Black and White and Gray All Over

I have been thinking about morality lately. The morality of direct marketing.
Written by Richard Stiennon, Contributor

I have been thinking about morality lately. The morality of direct marketing. I have been asking: “what is acceptable practice when selling a product or service??? I don’t have all the answers but I have lined up the various ways people have sold products and services along a continuum. On the one hand there are practices that are obviously wrong (to me, sure). On the other hand there are practices that seem OK. I think I know where to draw the line but let me lay it out first from bad to good. theline.gif

Nigerian 419 scam. Have you received the email from Nigeria yet? The friendly civil servant who has a problem in getting a huge amount of money out of Nigeria and wants your help? All they ask is a few dollars for transaction fees. They need your banking information, your home address, etc. I saw that the FBI estimates this is a $200 million a year business! This is the worst sort of evil practice. No question. The people who do this deserve everything they get from the scam baiters.

Phishing attack. A spoofed email that looks like it is from your bank or Paypal dupes you into visitng a fake site that collects your username and password. Your account is pilfered.

Evil adware. You browsed to a site that exploited a vulnerability on your machine and installed software that redirects your searches, changes your home page, adds favorites, puts an icon on your desktop or pops up ads.

SPIM. Unsolicited IM messages.

Deceitful Spam. The kind that says “You have won $5,000??, or “Richard, your credit card is waiting??, or the latest: “Undeliverable package??.

Honest spam. You made it onto a list somewhere. And you receive offers that really are of interest to you.

Street vendors in Tijuana that try to sell you pharmaceuticals or silver chains by getting in your face. (This is a horrible experience. Walk across the border into Tijuana sometime to appreciate what I am talking about. You will never do it again.)

Honest Adware. Software you install because you agree that you really want to see advertisements for products that you might be interested in, you agree to have your searches prioritized by paid sites, you want favorites added and you want a new home page. Usually it is a cost associated with using some other software program such as Kazaa.

Door to door salespeople. Outlawed in many communities.

Telephone solicitors that call your cell phone.

Telephone solicitors that call your home phone. In our home we have a land line for 911. It is an unlisted number. We never give it out. The phone rings sometimes four times a day. The phone solicitors must be war dialing.

TV commercials. Now comes the argument that there exists a contract. If you do not like the ads don’t watch them!

Inserts in utility bills. Annoying and a waste of trees but I am reminded of the comment pundits used to make “if you don’t like spam just hit the delete key??. Hah!

Direct mail. Worthless but it keeps the post office in business.

Radio commercials. Annoying but it is easy to change the channel and now we have satellite radio!

Opt-in spam. You actually signed up to get updates on a product or service. This is OK. If you ever lose interest in the emails you get you just add them to your email black list and never see them again.

Outdoor advertising on bill boards. These have their place along otherwise ugly freeways.

Indoor advertising in bathrooms (above the urinal or even *in* the urinal for instance). Reading material, great stuff.

Banner ads. Ads placed within the browser window that contains the content you asked for. No problem, this is what online marketing is all about. It works and it means the advertiser has to couple their message with something that draws viewers.

Outdoor advertising on blimps. Way cool.

Product placements in movies. OK by me.

Brand advertising in the form of logos on t-shirts, hats, etc. Fine by me.

Newspaper and Magazine ads. Sometimes the best part of a print publication.

Packaging. Gotta happen.

From the graph you can see where *I* draw the line. Somewhere between television ads and telephone solicitors the line is crossed from acceptable to unacceptable. If morality could be defined in terms of social contracts (ala John Locke) you could say that a television viewer accepts advertisements as a way to pay for programming. Today there are many choices for someone that does not want to enter into that contract. However, few people would think they signed up for calls from roof repair and lawn care providers when they get a telephone.

Let’s talk about what I have labeled “honest adware??. Someday soon there will be US legislation ( see HR29 ) that defines the legal requirements for adware to stay within the regulations to be enforced by the FTC. It will require consent and ease of removal. Consent means that the End User License Agreement that you “read and accept?? during the install process clearly states what the adware does. In other words you will be “reading and accepting?? that you will get pop-up ads, etc. However, the EULA won’t say:

-This software uses your computer’s CPU and may impair its performance. It is being installed in your Startup directory so it will always be running in the background. -This software may conflict with other software running on your computer and cause performance or stability issues -This software will not attempt to give you the best result from a key word search but will show you sites that have paid for placement. -Installing this software with more than one or two other pieces of adware could cause your PC to crash and significantly increase the time it takes to boot up.

In other words the end user, who rarely reads EULAs anyway, will be induced to install software that impairs their computing experience. If receiving pop-ups were the only price to pay that may be fine but the hidden costs to installing this type of software makes for an un-even social contract with the advantage going to the adware vendor.

I did not promise answers or definitions of acceptable behavior, all I have done is put forth a continuum from bad to good. There are still questions. Such as:

-Is it ok to sell alcohol to an alcoholic? -is it ok to sell cigarettes to children? -Is it ok to profit from adware that fully discloses what it does but still has an overall cost to the end user that is greater than they know?

You draw the line.

Originally published at www.threatchaos.com  

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