31 March 2005

Unethical Funding at WordPress

Apparently the people behind the WordPress project’s website, which includes the project’s founder, have decided that a good way to fund the project would be to use their Google PageRank to link to a lot of canned articles on topics that generate more advertising revenue than others. Some more details on this matter are available from Andy Baio’s blog and Ars Technica

It is deeply troubling that people associated with open source projects use resources that only have value because of unpaid community contribution and cash in on them. Unless that conversion is of impeccable ethics and completely transparent you’re bound to have a problem on your hands. In the case of the “Open Projects” (now Freenode) IRC network, there was a lack of transparency that led to the conclusion that Rob Levin was in fact using the donations that were advertised to “help the network” to pay his rent and feed his family. Certainly noble purposes, except that every other IRC network is run by volunteers who do the work mainly for free and when money is going to them to pay their living expenses that much is made more clear. This made some members of the user community upset.

In the case of WordPress, there is both the lack of transparency as to where the funds were used and the fact that the funds are being raised in a way that is certainly unethical. The link and page hiding method used is a violation of the contract between WordPress.org and Google for the AdWords program which opens the site maintainer and the project itself to lawsuits from Google, should they be feeling particularly nasty. As it is, Google has reset the pagerank for WordPress.org to zero and WordPress.org links are slowly disappearing from its search results. It doesn’t help matters that the project founder who is ostensibly responsible for this decision was on an extended vacation to various countries in Europe when this story broke. The particularly cynical might wonder how the vacation was funded.

At best, this was a tragic mistake on the part of the people responsible. The offending links and articles have now been removed, but it looks as if the damage is done and it may be too late for forgiveness from Google and many users.

I’m going to have to think long and hard about how much I can contribute to the WordPress parent project without getting myself tangled up in their apparently shaky ethics. I already had misgivings about the way they used the default links in the application to promote their personal blogs rather than useful community resources. (The lead developer brags about being Google’s “#1 most important Matt in the world” on his personal page, a direct result of his link being in the default install.) I had been planning to embark on a project to make WordPress database agnostic and did not want to deal with having to be a fork from the parent project. Perhaps a fork from the parent project would be better for the community though. The coming days and how this is all handled will shine a better light on which way is best to go.

For what it’s worth, I should point out that at no time have I been paid for my work on WordPress-pg and if I do receive such payment in the future I’ll be transparent about where the money is going and what I’m doing to repay the community for any such kindness.

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