Whose computer is this, anyway?

(This article first appeared on IBM developerWorks.)

Peter Seebach ([mailto:seebs@plethora.net] seebs@plethora.net)

Freelance contributor

February 2003

Column icon Software that installs unwanted additional programs creates a substantial burden on users, and makes it hard to exercise control over your own computers and software!

Did you know we sell other stuff?

A pet peeve of mine for many years was that Quicken, which I used for personal finances, had advertisements built into it. After a couple of years, some of these ads were for products Intuit no longer even sold! Nonetheless, I had to keep seeing those ads, as there was no way to turn them off. Every year around December, Quicken would start reminding me that Intuit sold tax software. Having gotten spammed by Intuit the one time I used their tax software, I was thoroughly uninterested -- but every year, the same set of reminders showed up.

Likewise, after the AOL/Netscape deal, it became impossible to install Netscape without also installing AOL Instant Messenger. Don't want it? Tough. It gets installed anyway. On the classic MacOS, it even installs extensions, which can harm system stability. But, hey, you can't have people not trying the new software package (which, of course, chews up space).

After a while, this gets to be annoying enough that even mild cases can rile a user. Every Symantec product that's part of Norton Systemworks now states on its splash screen, "an integral part of Norton Systemworks." This sounds like the old nonsense about Internet Explorer being an "integral part of Windows". All evidence suggests that Symantec could produce a standalone version of Disk Doctor that would do its job quite well, and without requiring 40MB of disk space for unspecified shared files.

This cross-marketing has only gotten worse over the years. It's less optional, it's more intrusive, and it's more common. Is the end-user benefitting from this at all? No. The end-user will continue to use a Web browser to search for the things he's interested in, thanks very much.

Mind if we take a peek?

The advertising is offensive enough. I already paid money for the software; I shouldn't have to read ads to use it. But let's not stop there -- it gets worse. Intuit's latest gimmick has the current version of TurboTax shipping with a program called C-Dilla. This comes already installed, you cannot uninstall it. It continues running on your computer, consuming memory, even if you're not running TurboTax. Uninstalling TurboTax still leaves it in place. And, if you ever perform Routine computer maintenance (hard drive upgrade or even repartitioning, for instance), you can no longer run TurboTax, unless you buy a new copy -- or somehow defeat the program. Gosh, that's neighborly of them. That's just what my computer's lacking -- undocumented software that I can't uninstall.

Too many programs force products like this, and too much of it is what we call spyware -- programs which exist only to collect personal data of one sort or another, and send it back to the corporation that foisted itself on you. Without your permission, of course.

Various excuses are offered for this. Some of it is allegedly in the vein of anti-piracy; some of it is to improve marketing. All of these excuses fall flat. The best way to improve marketing for most users would be to leave them a few moments of blessed peace; that would improve their interest in future marketing more than anything else you could do. Anti-piracy? Lots of anti-piracy schemes work without a permanent home on your computer. Unless, of course, they're doing something else, too -- who can say? I certainly wouldn't trust the companies using this stuff to tell the truth. And, once again, the end-user doesn't benefit; he just has his privacy violated.

Pages and pages of legalese

The trick to much of this is that companies claim they got permission. After all, subparagraph 27b says that they may collect additional data. This is morally bankrupt. By the time you can see the license, you are almost assured of not getting a refund on the software, because software vendors push so hard to get retail stores to refuse returns. Meanwhile, "...but the user agreed" is recited as an endless mantra, as though an enterprising company can easily hit the big time by having paragraph 28 read, "The company is entitled to your firstborn."

Long license agreements are not the result of a sincere effort to reach a meaningful agreement your protecting rights; they are the results of a sincere effort to make it impossible for the end-user to be sure of what has been agreed to, and to provide an exhaustive source of excuses later, along the lines of, "...that's a standard part of our agreement." What does that mean, anyway?

The fact is, basic moral standards ought to be regularly applied, and they aren't. Privacy is a moral right. Control over your own property is a moral right. When I want to install a program, I should have control over what to install or not install with it. Copy protection that requires a special memory-resident program is not acceptable. Indeed, copy protection in general seems to hurt earnest users more than it does pirates; I've never heard of a pirate having the slightest problem running copy-protected software, but I personally have to reboot regularly or wiggle my CD-ROM drive to get a protection scheme to work.

I don't think a lot of companies have thought through the long-term implications of their willful disregard for privacy. Intuit's staff have told me they don't care what I think is spam, or how I want my e-mail address used; if I want off a list, I can unsubscribe from any lists they feel like adding me to. Is this an attitude that inspires confidence in the security of my financial data? To answer that, let me just say that I used to use QuickBooks, and don't anymore, and haven't used TurboTax since the one time I tried it and got a mailbox full of junk mail for my trouble. Quicken will be replaced soon enough, which is to say, before they get more money from me.

Corporate ethics -- not just accounting

In the end, however, it's not just about consequences; it's about ethics. With all the talk about corporate ethics, perhaps it's time we saw them incorporated in a few other areas, such as the user's privacy and property rights.

How about if I determine what programs I want to run, and whether I want to try the new instant messenger of the week, or whether to install all the optional packages? How about a complete end to spyware, or -- better yet -- honest payment for it? If you want to record what's going on, I'll sell you the rights to that information for a reasonable price. A log of my Web traffic? Let's say $250 a day; that should be fair enough.

For some time, companies have acted as though my interest in their software should give them some control over my computer, my bandwidth, and my personal information. It's time for this to stop. I paid for the computer. I paid for the software. All the hand-waving and legal doctrine about "licensed, not sold" is irrelevant: I have paid for a product, and I shouldn't have to fight with it for control of my own computer.

This week's action item:

Think of something beneficial you can do in your work, but which isn't part of your job description. Twice a day for the next week, interrupt your boss, no matter what he's doing, to tell him how you can do this thing. Do you get a promotion?


About the author

Photo of Peter Seebach Peter Seebach has been having trouble navigating through badly designed pages since before frames and JavaScript existed. He continues to believe that, some day, pages will be designed to be usable, rather than being designed to look impressive. You can reach him at [mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net.