Wikimedia Foundation membership controversy
This history traces the Wikimedia Foundation's changing and debated status as a membership organization.
Legal membership (2004–2006)
Since the Wikimedia Foundation's birth in 2003 and throughout the first three years of its existence, the Foundation's corporate bylaws structured it as a membership organization assigning the Wikimedia movement's editors, donors and other contributors an equal vote in electing its Board of Trustees. The movement's volunteer attorney Alex T. Roshuk and site co-founder Jimmy Wales collaborated to write these first bylaws.
There had been pressure from German and other European Wikimedians around 2002, to structure the nascent organization to have membership.
Surprisingly few Wikimedians engaged with the idea of membership itself, for example in September 2003 when Roshuk responded affirmatively to a brief question thread about member status, followed by near silence. These discussions would turn to the matter of voting for the Board, a privilege which derived from a membership structure but would later be only a theory.
The Foundation's bylaws were first published in 2004, and it explicitly, automatically enfranchised contributors to the sites, both editors and donors, to vote in Board elections. One class of membership was known as "volunteer active membership":
This membership shall consist of all persons interested in supporting the activities of the Foundation who have contributed under a user name to any Wikimedia project prior to the election ballot request deadline. The only other qualification for membership shall be the creation of a user account on some Wikimedia project.
The Foundation was slow in catching up with this underdeveloped yet noble-hearted paperwork, and were hampered on every front by the lack of dedicated staff. In an open letter dated September 2004, the board's hard-working chair Florence Devouard wrote: "Over the past three months, we have built a solid base for Wikimedia's future. We have laid the groundwork for a membership system ..." Later, "How can I become a member of the Foundation? Anyone who is interested in supporting the activities of the Foundation and has contributed under a user name to any Wikimedia project is a Volunteer Active Member of the Foundation."
During a board meeting on October 22, 2004, the board approved certain changes to the bylaws, including "A volunteer member is not required to complete or sign and send any form to the Foundation." These resolutions cemented the idea that Foundation membership was open to all Wikimedians. The only requirements were to contribute, and either to opt into membership through an on-wiki workflow (never implemented), or to vote in the Board elections.
The community slowly grew aware of their claims to membership, both legal thanks to the bylaws, and ethical thanks to the enormous labor they were putting into the projects. Several wiki pages were written to explore and develop the notion of membership.
A class of subscribing members called "contributing active member" was envisaged. It was proposed that these members could pay a small amount which, multiplied by a dreamy 100,000 to one billion member-editors, might one day make up a handsome portion of the Foundation's revenue. It doesn't seem that dues were ever collected however, because the "volunteer active members" class, which included any active Wikimedian, was exempt from paying a monetary fee. Since this was by far the largest group, there was little point in collecting money from the remaining members. According to the Bylaws, when a volunteer voted in a Board election, this would trigger the membership clause and they would be opted-in.
Follow-up Board discussions in January and June of 2005 continued to tweak membership with some smaller fixes, clarifications, and planning. By August 8, 2006, the "volunteer active membership" clause in the bylaws had been refined. Its new text read:
Wikimedia Foundation bylaws, art. III. § 1(B) VOLUNTEER ACTIVE MEMBERSHIP:
This membership shall be open to all persons interested in supporting the activities of the foundation who have contributed under a user name to any Wikimedia project prior to the election ballot request deadline. The board may set minimum contribution requirements for the purpose of eliminating fraudulent votes. Volunteer Active Members shall have all the privileges of Contributing Active Members. Volunteer Active Members are automatically qualified to vote, do not need to register as a member prior to voting, and can opt out of membership at any time.
Discussion about changing the bylaws
In June 2006, Board member Florence Devouard suggested changing the bylaws by striking the membership section, to read "The Foundation shall have no members." She pointed out that the Foundation was at a watershed and could either adopt a more rigorous membership structure like the Apache Software Foundation, preferred by Devouard, or it could take the corporate route and eliminate membership entirely, streamlining its legal profile.
The membership and other bylaws changes were discussed again on the foundation-l mailing list between August 11-17, 2006, by 15 users in 46 emails. The revised bylaws were also discussed on-wiki, in 13 edits by 4 users.
There was no consensus for or against membership, a typical sentiment is, "I haven't seen a strong enough case for membership to unambiguously support it. For now, I would already be happy with a strong Board-level commitment that the majority of the Board will be community-elected." Chapters are dragged into the conversation in inventive ways, at one point Möller wonders if their membership should be included in the main Foundation membership.
Minutes from the October 2006 Board retreat warn that the bylaws would be "updated to address inconsistencies, ambiguities and errors", through "discussion among Board and community about membership, elections; decision to be made at face-to-face Board meeting."
Change to the bylaws (November 2006)
The Board met on November 29–30, 2006 to discuss membership, and this time they decided to eliminate it entirely. Legal membership was removed from the bylaws on November 29, 2006, by a unanimous Board resolution. Prior to this amendment, Board member elections were held as if they were a direct ballot. After the amendment, a smaller number of elected seats were nominated by popular vote but final appointment could only be made by the Board.
Membership does not legally exist. Membership was previously described in the bylaws but not actually implemented. We've discussed this issue at some length and decided that the risk of membership do not [sic] outweigh the potential benefits. The risks include:
- Disclosure of identity to others. We do not want to limit participation in WMF activities to those who are willing to disclose their identity to other members.
- Hostile takeover. Given the power of members to elect or recall the Board, the risk then arises of large numbers of people being affiliated with some entity (economic, political or religious) to attempt to restructure the organization to their liking.
- Unnecessary hierarchy. It is possible that legal membership would negatively impact the social dynamics of the project when members and non-members are treated differently.
- Administrative overhead. WMF is simply not presently in an organizational position to effectively manage thousands of membership registration.
- Questionable benefits. We can have most of the benefits of a membership system without legally encoding it in our bylaws. It was argued that this kind of organizational representation could find a home in chapter organizations, some of which already have legal members.
The November Board meeting minutes and summary on the mailing list don't give any more insight into the decision-making process, other than to downplay the changes. Membership is not addressed by name in the minutes, the changes are referred to as achievement of "sustainable bylaws" by fixing "inconsistencies".
Alex Roshuk, who had recently lost his bid for a seat on the Board, was nonetheless present at the October 22, 2006 Board meeting, presumably in his ongoing role as pro bono attorney for the Foundation. According to Roshuk, he "was not allowed to see the bylaws" before they were voted upon. Elimination of membership had been discussed for months, but was never a foregone conclusion. Roshuk became a vocal critic of this decision, and began to advocate for membership rights.
Roshuk's other contributions to the Wikimedia movement had been to found the Association of Members' Advocates to help Wikipedians negotiate the dispute resolution process on English Wikipedia, and was a volunteer for the Wikipedia Legal Department. His statement for Board candidacy reveals a vision to develop committee structures among the Wikimedia editors, so that their raw energy would be better utilized at an organizational level. After the membership controversy erupted, Roshuk suggested that we need a Association of Wikimedians in order to create an arena of reform.
I think the way to proceed is to start a new Association of Wikipedians and Wikimedians and it should be totally independent of the WMF servers, it should have its own structure, tax exempt status and should be a place where anyone who has contributed to WMF or any of its projects (not necessarily as a volunteer editor) should have a place to comment and critique what is going on in that organization without judgment or creating any kind of pressure on the individual participants to conform to the so-called ideals of WMF. Such a Union of Members could act as a real arena of reform that could exert positive influences on a culture that is become complicated, confusing and debilitating to true collaborative work.
A protest grew against the amendment as some members recognized their estrangement. A petition was raised in February 2007 and was eventually signed by 63 Wikimedians, "Give Back Our Membership". These editors accused the Board of unilateral action without any support from, or even awareness of the members.
Other editors were more sanguine, and pointed out that they were still allowed to vote for the Board, so nothing important seemed to have changed. There were statements of trust in Wales and the other Board members to guide the movement through these difficult growing pains, and faith that they would continue to represent the community and allow elections indefinitely.
- Alex T. Roshuk, "Important legal notice", Wikipedia, February 2, 2007.
- Aronsson, Lars (August 16, 2006). "bylaws (second call)". foundation-l (Mailing list).
- Roshuk, Alex (September 7, 2003). "Members?". foundation-l (Mailing list).
- Wales, Jimmy (January 19, 2004). "Bylaws". foundation-l (Mailing list).
- "Membership", Bylaws, Wikimedia Foundation, September 15, 2004.
- "Board letter/September 2004", Wikimedia Foundation.
- "Meetings/October 22, 2004", Wikimedia Foundation.
- Devouard also wrote some specifications at about this time for software features to support membership, which became a planned priority, to be developed by either Tim Starling or Brion Vibber.
- Wikimedia membership, historical page about membership, meta.wikimedia.org.
- Devouard, Florence (June 17, 2006). "the easy way or the less easy way". foundation-l (Mailing list).
- "How can I become a member of the Foundation?". Wikimedia Quarto (2) (Wikimedia Foundation). January 2005.
- Wikimedia Foundation bylaws, art. III. § 1(B) "VOLUNTEER ACTIVE MEMBERSHIP," Bylaws, Wikimedia Foundation (August 8, 2006)
- Membership changes announced in the Board letter of January 2005 and in Quarto, https://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Wikimedia_Quarto/2/En-3
- Also discussed on June 7, 2005, https://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Meetings/June_7,_2005
- Devouard, Florence (June 16, 2006). "the easy way or the less easy way". foundation-l (Mailing list).
- Devouard, Florence (June 14, 2006). "A proposal for organisation". foundation-l (Mailing list)., introducing the ASF model and how it might apply to the Wikimedia Foundation. Discussion continues June 14-18, 2006, involving 11 people in 21 posts.
- Devouard, Florence (August 11, 2006). "bylaws". foundation-l (Mailing list).
- Devouard, Florence (August 13, 2006). "bylaws (second call)". foundation-l (Mailing list).
- Möller, Erik (August 15, 2006). "bylaws". foundation-l (Mailing list).
- Möller, Erik (August 15, 2006). "bylaws (second call)". foundation-l (Mailing list).
- Minutes of the October 2006 Board retreat, minutes approved November 8 and published November 10.
- Resolution on the bylaws
- The change to the bylaws is recorded on December 10, 2006.
- Möller, Erik (December 11, 2006). "Revised Bylaws posted". foundation-l (Mailing list).
- Möller expands a bit more here, User talk:The Thadman/Give Back Our Membership, February 8, 2007.
- Board minutes of November 29-30, 2006
- Devouard, Florence (November 10, 2006). "Board retreat outcome". foundation-l (Mailing list).
- Wikimedia Foundation elections/Board elections/2006
- Alex Roshuk's criticism of lost membership
- Roshuk's election platform, question 14.
- For background on community acceptance of Wales's life appointment, see Reagle's http://reagle.org/joseph/2010/gfc/chapter-6.html
- Mentioned many times in the thread "Announcement about changes to the Board", http://thread.gmane.org/gmane.org.wikimedia.foundation/80733/focus=80936
- Prominent language still being fixed as of 2016, https://wikimediafoundation.org/w/index.php?title=Board_of_Trustees&diff=104732&oldid=104425 and https://meta.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?diff=15266485