Hello dear all,
From 2008 on until recently the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) had seen a
staggering growth to fulfill its mission, and it had pulled a great deal
of the resources, in money, but as well as in talent, manpower and
volunteer's effort of the movement.
From the beginning hosting of the Wikimedia projects was the core
competency of the WMF. A big part of the WMF budget and staff is
dedicated to the operation of the servers. Meanwhile the main server
farm is moved from Tampa, Florida to Ashburn, Virginia.
In the last years the WMF had evolved to the main development party of
the MediaWiki software. The software and product development had drawn
many resources and talents from around the world to San Francisco. Many
developers were relocated to join the WMF team.
With the increased prominence of especially Wikipedia the WMF and its
projects were facing more and more legal challenges in the past years.
Law suits from around the world were reported since 2005. Because of
this the WMF had expanded its legal team.
To improve its role as the leader of the movement and to settle the
disputes between the WMF and chapters about the processing and
distribution of the funding the WMF had evolved since 2010 into a grant
All in all the WMF is without doubt the center peace of the movement and
claims four fifth of the expanses of the entire movement.
The recent dispute about the URAA motivated massive content deletions on
Wikimedia Commons highlights the problem of this strong centralized
In basic, the storage solution of the Wikimedia projects is still a very
classical approach with two central database centers, both of them
located in the US. This approach had repeatedly induced conflicts about
what content can be stored and what cannot. It does not reflect the
international character of the projects and had repeatedly induced
critics on the Wikimedia projects to be US biased and it is, measured on
today's storage technology, outdated. Even though currently the US law
is one of the most liberal in relation to freedom of speech it does has
its bias. The US copy right law for example is meanwhile one of the most
restrictive and backward looking copy right laws in the entire world.
Another example of the potential hazardous result of this approach are
the image files that are currently stored in the individual projects.
For example on Chinese Wikipedia images that are free according to the
Chinese and Taiwanese copy right laws are stored directly there, and not
on Commons. These images are nevertheless not free according to the US
law and are stored in servers that are located in the US and distributed
from there. This poses potential problems for all parties that are
involved here: for the Foundation, for the project, for the community
that is curating these images and for the users that are using these images.
In a larger sense the problem is not constrained to the file
repositories, but also to the content. Even though the Foundation had
increased its legal department and had tentatively tried to work out an
approach to support its community in legal conflict basically it is
still working with the old strategy: In case there is a legal case in a
foreign country the Foundation will avoid the call of the court while
the Chapter will deny any responsibility for the content. This leaves in
the end all potential hazards to the volunteer who contributed the
content. In case of a court suit he is probably the one that have the
worse legal support and had to take the charge privately, even if he
handled legally and in good will.
In my opinion, since the technology is ripe, it is time for the movement
as a whole and WMF especially to seriously consider the approach of a
distributed hosting. Files and contents that let's say are legal in the
EU but not in the US should be able to be stored on a server located in
the EU and distributed and operated from there. Files and contents that
are legal in PRC and Taiwan and may violate copy right law in the US
should be able to be stored in a server say in Taiwan or Hongkong and be
distributed from there into the world. This approach is meanwhile
technical viable and is used by almost all major international internet
This also means that the chapters, as far as there is one, should be
able to take the responsibility for the content and the hosting of those
servers in their country. They should be obliged to provide legal
consultation and defense to the community, which means a distribution of
the legal defense from a central point into the world, to the chapters
and directly to the communities. Indeed the legal consultation and
protection of the community is in my opinion one of the most missed duty
of the chapters and the Foundation to the movement.
Every country, that meets a certain standard of freedom of speech,
freedom and media and freedom of justice is a potential place to set up
such a server and in which the chapter can be entitled to claim the
responsibility of the content that is stored there. There are meanwhile
pretty many renowned independent organizations that provide such
standards and measure the status of a country against these standards,
like Reporters sans frontières, Human Rights Watch, etc.
Also software and product development can be done distributed. Many
commercial companies do this successfully, many open source projects do
this successfully. The WMF is not unfamiliar with distributed software
development. One of the most prominent developer of the WMF, Tim
Starling is for example never relocated to San Francisco. Also in the
past decades many important impulses came from outside of San Francisco,
the last one is WikiData, initiated and developed by Wikimedia
Deuschland (WMDE). Wikimedia Serbia had offered in the past to hire
developers in Belgrade because the people there are well educated,
talented and the wage there is low. I believe there is no necessity to
concentrated all developers at one place. Fore sure distributed
developer teams need certain trainings, standards, communication skills
and procedures to be able to doing well. But it is possible, it is even
meanwhile industrial standard. It is meanwhile a backward looking
approach to draw and concentrate developers at one place.
From organizational view it makes more sense to have these distributed
developers organized by the chapters (as far as there is one) instead of
let them work as contractors for the Foundation, which also means an
organizational decentralization of the software and product development.
For me personally there are some life experience that makes me an
absolute supporter for the decentralization.
I was born 1968, the year which marks the climax of the darkest period
of the Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution. In the year when I was
born Chine was experiencing the worst political purge since Stalin's
death in the whole world. At that time, no one could imaging, that from
the boys and girls that were born that year in China, millions will go
to North America or Europe to study there and work there and live there.
No one could imaging that some of them will go back to China because
they know that China will provide them better chances for work, research
and life than in North America and Europe. 1988 I traveled with the
train throw Soviet Union and crossed the no man's land of Berlin Wall,
and at that time no one in the whole world could imagine that less than
four years later there will be no Soviet Union any more and the Berlin
Wall will fall.
Those experiences tell me not to trust any fortune teller and future
researcher. I won't bet that USA will not turn into a dictatorship
within my life time, and I won't bet that Central and West Africa won't
turn into the most prosperous and most liberal region of the world in my
life time. However unprobable this looks like. Because of that I don't
trust one central prominent hub, because however strong and well
developed and well organized, it is the single point to fail.
Decentralization, on any aspect, only works if the parties are aligned.
One of the darkest hour of my board chair's personship was by an
interview with an Austrian television. Together with me a chair's person
of a chapter board, a volunteer and a researcher of Wikipedia were
interviewed. When the reporter came to the topic of gender bias and
Foundation's effort to balance it he at first addressed the question to
the chapter chair's person. And the person answered: Well, for our
chapter this is not a topic, we concentrate our work on article quality.
And for the next few seconds before the question is addressed to me I
was feverish thinking about an answer which would not sound like I
support and agree with him but also don't like as if we will publicly
take out a dispute about what is the movement goal.
I think this should not happen. And if the movement really want to be
organized decentralized, we cannot afford such things to happen. It made
me sad to see that WMDE and WMUK published their strategic planning for
the coming years, each by themselves. I think it should be a strategic
planning with all organizations, agreed by all organizations and all
organizations will work together on those goals, together.
I think there should be a charter for all organizations in our movement,
signed by all organizations that want to join us, that set up standards,
set up things like working together on strategies and working together
on goals. Unfortunately, and I do blame myself partly for this, that
despite the movement roles work group, despite some other tries
afterward, we were not able to set up such a charter. And I think that
one of the goals for a movement strategic planning should be set up such
a charter in the next few years.
So, if we decentralize the hosting, the software and product
development, the legal and the movement organizations, where is the
place of WMF?
I imagine the WMF as the United Nations of Wikimedia. I can see a lot of
people now wrinkle their nose and say: What? that ugly and useless
bureaucracy? And I will tell you: No, I am not thinking about that ugly
and useless bureaucracy, I am thinking about that organization that
concentrated and coordinated the world's effort to eradicate smallpox, I
am thinking about that organization that set up standards to preserve
the world's heritages, the organization that coordinates and develops
standards for civil air and sea traffic that makes an smooth and safe
international travel possible. So, I am imagining an organization that
coordinates the movement resources, that set up and safe guard
standards, but not dominating the movement. And all in all, despite the
40 and plus partner organizations, there are still more volunteers that
don't have an organization to support them, and there are still much to
do for the Foundation. Especially, I still see the WMF as the leader of
the partner organizations and the movement.
Looking back into the history I believe it is necessary for the
Foundation to have the last six year's growth. The Foundation had
learned a lot from this and it had repeatedly set up standards for the
movement, despite all the grudging and all the disputes, looking back,
it is good to have those standards set up. All organizations inside of
the movement are profitable from those standards.
But the growth of the WMF had more and more extincting the growth of the
partner organizations inside of the movement. Its dominance and its
feeling responsible for everything inside of the movement began to take
the air away from the other organizations, its concentration at one
place had always been felt as an alienation and is becoming more and
more a problem. A good captain of see knows when the wind turns and he
need to change the sail setting and course to cope with that change, for
the Wikimedia movement now is the time.
I want to repeat one sentence I said earlier: I see the WMF as the
leader of the partner organizations and the movement. I want to
emphasize that I want to see the WMF as the strong leader of the partner
organizations and the movement. The strong leader because he is wise and
experienced, not because he is a dictator; the strong leader that knows
that every member in his team has something that they can do better than
himself and knows to use those abilities in benefit of the group, and
not the one who dominates the team.