tides lists fewer benefactors (four entries for 2016 and 2018 and five for 2017 and 2019). None of the benefactors are for exactly $5,000,000 and the figures seem to cut off just over the $5 million mark.

Table 2 Tides Foundation Major Benefactors (from Form 990, in USD)






























































Google’s former charity, Google.org, shuttered the year ending 2018. Google made two large donations to Tides Foundation, a total of $50,264,173 listed in their 2018 disclosure (consisting of three donations: $43,844,348, $844,448, and $560,055) and $76,385,901 in 2017. Neither matches a line-item amount Tides Foundation reported for the corresponding years. Google also contributes money directly to both Wikimedia and the Wikimedia Endowment, announcing a $7.5 million donation at the 2019 Word Economic Forum.

While Wikimedia donates money to Tides – to support its endowment and Knowledge Equity Fund (via Tides Advocacy) – Tides also donates money to Wikimedia. However, the Tides donations do not appear in Wikimedia annual reports, which list major benefactors who donate amounts above $50,000 except for a pass-through donation from Google (“The Google Foundation of Tides Foundation.”). Other donations from Tides to Wikimedia are presumably lumped into the group of anonymous donors.

Table 3 Tides donations to Wikimedia

Year Ending

Tides to Wikimedia








$867,900 + $25,000[13]




On October 7, 2019, Amanda Keton joined Wikimedia as General Counsel. She came to Wikimedia from Tides where her work included setting up the Wikimedia Endowment and serving as CEO of Tides Advocacy, the Tides charity that Wikimedia donated $8.7 million to in 2019, the year Keton switched. That donation is in addition to Wikimedia’s ordinary annual $5,000,000 contribution to the endowment. As with other funds held at Tides, donations are separate from expenditures making it impossible to definitively trace what the donated funds were used for.

The extensive ties to Tides – an organization which often hides funding sources – is an odd choice of partners for the purportedly transparent Wikimedia.

Wikipedia is Sometimes Biased, Inaccurate, or Conflicted

Conflicts of Interest: Wikipedia

I stumbled on conflict issues with Wikipedia when I attempted to add information to a Wikipedia article about deceased business executive Archie McCardell, former CEO of Xerox and International Harvester sourced to an article I wrote about McCardell. That edit was promptly deleted by one of Wikipedia’s pseudo-anonymous editors, “Tim1965,” with the claim that it was self-serving despite no benefit beyond Wikipedia’s vaunted knowledge spreading. To clarify, my article was already second in Google search results about McCardell, with Wikipedia first, so there was no search engine optimization benefit. While there was no benefit to the link, the editor of the page wrongly accused me of conflict. However, reading his profile on a different page, I discovered he is a union activist editing the page of an infamous union buster, a serious and undisclosed conflict of interest. This was my first realization that, paraphrasing the Bard of Avon, something was rotten in the state of Denmark.

Knee-jerk deletions are common enough that the Wikipedia community gives users who engage in the behaviour a name, deletionists. There used to be a dedicated page on Wikipedia deletionists until the deletionists deleted it. The goal of deletionists is to prevent “vandalism,” a broad term spanning the common-sense meaning of the term to anything a Wikipedia editor disagrees with. Of course, an error by omission – whether purposeful or not – can render an underlying article inaccurate and misleading. Because it is far harder to identify errors of omission than errors of commission, the work of deletionists can be classified as a pervasive but largely invisible form of digital vandalism. Wikipedia’s vandalism page notes that wrongful deletions are a form of vandalism, though every example of vandalism cited involves the purposeful inclusion of information rather than exclusion.

For example, take Wikipedia entries concerning Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, the Pablo Escobar of the 1800s. He smuggled vast amounts of opium from India to China in cooperation with the British East India Company. The British supported the smuggling to avoid paying silver for tea, which they then brought back to sell in England. At one point, Jeejeebhoy and his British conspirators purposefully addicted at least ten million Chinese who then traded the opium, which cost the British almost nothing, for the valuable tea. When China predictably fought back, confiscating the smuggled opium, the British launched a war, the First Opium War, described in detail in Wikipedia. Jejeebhoy’s Wikipedia page does note the opium sales though omits it was smuggled and co-mingles it with the cotton trade. However, there is no mention of Jejeebhoy at all on the primary page about the First Opium War, a seriously misleading omission. Jejeebhoy is a hero in India, knighted and celebrated as a philanthropist. This omission in this shameful chapter of history is no doubt the work of Indian nationalists.

Taiwan and China famously clash non-stop about the status of the country and Hong Kong police have continually edited Wikipedia entries. In the latter case, during a crackdown by the Chinese government last year, a Wikipedia editor with a 13-year history characterized attempts by pro-democracy protestors in dismissive language. “The level of disruptive editing against the government, particularly from sources in Hong Kong, is significantly higher,” said Wikipedia editor MarkH21 who declined to give Reuters his real name.

The Wikipedia search result for antitrust law redirects to “competition law” and doesn’t mention Google, Amazon, Facebook, or Apple despite worldwide investigations into monopolistic practices by all four firms. Google’s nearly 8,000-word Wikipedia entry mentions monopoly or monopolistic behaviours only five times, three of those in the last paragraph. Facebook and Apple have two mentions of monopolies; Amazon’s entry has just one. None of the entries mention Wikipedia’s link to the businesses nor Wikimedia’s business dealings.

Conflicts of Interest: Wikimedia

In annual disclosures, Wikimedia lists expenditures for major vendors. Only two vendors appear every year for the last four reported years. One is its primary law firm, Jones-Day (a connection not noted on the Jones-Day Wikipedia page), and the other is a small public relations firm, Minassian Media, Inc., which does not have a Wikipedia page. Wikimedia paid Minassian $363,489, $374,334, $406,957, and $436,104 for the years ending 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016 respectively. There are no amounts paid to Minassian for years prior to 2016 and the 2020 disclosure has not been made public at this time. Minassian has or had only three known current or former employees, Craig Minassian, Jove Oliver, and Dasha Burns.

Craig Minassian, founder of the firm that bears his name, is a full-time executive at the Clinton Foundation. Disclosures there show he works 50 hours per week on average and was paid a total of $256,771 in 2019 and similar amounts in prior years. Minassian is listed as an officer on Clinton Foundation Form 990s in the 2015, 2018, and 2019 disclosures, the last published. The Clinton Foundation website confirms he remains in that role as of 2021. Minassian is also a former HBO executive and worked in various roles for both Bill and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns and as an assistant press secretary and director of television news in the Clinton White House.

Jove Oliver is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, along with outgoing Wikimedia CEO Katherine Maher. Besides his own firm, Oliver Global, Politico referred to Oliver as a partner at Minassian Media in a Nov. 26, 2020 article. Oliver’s own firm, Oliver Global, has no information at all. Oliver’s academic credentials include an undergraduate degree from the University of Evansville and a Master of Arts in International Relations (MAIR) from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. Bios refer to Oliver as a director at the Clinton Global Initiative from 2006-2010 though Clinton Foundation Form 990s, going back to 2003 (the year after he graduated from the Maxwell School), do not list him as an officer or director.

Public searches turn up only one Dasha Burns, a reporter at NBC. After inquiring through Twitter whether she is the same Dasha Burns that worked at Minassian she asked about the reason for the inquiry. After explaining it is research for this report, she never answered. Presumably, an unrelated Dasha Burns would have answered in the negative.

A 2016 CNN piece, when Burns may have been working for Minassian and Wikimedia, contains the following Editor’s Note: “Dasha Burns is a writer and works as a strategist and creative content producer at Oliver Global, a consulting agency where she focuses on leveraging media and digital technology for global development.” Her editorial expresses empathy with young woman voters who prefer Sanders over Clinton but goes on to explain why they should support Clinton instead. “While young voters are educated and engaged, they are also newer to politics. They don’t have the perspective that experiencing many election cycles may bring,” she wrote. No mention is made of her connection to Craig Minassian despite his status as a member of the Clinton campaign.

In a 2018 Forbes article, Minassian notes a breakdown between professional news gatherers and public relations: “…communications departments are being rebranded as ‘newsrooms’ to emphasize their goal to produce relevant, informative content…” This statement seems germane in the context of a nexus between Minassian, the Clinton Foundation, Wikimedia, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook.

Wikipedia is a Potentially Dangerous Conduit for Disinformation

Wikipedia’s undisclosed conflicts of interest, including clear examples of political manipulation, is a serious threat not only to discourse but arguably to national security. Wikipedia information is used in three primary high-level use cases:

1. As general background information through the web or mobile strongly identified as sourced from Wikipedia.

2. Pushed as objective fact through third-party portals, sometimes with little or no attribution (ex: Google’s infoboxes, Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, etc…).

3. Used as a baseline for truthfulness, for both human moderators or artificial intelligence (AI) agents when discerning fact from fiction or fake news.

The first use-case, reading and gathering information from Wikipedia, is the most benign. Teachers and professors routinely warn students not to use Wikipedia as an authoritative source of information. Individuals sourcing information directly from Wikipedia know where the information is from and can judge the accuracy of the information on the merits.

Wikipedia information pushed through third-party portals, identified as being sourced from Wikipedia in small print or not at all, becomes far more problematic. Reliance on virtual assistants is likely to increase over time and the source of information, vetted by a not always nor entirely disinterested group, is troublesome.

However, the third use case, Wikipedia as an arbiter of truth, has the potential to be a serious problem. Fake news is already pervasive and has been used to sway elections and political decisions throughout the world. Using Wikipedia as a bastion of truthfulness for human-based moderators, who might not have a deep background in history, enables bad-faith actors to project their version of reality. This problem compounds when Wikipedia information is used to train artificial intelligence agents, an apparently not uncommon use case. Whereas even individual people without a strong background in history might realize something sounds suspicious, AI’s have no similar intuition nor curiosity.

State actors who wish to control and project their version of reality need merely take control of those topics on Wikipedia and their version of truth would then be broadcast as a near-absolute truth to the human and AI-based moderators at Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and elsewhere.

As an example of how this might play out, take the Solar Winds hack of 2020. Simplifying, Solar Winds makes software that helps manage servers, the computers that run the internet. A state actor (Russia is often cited) hacked the Solar Winds software to gain entry and then appears to have remained dormant. Eventually, countless businesses and government agencies throughout the world updated their own systems, unknowingly introducing the vulnerability from Solar Winds. The state-actor then used the entry they’d created to put in place other, more difficult to detect, malware. To summarize, Solar Winds acted as a relatively benign single-entry point to countless other systems. However, it enabled the malware to metastasize into countless other systems.

Similarly, a state actor that wanted to run a disinformation campaign could take control of the relevant Wikipedia pages and use that control to enable their disinformation campaign more widely. Facebook AI’s and moderators would flag corrections to the disinformation as itself incorrect. Google AI’s would push the disinformation out. Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa would speak the disinformation into living rooms. The only protection against this nightmare scenario is the Wikipedia safeguards about disinformation which, no doubt, would probably quickly collapse under a coordinated attack by top-tier state-based hackers including China, Russia, or the United States.

Early in the life of the site, Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger expressed concern about accuracy and expressed some need for oversight by experts. He was soon marginalized and run out of the organization; his views discounted by the libertarian Jimmy Wales.




Wikipedia nowhere notes ties between Wikimedia, Tides, Google, Apple, Amazon, or Facebook. Concerns about monopoly are minimized. Minassian Media does not have a Wikipedia page despite being a major Wikimedia vendor for several years. The Clinton Foundation Wikipedia page mentions Craig Minassian only in passing, noting no ties to his ownership of a consulting firm nor the sizable billings by that firm to Wikimedia while Minassian was allegedly working 50 hours per week for the Clinton Foundation. There is no mention on Google’s Wikipedia page about the firm’s support for Wikimedia. Jones Day, Wikimedia’s law firm, does not note its representation on the firm’s Wikipedia page. The Wikipedia page about the Council on Foreign Relations includes no mention that Wikimedia CEO Katherine Maher is a life member despite a sizable list of other well-known members.

Wikimedia Enterprise, the new for-profit conduit between Big Tech and Wikimedia, asserts the purpose of its revenue-generating project is to create a “legal relationship” with Big Tech. Wikimedia Enterprise community liaison Liam Wyatt explains:

Instead of simply trying to appeal to moral arguments that it is “good” and “right” for these organizations to donate to WMF to invest in the free knowledge that sustains their business model… this project is attempting to build a product that the[y] want to buy – that in no way restricts the existing options… With a legal relationship in place, we will be in a much more strong position, a more sustainable position, to talk about things like correct and consistent attribution. (emphasis in the original)

Wikimedia already has a legal relationship with Big Tech. There may not be a written contract but there are various open-source licenses no doubt carefully scrutinized by a worldwide army of intellectual property attorneys concerned about copyright infringement claims against their deep-pocketed clients. There is simply no way Google, Amazon, and Apple would republish Wikipedia content at the scale they do without a rock-solid assurance their firms were shielded from a blizzard of meritorious copyright litigation. Contractually shifting this liability from the firms to Wikimedia, in exchange for funds not needed, seems like poor stewardship of Wikipedia.

As illustrated above, neither Wikimedia nor the Wikimedia Endowment appears to need more money. The firm already uses nowhere near the amount they already receive. The Endowment is well on its way to fulfilling its $100 million goal without a for-profit subsidiary. Google has demonstrated a willingness to donate to Wikimedia both directly and through Tides. Given the amount of content Google relies upon, they’d no-doubt increase their funding if they believed there was any real danger of Wikipedia folding, a prospect that seems far-fetched. Collusion by Big Tech for any purpose is troublesome but to support a single information source seems like it could, would, and should attract the attention of both antitrust regulators and anti-monopolist advocates.

Finally, the last stated reason for Wikimedia’s stated need for additional funding – to increase coverage to more languages – rings hollow. There are already 319 editions of Wikipedia. Content is created entirely by unpaid volunteers and, sometimes, machine translations. Funding makes no difference at all to increasing participation by the former group and the latter would likely be better served via a partnership with a machine translation business. It’s unclear why more funds are needed to improve, for example, the Latin, Yiddish, Sanskrit, or Old Church Slavonic editions of Wikipedia.

Wikimedia Enterprise argues other non-profits control for-profit divisions. Context is important. Mozilla Foundation, which oversees the non-profit Firefox, is attached to the Mozilla Corporation because it was originally spun-off from for-profit Netscape. Linux Foundation operates a for-profit training service which is entirely different from their core mission. The Open Data Institute relies in part upon for-profit businesses for data. None of these organizations rely upon volunteers to the extent Wikipedia does nor do they enjoy the level of funding, relative to operating costs, that Wikimedia is fortunate to have.

Wikipedians, a slang term for the vast majority of contributors who write and curate the various Wikipedia websites, expressed displeasure at the for-profit enterprise and the constant fundraising. On March 18, 2021, user Krassotkin, of Russian Wikipedia, wrote:

You know, a typical pattern for 99% of wiki contributors is writing and improving articles (uploading images and the like). The vast majority of Wikimedia users do not participate in discussions on the very small community that has developed around the Wikimedia Foundation and enjoying its benefits. Moreover, most Wikimedia users don’t speak English and cannot participate in these discussions at all. In fact there are essentially two disjoint Wikimedia movements. The first ones to create wiki projects and make money (through donations). And the second, who spend this money on some strange projects. That’s why the communities don’t know about Foundation’s initiatives and reject them. We must put an end to this.

Jimmy Wales answers similar concerns on the same page:

There are occasional news stories about (fundraising), basically saying “Why is Wikipedia asking for money, they have a ton of money already?” And the impact on donations has not been negative at all – indeed, I think it is arguable (and I know this in a direct way if we consider major donors who I’ve personally talked to) that having the WMF on sound financial footing, so that we can do more for free knowledge globally, is a stronger and more stable long term incentive to donors, as opposed to pursuing what I would regard as folly: teetering forever on the edge of bankruptcy in order to panic people into donating money. That would be terrible! … If it becomes possible to say “Hey, we get enough money from enterprise services to cover <this not very sexy part of our work, like bandwidth costs or such, whatever> so that 100% of your donation money goes to <supporting the growth of communities in the developing world, whatever> then that’s likely to bring in more donation money as well.

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