Future Tense

Amazon Owes Wikipedia Big-Time

Smart speakers are taking advantage of the free labor of Wikipedia volunteers.

An Amazon Echo device, with the Wikipedia globe logo in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Amazon and Wikipedia.

When you ask Amazon’s Alexa, “What is Wikipedia?” it’ll tell you this: “Wikipedia is a multilingual, web-based, free encyclopedia based on a model of openly editable content.” Alexa took this line directly from Wikipedia’s entry on Wikipedia, as it does with many of its answers. Perhaps what it should have said was this: “Wikipedia is the source from which I take much of my information, without credit, contribution, or compensation.”

That’s about to change. Or is it? Amazon recently donated $1 million to the Wikimedia Endowment, a fund that keeps Wikipedia running, as “part of Amazon’s and CEO Jeff Bezos’ growing work in philanthropy,” according to CNET. It’s being framed as a “gift,” one that—as Amazon puts it—recognizes their shared vision to “make it easier to share knowledge globally.” Amazon also noted the ability for users to easily donate to Wikimedia through the Alexa Donations feature, with the voice command “Alexa, donate to Wikipedia.”

Obviously, and as alluded to by CNET, $1 million is hardly a magnanimous donation from Amazon and Bezos, the former a trillion-dollar company and the latter a man with a net worth of more than $160 billion. It’s the equivalent of me donating 3 cents. It’s chump change, and Amazon deserves no awards for philanthropy here.

But it’s not just the fact that this donation is, in the scheme of things, paltry. It’s that this “endowment” is dwarfed by what Amazon and its ilk get out of Wikipedia—figuratively and literally. Wikipedia provides the intelligence behind many of Alexa’s most useful skills, its answers to everything from “What is Wikipedia?” to “What is Slate?” (meta). Tech companies that profit from Wikipedia’s extensive database owe Wikimedia a much greater debt.

Amazon’s know-it-all Alexa is renowned for its ability to answer questions, but Amazon didn’t compile all that data itself; according to the Amazon developer forum, “Alexa gets her information from a variety of trusted sources such as IMDb, Accuweather, Yelp, Answers.com, Wikipedia and many others.” Nor did it pay those who did: While Amazon customers pay at least $39.99 for an Echo device (and the pleasure of asking Alexa questions), Alexa freely pulls this information from the internet, leeching off the hard work performed by Wikipedia’s devoted volunteers (and unlike high school students, it doesn’t even bother to change a few words around). It’s hardly noble for Amazon to support Wikipedia, considering how much Alexa uses its services, nor is it particularly selfless to fund the encyclopedia when it relies upon its peer-reviewed accuracy; ultimately, helping Wikipedia helps Amazon, too.

The other digital assistants also draw on Wikipedia’s peer-edited brain, including Google Assistant and Siri, which, as I wrote recently, is using Wikipedia to bolster its celebrity knowledge in iOS 12. Siri’s favored source for question-answering is not actually Wikipedia; it’s Wolfram Alpha—though it’s likely Wolfram Alpha pulls some of its info from Wikipedia, too. We all benefit from Wikipedia, but arguably no one more than the smart speakers, for which the internet’s encyclopedia is a valuable and value-adding resource. It’s frankly a little exploitative how little they give back.

It’s about more than just answers. As Wikimedia Executive Director Katherine Maher said in a recent conversation with Will Oremus and April Glaser on Slate’s If Then podcast, industry owes Wikimedia support “not just because we create a transactional value to them, because Amazon or Siri or whatever can answer our question, but because we’ve actually created a tremendous resource just in terms of data modeling and support that these companies can go out and train and do advanced computational science around.” And nobody, she added, is compensating them for that.

Of course, Wikimedia is happy to share the fruits of its labor. Amazon is not wrong in describing Wikipedia’s selfless vision to make knowledge more accessible for everyone, even if describing its own that way is a bit of stretch. But while Wikipedia is “free,” it does seek donations from its users, from those who can afford to give, and in its annual drive tries to press upon us the work that we all take for granted; according to Wikimedia, “only about half of our readers realize that Wikipedia is a non-profit … run entirely on donations from the general public.” Sure, you might say, Amazon is only packaging up information that we ourselves leech for free all the time. But Alexa is also diverting people away from visiting Wikipedia pages, where they might notice a little request for a donation, or from realizing they are using Wikipedia’s resources at all. When delivered by smart speaker, Wikipedia’s hard-curated bank of information becomes just words in the air, without recognition of where it came from. (Google is an exception: Google Assistant credits Wikipedia—and other sites—when it uses it as a resource.) And when the majority of Wikipedia’s funding comes from individual donors, taking away even some of its visits presents a serious threat. (In the cases of IMDb, Accuweather, Yelp, and Answers.com, this “free” info isn’t meant to be unremunerated; all four feature ads on their sites, ads that Alexa is diverting eyeballs away from when it siphons off their data.)

But it’s not even as if Amazon’s donation—its first ever to the foundation it leans so heavily upon—was motivated purely by generosity. It’s possible that Amazon was spurred into action here by recent criticism over its notable absence from the Wikimedia Foundation annual donor list. In a March TechCrunch piece, Brian Heater pointed out that Amazon is the only one of the big tech players not found on Wikimedia’s 2017–18 corporate donor list—one that includes Apple, Google, and even Amazon’s Seattle-based sibling Microsoft, all of which matched employee donations to the tune of $50,000. (Others have pointed out that Bezos’ charitable giving is wanting and lags behind Bill Gates’.)

Google often tops the donor list, and rightly so; Google relies heavily on Wikipedia, using it as a source for the Knowledge Graph infoboxes it provides along with search results. Google recently drew extensive criticism for its decision to take this a step further, outsourcing fact-checking on conspiracy-related videos to Wikipedia by including on-screen boxes with information scraped from its pages, without even checking with the organization before its announcement. (Much like the smart speakers, these fact-checking boxes give people Wikipedia data without them having to visit the site, making them less likely to volunteer or donate. It also threatens to make Wikipedia an even bigger target for conspiracy theorists.) In return, Google has been a generous(ish) donor over the years. The company first donated to Wikimedia eight years ago with a $2 million grant and has matched its employee’s donations in recent years—making this Amazon donation seem both small and late.

When Google announced its use of Wikipedia for fact-checking, Wikimedia used the moment to make a point about companies giving back. As Maher tweeted at the time, “While we are thrilled to see people recognize the value of @Wikipedia’s non-commercial, volunteer model, we know the community’s work is already monetized without the commensurate or in-kind support that is critical to our sustainability. … Scraping our content means people can’t contribute.” These same thoughts could be applied to Amazon’s recent spurt of “generosity.” In her recent conversation with If Then, Maher touched on similar themes when asked about the need for donations from the big platforms:

We don’t want to be entirely beholden to large corporations giving us money, but we do feel as though having some sort of sustainable model of support, whether it is engineering support, or in-kind support, or just thinking about what the product decisions actually mean in terms of their implications for how people can contribute to and access Wikipedia. … At the end of the day, we create a tremendous amount of value in the world, and we want to make sure that value is being recognized and being supported and sustained, because it’s very easy to make a series of decisions that in aggregate could really damage that value … .

Wikipedia is a wonderful, free resource, and companies like Amazon are also free to exploit the nonprofit’s generosity. But when Amazon is making money selling a device that uses Wikipedia’s information—while robbing it of potential page views, donations, and volunteers—there’s nothing generous about a $1 million “gift.” We should try to be more aware of where Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant get their answers, and what they—and we—might owe them. In fact, in honor of this, I’m going to donate to Wikipedia right now. Three cents should probably do it, right?