Unethical: An Apology
In the year 2001 I probably infected your computer with spyware. I’m really sorry about this.
We were, to my knowledge, the world’s first spyware company, or at least the first one to reach widespread infection adoption. (As much as possible I’m going to avoid providing identifying details in my confessionals, but some of you will probably be able to guess who I mean here. They’re long-dead, so it’s okay. Did I mention I was sorry?) My Mariner’s Tale, you’ll recall, left me a young man in New York City who had just secured employment at a salary rather higher than he was used to; and this, you’ll appreciate, is a pleasant thing to be. So pleased with myself I was, that I confess I gave not one damn that our business model involved tricking you into installing our software — in those insecure days, many users’ configurations allowed us to install our stuff on their computer without asking or telling them a thing — and then messing with their Internet browsing experience for our own jolly fun and profit, mostly profit.
Our most lucrative “service” worked like this: If you looked like you were conducting commerce on a site that wasn’t paying us protection money our customer, our software would detect this and pop up a better offer from one of our paid affiliates. We also would spy on the user’s Internet activity and keep that data to do with as we pleased — a lot of this, fortunately, became illegal later. And we had a HUGE installed base — by some metrics, we were one of the busiest “websites” on the Internet, although almost all of that traffic was from our spyware conducting its activities and not what you would particularly call voluntary.
I was a fast learner and quickly proved myself useful. Within a few months, I had devised a number of fairly simple shortcuts and improved methods for what we were doing that made our operations greatly more efficient. As it turned out, unlike almost everyone else who had jumped aboard the dot-com bandwagon, I was good at this shit. It was the first occasion that the gratification of doing something well, and the pride that comes from the knowledge that one is doing it better than others in an environment of cut-throat competition, was sufficient to make me entirely ignore the fact that what I was doing was, strictly speaking, morally wrong.
Despite this (in those days) creative business model, the company managed to lose money.
Most of the reason why was that, in a fit of exuberance typical to the era, it had entered into a fixed lease for a beautiful old building way down in Lower Manhattan as its permanent headquarters, the entire lower floor of which was unneeded — fortunate, because it was also stripped, gutted, and unfinished. Consider the effect on my twenty-six-year-old, fresh-from-the-Canola-fields-of-Alberta brain when I was informed of the reason why: this building had been the former offices of a Latino daily newspaper until, angered by a crusading exposé on their activities in NYC, Mexican gangsters shot out the lower floor in a drive-by shooting. (My first question: “The Mexican gangsters know they moved out, right?”) And on the rent for this luridly storied but utterly impractical building were being spent any potential profits for the firm month by month.
So we had to fire about two thirds of the staff, but my quickly-growing technical abilities made me a keeper. (The keeping-your-job bar is set higher now than in those days when most dot-com employees had no clue what they were doing.)
The first I heard of it was when The Director summoned my boss and me to his office.
The Director was one of those sorts of men I met a lot of in New York in those days: powered by sheer boundless optimism and a protective layer of one-dimensionality, they lived in a world where everything is getting better and there is no bad news. Self-hypnotists, fervent believers in their own hype, they delivered a sales pitch that never ended: even when they are telling you that almost everyone is losing their job today and handing to you a list of people whose access to all the computer systems you are to revoke before they learn that they are no longer employees of Spyware, Incorporated. And of course I went and did that, feeling grateful for the small mercy that I had merely to disintegrate them in effigy and that it was someone else’s job to tell the actual people.
As it turned out, like a lot of floundering dot-coms, we didn’t need nearly as many people as we had had employed before. What had seemed like it would be a skeleton crew turned out to be more than adequate to continue and even expand our operations. The company hadn’t been able to get out of paying the exorbitant rent on The Building, but with payroll so greatly reduced it was turning, for the very first time, a small monthly profit. And so The Director rejoiced, and called for a Brainstorming Session on ways by which our profitability could be further increased.
At this meeting The Director had an idea of his own that he wished to advance. Like a lot of ideas from non-technical technical managers that I was to hear in years to come, it was a foul and stinky idea, of great and unredeemed crapulence. It would probably screw up the user’s Internet experience even more than our software did already, while providing neither we nor they with any appreciable value.* And because I was a forthright young man, as diplomatically as possible I explained to The Director the technical problems with his idea and how it would be unlikely to deliver much, if any functionality. And I proposed an alternative: why not have the product include an a pop-up ad blocker? One’s browser did not build that in in those days; no other product that provided the feature really dominated the market space; it would attract more users who would actually want to install our product, on purpose.
The Director fixed me with his “tactful” look and said that he didn’t feel that such a feature would be appropriate. Preventing a user from seeing an Internet advertisement, he solemnly informed me, would be unethical.
I left the company shortly thereafter and eventually found more respectable work (doing, as it turns out, worse things, but we’ll get there when we get there), but the company stayed in business for quite a while. A few years later, some sense of curiosity, or perhaps it was the desire for penance, I went and deliberately infected myself installed the latest version of The Spyware on my computer. Clearly visible on its toolbar was a new feature, the PowerZapper Pop-Up Ad Blocker.
I’m sorry, okay?
* It was going to be one of those “Internet Accelerators” that were sometimes marketed in those days as a means of magically bypassing the fact that dial-up modems using telephone lines had almost zero bandwidth due to physical limitations of the old telephony infrastructure. It was going to play with the TCP window settings and do a bunch of other things that would have the effect in sum (I told The Director) of providing an extremely small speedup 2% of the time, making no difference at all 48% of the time, and actually making the user’s connection slower 50% of the time. With the help of my direct boss, who was the most competent man employed there by a large margin, we were able to talk The Director out of it.