Striking a Balance With Scumware

People feel very protective about the devices they use to access the Internet. Whether it is a computer, a PDA, a web-enabled cell phone or another Internet device, home users typically spend quite a bit of money to purchase machines and access to the Internet. Naturally, many web users feel threatened or taken advantage of when marketers do things that alter their machines without permission.

Think for a second about some of the things that users hate about the Internet - spam, pop-up ads, scumware - all of these things have an issue in common: permission (or lack thereof).

People resent spam because of its intrusiveness and its failure to obtain permission from the user who receives it. When one thinks of what spam represents, it's all too easy to understand why users hate it so much. A typical Internet user pays money for an Internet access device and also pays for bandwidth and access such that he can set up and use an email account. Within a short while after setting up an email account, spam starts to trickle in - unsolicited email that intrudes on a user's machine, takes up bandwidth without asking permission, and clutters up an email box. Is it any wonder why a lot of Internet users have a problem with the very concept of spam?



Similar problems exist with pop-up ads. Web users surf content pages and find that those pages, or software that resides on their system, will generate ads by launching a second instance of a browser window without permission. A user has to take action (close the window) if he is not interested in the product or service being advertised. Thus, many users have a problem with content pages and/or software taking the liberty of running their own applications on the users' systems without asking permission.

Scumware is the latest offense against the web user's privacy and control over his own Internet access device. Without obtaining explicit permission, scumware applications piggyback on a software download and install themselves on a user's machine, often without the user knowing it. These applications often hide within a user's system, making un-installation a tough task. Usually, such applications generate advertising while running on a user's system without permission, soaking up bandwidth and running programs (a web browser) without first clearing it with the user.

I can't help but think that marketers could do a better job with the notion of asking permission. All of the techniques I've described above can be executed in a less offensive manner by simply asking the user for permission in advance. A commercial email that comes to a user after obtaining his permission is much more likely to generate good will and brand loyalty than one that comes out of the blue. Web ads do not need to spawn daughter windows, pop-overs, pop-unders and interstitials in order to be effective. Ad-supported software could present the user with a value proposition and ask for its acceptance before generating ads on that user's system. Coupled with the notion of respect for the user and the need to first acquire permission, all of these tactics can be executed in a respectful manner.

I'm raising the permission issue because I feel that too many commercial entities are failing to respect Internet users adequately, and the failure to respect user permission is causing a negative reaction to Internet marketing as a whole. I don't wish to see all Internet marketers painted with the same brush, nor do I want to see such a negative backlash against Internet advertising that its overall effectiveness declines to a point at which ad revenues won't be able to support content, applications and services.

The Internet is still in its infancy as a commercial medium. We need to strike a balance between commercial interests and respect for the Internet user, as other media have done before us, so that the ad-supported model becomes viable and accepted.

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