Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Internet Evil

March 2006

By Mike Gould

Much has been made of late of the knuckling-under of Google, kowtowing to the desires of the tyrants who rule China. Google originally promised as part of its business plan "to not be evil", so there has been much discussion as to the state of good vs. evil in the current commercial landscape.

I make no claims to having any status as a ethicist, but here's my take on what is evil and how not to be it, at least in the context of online behavior.

The Obvious Suspects
The range of Internet evil spans a continuum from annoyances (spam) to criminal activity (phishing schemes, zombiebots) to international terrorism (Al Qaeda's use of web sites). Like any other realm of human endeavor, the Internet mirrors the behavior of its users. It is just that there is now a magnifying factor - one bottom feeder with a string of spambots can annoy more people at one time than any other time in history. I don't think there is an increase in the numbers of bad guys, it is just that they have more reach than before.

There is no argument that spam is evil; it wastes people's time, clogs the arteries of commerce and demeans the human spirit. At least, I find nothing more demeaning than the offer of various types of non-standard sex with my morning email. Kinda makes you long for the days of typewriters, but I digress...

Phishing is obviously evil, as it is the attempt to steal one's identity so one can loot their assets electronically. Just an extension of the old pigeon drop/pyramid scheme tradition: con the gullible into hurting themselves.

A somewhat more subtle form of evil is behavior unbecoming a large corporation. The Enrons of the world are demonstrably evil; despoilers of the environment for profit are evil, but what of other, less obvious examples?

Corporate Evildoers
The poster child for corporate evil in regards to the Internet is Microsoft. Microsoft embodies everything that is wrong with capitalism: blatant disregard for the security of its subjects, er, customers, rampant monopolism, and shoddy workmanship masquerading as standards.

Microsoft (MS) wants to own the Internet, your desktop, every possible means of communication, and wants a cut on every transaction you make online. And they are mostly getting their way. Why? Because we are dummies. For example, in spite of all the warnings, frequent break-ins and web attacks, people are still using MS's browser, Internet Explorer (IE) . Not that all the above will go away if you use other browsers (weaknesses are always being found in Firefox and other browsers), but people will significantly improve their chances of online survival by ditching IE.

MS also attempted to foist off a little program called Smart Tags a while back; this would use its browser to add links to every site browsed, links linking to MS partners (i.e., companies giving MS lots of money). For instance, if your site mentioned widgets, IE would add tags to your site (underlining all mentions of widgets, for instance) that when clicked upon, would take you to the widgets site of whoever paid MS for the privilege, even if you were a widget maker yourself. A vast outcry was raised against this and the plan hastily dropped.

I could go on and on, but the point is that MS has the aroma among technorati of Not Being Your Friend. A clear case of corporate greed getting in the way of good technical practices, consideration for the user, and good 'net citizenship.

Sony has also come under fire recently for evil behavior. In an attempt to put the screws to anyone who might want to buy a CD and then enjoy it on more than one platform, say, on their computer, Sony employed a virus-like means of Digital Rights Management (DRM). Sony added hidden software to their CDs which did Bad Things to their customer's computers, often doing serious damage to their operating systems. The ongoing fight over the right way to do DRM is beyond the scope of this article, but sufficient to say, Sony screwed up big time and is in the process of fighting several large class action suits.

Apple Computer, long seen as the David against the Goliath that is Microsoft, is not above sneaking in a little misfeasance from time to time. Their latest mis-step involves the iTunes MiniStore feature. This was a means of secretly sending Apple (and a mysterious company in Orem, Utah) information about the music in your library. This was ostensibly to improve Apple's use of user profiles in suggesting music a user might be interested in. But the fact that it was done secretly smacked of spyware, and an outcry ensued. Apple promptly responded with a disclaimer and a way to turn the service off, but the damage was done. While nowhere near MS on the evil scale, Apple is a large corporation and sometimes stuff happens.

Play Nice Locally
So how does one behave virtuously on the Internet if one is a small businessperson? I think the rules I learned in the Boy Scouts apply (somewhat edited here for brevity).

One should be: Trustworthy - Your customer has entrusted you with their email address; don't abuse that trust by spamming them or passing their address on.
Loyal - Inspire your customer's loyalty to you by your attention to them; a follow-up email to a sale can work wonders.
Helpful - If you know a customer is looking for something you don't have, a moment with Google and sending the resulting URL can be a good customer relations move.
Friendly - Here is where a small local company can trump a big national one; take the time to know your customers.
Courteous - Learn the nuances of email, voicemail, and the like.
Obedient - Observe the laws that govern online business and commerce.
Brave - Don't be afraid to speak out on unethical behavior. The Internet abounds with forums, and a letter to the editor is just keystrokes away.
Clean - Above all, don't pollute the data stream with spam, come-ons, and the other detritus of online life. We get way too much of that already.

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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