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The Perks Are Great, Just Don’t Ask What We Do (backchannel.com)
479 points by dwaxe on May 31, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 253 comments



So what else is new.

If you work at Facebook or Google you're benefiting directly from the similarly shady practices they used to grow on their way to being "pillars of tech" today.

Do you remember when at LEAST 20% of Facebook's revenue came from Zynga? Like less than 5 years ago? Many speculated it was considerably higher, but Facebook never provided a full accounting (1).

Or do you remember when Facebook literally had an "affiliate marketing panel" that they worked with at the C-suite level packed with guys selling weight loss affiliate slop? Almost impossible to find reference of it now, was well known in many circles and you can still see references of it here and there. (2)

Or maybe when Google was caught colluding with a notorious gangster when he turned state's evidence to demonstrate to the DOJ how quickly Google was willing to skirt around laws to sell illegally imported drugs? They were fined $500,000,000.00. Google was. (3)

50onRed is clearly engaged in scumb-bag advertising practices, but at least they keep good company.

(1) http://allthingsd.com/20120423/zynga-accounted-for-15-percen...

(2) http://www.shoemoney.com/2009/11/16/dennis-yu-rise-and-fall-... & http://www.jimcockrum.com/blog/2011/10/19/the-biggest-dog-in... & http://techcrunch.com/2009/11/01/how-to-spam-facebook-like-a...

(3) https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/google-forfeits-500-million-g... & https://www.wired.com/2013/05/google-pharma-whitaker-sting/


Or in a similar vein, when YC funded the adware distribution company InstallMonetizer.

https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20130115/17343321692/why-a...


Despite the examples you give, I don't think it's fair to lump Facebook and Google in with 50onRed. The former two are mostly above board, with some occasional exceptions, while the latter is completely, morally, underwater.


Clearly it's not an analog comparison, I never said it was.

I wrote my comment because online advertising is a murky and often slimy place.

Facebook & Google are the world's two largest online advertising companies - they sell and influence your attention for a living.

Google now spends more money lobbying the government than any other corporation (1) including GE, Exxon, etc, etc.

Depending on Apple's stock performance Google is either the #1 or #2 most valuable company in the WORLD.

Facebook is not far behind in either category.

Companies, like people, are more complex than the shiny, white-washed PR version.

The 50onRed story is about a cockroach who will live & die quickly, like a million other cockroaches.

I am less interested in the cockroach and more interested in the elephant given it's weight and past propensity for bad behavior.

(1) http://www.dailydot.com/politics/google-political-lobbying-s...


I'm pretty sure I understand your point, but you're going about it in a way that makes it hard to have a useful conversation. You've essentially said "online advertising is bad, because I say so, and these companies are big and they do it, so you should be worried about them."

Is all advertising bad? What makes advertising bad? To what degree do these companies participate in that behavior?

Is all lobbying bad? Should we assume them lobbying is bad because it exists? Is the total dollars spent lobbying the right value to look at? Perhaps lobbying dollars per revenue, pre profit, or per employee is a more important metric?

I would love to discuss any one of these topics, but your comment is too vague on any details to be able to start from any useful point, so I've resorted to asking for clarification.


I think the GP's points in the comment you replied to are basically:

- advertising in general is a "a murky and often slimy place"

- Google and Facebook are two behemots, who live in and out of that "murky place"

- given their side, influence over public life (as evidenced by lobbying efforts, besides the usual things), and "past propensity for bad behavior" (as the GP tried to evidence with some examples), they're much more interesting to look at than some random startup that's obviously evil, but also obviously not as influential

At least that's how I understood it.


Sure, and that's the general idea I got too. My response was really meant to outline that there wasn't much concrete to discuss there, but I think there could be. For example, are we using bad as synonymous for illegal, or are we extending it to include non-illegal but generally frowned upon (at least the those that frequent here) behavior, such as issues to do with privacy or strong-arm tactics? Additionally, to cut through the media and perception of behavior, it would be interesting to explore what percentage of the company, by employee count, division, revenue or profit, has been party to the bad behavior we're talking about, and how high in the company structure were they?

Put another way, I think they are definitely very interesting to look at, but I'm not sure whether they are as relevant to look at in a discussion about bad corporate behavior without exploring some of these topics. As such, I'm just doing my best to try to entice people into what I think is a more interesting conversation in this sub-thread. :)


Then make an argument for it.

If you want to do your best, then don't try to lure the discussion in a different direction with semantics, random questions and flashcards, just state a clear point of view and it will become the starting point of the debate if others agree or disagree.


Not all discussions require you have a fully formed opinion about a topic. Arguments do (or at least should), but I'm not trying to argue, I'm trying to discuss. Not everything has to be an argument or debate, but a discussion may contain one or more of those.

More succinctly, I'm not sure what the best way to handle the questions I posed is, but I do think those are questions worth asking. Should I have just stated that not all online advertising is bad? Maybe it is all bad, and someone can make a cogent case for that. If it's not all bad, I think it's important to consider how much bad behavior each company is responsible for, either in total or relative to other behavior. There are a lot of unknowns, but I think one extremely important point is that each of these unknowns weakens the absolutist and unsubstantiated statements the parent of that comment was putting forth. You don't have to show evidence to weaken an unsubstantiated statement, you can just show how it wasn't supported through data or critical thinking.


All advertising is not bad, but the best part of advertising is the signaling aspect of it.

Targeted advertising breaks that part of advertising: http://zgp.org/targeted-advertising-considered-harmful/

Facebook's entire pitch to advertisers is its ability to target ads, so I do think they are bad for the market.


> Google now spends more money lobbying the government than any other corporation (1) including GE, Exxon, etc, etc.

Didn't realize that, thanks. I wonder where that money goes though; I don't see any big successes in fighting with MAFIAA over not screwing up the Internet.


> The former two are mostly above board, with some occasional exceptions

I'd say the exceptions are where the corporate interests align with moral ones. It's a pity we now view traditional ad providers and ad "injectors" as separate entities with clearly distinct morals—both are still preying on people who probably don't realize they're clicking on ads at all. Google and facebook simply do the footwork on user experience to not alienate the people who do realize a) what a bullshit experience online ads are and b) that they are perfectly able to block them.

I'd prefer the perks over a false sense of integrity in my business. Not that one would have to choose in this case.


facebook is 'mostly above board'? you're far too kind.


Not sure how you compare 1) and 2) to ad-injections. Those are companies which purchase ad-space on websites which sell ad-space, solved by visiting those sites less. Not ad-ware installed to deliver ads to your browser, solved by switching browsers..? reformatting hard-drive..? replacing your computer..?


Facebook and Google at least have products that are mostly consumer-facing. One wonders what it would be like to work for Palantir.


>One wonders what it would be like to work for Palantir.

these young excited guys running around on University look to be quite happy to be on the cyber front line of defending Motherland against internal and external terrorists and various other enemies.


"enemies foreign and domestic"


It's interesting that you mention Palantir. Can you give some more detail as to what unethical business practices are conducted there, or are you simply referring to the HBGary business proposal scandal revealed in the Stratfor leaks in 2012?

Disclosure: if you look through my comment history, I have a moderate pro-Palantir bias. So "shill" accusations are slightly appropriate.


It's more of a general perception of shadiness: https://www.designernews.co/comments/85691


Why didn't you just post the links themselves instead of the indirection to Designer News?


I wanted to cite the original poster who found and assembled those links as a secondary source.


> It's interesting that you mention Palantir.

I consider building software to purposefully enable dragnet surveillance one of the least moral things you can do.


One major difference is that Facebook and Google also provide value to their users. They do good and bad things. The company in the article did only bad things.


Wow! So it balances out? I am not supporting 50onRed here, but the point that doing some good and some bad things is okay, is no good.


Nobody excused Google or Facebook for their problems, but this was presented as a comparison, and one between companies that have many legitimate and and non-problematic divisions and products to a company whose sole purpose is to circumvent control of the user and the authors of the content they are viewing.


I think the company in the article would argue that they provide value as well.


Yup. They felt that they helped keep content free, even though $0.00 of the revenue they invented actually went to content generators.


Ask the end users instead.


Who's the end user? The company that pays 50onRed for ad placement is presumably satisfied and sees a corresponding spike in conversions. In theory, the viewer of the ad is grateful that they were made aware of a product or service that was relevant to their interests and/or needs, as evidenced by 50onRed obtaining a good conversion rate for its client.

Pretty easy to rationalize it. The most problematic part would be the way it gets installed on user computers (covertly), but which could also pretty easily be rationalized away by saying that users don't understand all that tech mumbo-jumbo, and they just want to be sold things that they want and/or need.


It's really not that hard. Find a person who uses 500onRed (as a consumer). Ask them how satisfied they are with it.

They'll probably have no idea what you're talking about and once you explain that it's inserting the advertisements into Wikipedia and such they'll hate it.

In contrast, Facebook is completely honest about what they're doing: providing a free service in exchange for the ability to advertise to you. Hundreds of millions of people are happy with that trade.


Every nation is built on a hill of skulls. "Has done in the past" is not the same as "is currently doing".


The logical extension of that is a justification for current, smaller players building new "hills of skulls" in their quest to build their own new nation. But hey! You know, once they're big too, they can put it all the shady dealings in the past and be one of the good guys, and it'll all be fine!

It's a weak justification.


> The logical extension of that is a justification for current, smaller players building new "hills of skulls" in their quest to build their own new nation.

Maybe you can explain this logical extension, because I don't see it. At a minimum, it's not self-evident.


Precisely what lhc- says. When you wrote:

> "Has done in the past" is not the same as "is currently doing".

Because the "is currently doing" is predicated on a path to success that rested on "has done in the past", I interpreted that as promoting an "ends justifies the means" strategy of growing a company. That is: If you have to do bad things to get to be big enough to do good things, well so be it.

Similarly, you later wrote:

> In my experience, plenty of people do things when they are young that they are ashamed of later in life, and would not repeat. Why should I believe the same can't be said of a company, which is made up of people?

I don't disagree with your statements as observations. I disagree with the lackadaisical presentation of this sort of corporate behavior as something which, by-and-by, people should let slide, so why worry about it?

Furthermore, a young person is comprised (by definition) of a single young person. A young company can sometimes be made up of young people. However, a young company can also be made up of seasoned, cynical people who take seriously the attitude of doing bad when it helps you succeed, and well, maybe some good when you can afford to later on.


> Because the "is currently doing" is predicated on a path to success that rested on "has done in the past"

Upon closer reading of the original statement, I agree. I think the core point I wasn't accounting for is "every nation". If every example includes an attribute, then it's not logical to assume the next item won't.

> I disagree with the lackadaisical presentation of this sort of corporate behavior as something which, by-and-by, people should let slide, so why worry about it?

Are they letting it slide? The Google pharmaceuticals ads scandal was resolved with Google forfeiting the gross revenue of the program to the tune of 500 million. That can be interpreted multiple ways, depending on whether you believe that was an adequate punishment, or whether you think that could have been a learning experience. Is having the government punish Google, given their mandate by the people to police this, sufficient to consider it accounted for? Does the bank robber who gets out of jail after 10-15 years still deserved to be ostracized by the community, or has the punishment already been paid?

> Furthermore, a young person is comprised (by definition) of a single young person. A young company can sometimes be made up of young people. However, a young company can also be made up of seasoned, cynical people who take seriously the attitude of doing bad when it helps you succeed, and well, maybe some good when you can afford to later on.

I wasn't trying to focus on young vs old in company or employee age, but that time can cause change in a person as well as a company (it's entirely possible 10 years on that a company may not share a single employee or board member with the prior incarnation). This is the Theseus' Paradox[1] applied to corporate entities, past behavior, and current standing.

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus


You're saying we should ignore past bad behavior because Google, Facebook, etc. are good guys now. Logically, that would lead us to excuse current bad behavior by smaller companies because everyone does it, and they'll do good once they are big enough.


> You're saying we should ignore past bad behavior because Google, Facebook, etc. are good guys now.

No, I simply asked for someone to explain on their reasoning.

> Logically, that would lead us to excuse current bad behavior by smaller companies because everyone does it, and they'll do good once they are big enough.

I don't think that's necessarily logical at all. It assumes a lot of things which we don't know. For example, what rate of companies that exhibit bad behavior survive to become companies that later exhibit good behavior? Does whether the bad behavior was endemic to the company or restricted to specific divisions matter? How much does a change in management affect outcome?

In my experience, plenty of people do things when they are young that they are ashamed of later in life, and would not repeat. Why should I believe the same can't be said of a company, which is made up of people?


>Every nation is built on a hill of skulls

Did you quote that from somewhere? Because that is an amazing turn of phrase.


Probably thinking of the founding of Rome. (Fratricide) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romulus_and_Remus


No one who eats meat can have a stronger ethical position than the guy who kills the chickens. If you enjoy the results, you cannot avoid responsibility for how the results were achieved.


You have a very different perspective. I think it leads you to believe that other people are all in denial, and would obviously be upset (feel shame, horror, etc.) if forced to accept the reality of chickens being killed. In other words, "meat is murder" for you.

I assure you, this is not how we all feel. I look at an animal and I see food. Trips to the zoo make me hungry. The only ones I don't want on the menu are the biohazards, the toxic ones, and the bad-tasting ones. My only reservation about killing them is the same as with changing the oil on my car: it's messy, dirty work.


That's perfectly fine (though if you don't mind, I'll ask you to stay away from my pets). Why would you think it would be?


Why what? Are you asking why I'd see it that way?

I think it has to do with making a sharp distinction between human and non-human. I feel that there is a strange commonality between animal rights activists and the people who enjoy torturing animals, with both sides seeing the animals as being relatively human, to love or to torture. The animals are being personified, then treated to good or evil. We don't have to personify animals. We can view them more like vegetables. Pretty much nobody sheds a tear when chopping vegetables, onions excepted. Pretty much nobody can sadistically enjoy it either. It's just food.


Vegetables do not suffer. Animals suffer.


Considering 50onRed started as an ad network on facebook helping companies like Zynga, as explained in the article, point 1 can most likely in part be blamed on them.


I think what you're describing as dirty transgressions is a natural cycle in evolution of auction-based ad systems. When early marketplaces price the leads at several pennies an action, weight loss and herbal supplement affiliates crowd in, as it makes financial sense for them.

As the cost per lead is bid up, they are eventually forced to drop out.


Yeah, I think one of the dirty secrets that doesn't really come across until you've been in the entrepreneurial trenches for a while is that most people who make a lot of money end up doing so not by being paragons of morality, but by skirting rules and doing things other people may find questionable or unfair. YC itself acknowledges this to an extent by saying that good founders are moral, but that they are not "goody-two-shoes" and they break rules "that don't matter".

Of course, the material value of each rule is in the eye of the beholder; surely the cab drivers of the world felt that there was material value to adhering to their regulations and that it would not be moral or necessarily safe to circumvent those regulations. Then Uber came along and its founders entered the pantheon of those that break "rules that don't matter". Ditto for Airbnb.

Most types of marketing and PR are morally dubious. But you have to play that game if you're going to get anywhere.

That's the secret that entrepreneurs have to learn, the secret that doesn't get shown in the profile pieces or the television specials. "Might makes right" in this world and if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you need to loosen from a theoretical moral ideal to a practical one that is informed by the competitive landscape of capitalism. You can nitpick and find fault with most money-making techniques, so you just have to try to do something you can be reasonably comfortable with, acknowledging that in a competitive landscape, sometimes uncomfortable choices have to be made.

If you do find something that makes money and has no competitors, thus allowing you to not worry about underhanded techniques to steal your marketshare, take advantage of your early position to decisively corner the market. That means employing the same techniques that would be employed against you, because those techniques will be employed against you pretty soon. I know this because one of my companies was roundly beaten after a spammer started a competitor and engaged SEO link rings to inorganically alter his ranking, among other tactics that I was morally "above" until my company was pwned that way. Now I understand you must play that game, that everyone plays that game, and they just don't talk about it because it doesn't help them to do so. It helps them to keep potential competitors naive.

Playing by the rules may be the cool way to do it, but in the real world, it doesn't work, because there is someone who is willing to break those rules. How many entrepreneurs started on something like Uber but quit because they saw the regulatory landscape and a) didn't have the millions to fight cities and the cab industry; b) didn't want to run afoul of city regulations in the first place? Do what YC does: break whatever rules are in your way and then afterwards say they were rules that "didn't matter". If you say this from a position of success, people will believe you.


> Now I understand you must play that game, that everyone plays that game, and they just don't talk about it because it doesn't help them to do so. It helps them to keep potential competitors naive.

Yeah, and that's the primary reason I increasingly don't want to be an entrepreneur. Call me naive, but even if I could somehow handle the necessary sacrifice of conscience to be able to compete in the marketplace, I think I wouldn't like the person I would become very much.


but then unfortunately you'll be an employee of an entrepreneur that crosses that line....

..and if you are morally above that, then you'll work as a rent-seeker in a government office that taxes that entrepreneur.

only way to win, is to not play.


I had an employer once who was about to cross the line, by getting a project from the gambling business. A cool software/hardware project (service interfaces for casino machines) that seemed to match my skills. I flat-out declined participation. He actually was very relieved, he was himself uncomfortable with it.

The other time I threatened my employer with leaving on the spot if I ever see the shady spam-marketing tactics they were discussing popping up on my blog. I'm not sure if it worked or if they decided to never again talk about marketing strategy in my presence.

There are many jobs out there that are morally acceptable. Not as many as I'd like, but fortunately I've managed to find one, and I'm sticking to it at the moment. But yeah, I get your point - after hearing stories about various shenanigans my non-tech friends were asked to do at their jobs, I'm under firm impression that most companies are in fact fucking over their customers whenever possible.

> only way to win, is to not play.

Let's get on with Basic Income. It will be much easier to stick to your morals without the threat of going hungry hanging over your head.


> Let's get on with Basic Income

Won't that just cause all the amoral people in politics to begin promising to raise the basic income more than the next politician will, reducing all policymaking to a race to bribe the populace, so that they'll ignore all the other amoral things the politicians are doing?


> Won't that just cause all the amoral people in politics to begin promising to raise the basic income more than the next politician will

No, the same as all policymaking now isn't reduced to a race to bribe the populace with tax cuts.


At least they'd be bribing the populace rather than the wealthy.


The wealthy would still get bribed, and a lot more than the pittance that the populace would get.


Like in Honor Harrington? Let's hope not.


> If you say this from a position of success, people will believe you

So true! But the founders has to make a call on the extent of this. The Uber and Airbnb example is not a good analogy, since they tried to break/overcome the archaic rules made by cities many years ago. Otherwise I kinda reckon with your argument that in many areas of customer acquisition(SEO/Spammy mail marketing), all companies do have to involve in not so moral things.


Uber also tried to overcome the "all drivers on the road should have valid insurance" rules.


>you need to loosen from a theoretical moral ideal to a practical one that is informed by the competitive landscape of capitalism

Not necessarily. It's very easy to think that existing industry protection laws are immoral and operate a company that skirts those laws without breaking morals.


Can you? I mean, at that point, you're basically deciding that a people are not allowed to self govern themselves.


Yes, it's very easy to operate within personal moral boundaries when you fundamentally believe existing government laws support immoral stances. (e.g. drug dealers selling people marijuana for pain relief or people refusing to transact with slave owners)


Alternatively, it's existing-industry-protecting rules which have basically decided that people are not allowed to govern themselves. After all, without those rules people would be free to only patronise barbers who have acquired licenses, taxi drivers who belong to a cartel &c.

Working around that is deciding that people aren't allowed to govern others.


> After all, without those rules people would be free to only patronise barbers who have acquired licenses, taxi drivers who belong to a cartel &c.

And would then get screwed by them so badly they'd ask for those rules back. After all that's how they got introduced in the first place - to protect people from "entrepreneurs" who will happily exploit them.

That said, this subthread is also a nice example of how one can rationalize both sides in a way that sounds morally bearable :).


> after a spammer started a competitor and engaged SEO link rings to inorganically alter his ranking, among other tactics

How did you find out about this? What could you have done to react to this? I think this would be a fascinating story.


I don't know what happened in this case, but i assume most companies do large PBN's to alter the pagerank and so the search footprint.


YC has invested in and even defended a few companies that have caught flak here on HN for "breaking" the rules.


Or, to put it another way, [your company] will either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain.


I had never heard about the (3) link and what Google was caught doing. Wow.


I somehow completely missed this at the time as well (the settlement with the DoJ was announced in August 2011).

I also find this bit credible: “We simply know from the documents we reviewed and witnesses we interviewed that Larry Page knew what was going on,” Neronha said. Even for Google at the time, a $500M+ revenue stream from advertising illegal pharmaceuticals can't have escaped notice.


> Do you remember when at LEAST 20% of Facebook's revenue came from Zynga? Like less than 5 years ago?

This was cited in the FB S1 filing, which was around March 2012, so you are correct.


Did you read the article?

It talked about how MS, Google, and others worked to prevent this type of behavior.


you act like its news..Yahoo use to take big ad partners to strip clubs not 5 years ago


Reminds me a bit of an experience I had at an event around 2000 or so. Most of the folks there were heavily academic, but at lunch I found myself sitting with one of the organizers who was clearly cut from different cloth, so I asked what he did the rest of the year. After a couple of rounds of vague responses about how he helped companies use email to get in touch with potential customers, it finally dawned on me that I was sitting at the table with a SPAMMER. Pretty much lost my appetite at that point.

My takeaway is that spammers, malware authors, even identity thieves, are among us. They can seem like perfectly nice people. They might even be perfectly nice people except for this one bad habit, this one ethical blind spot, that enables them to do things from which the rest of us would recoil in disgust. The company in this story might be an extreme case, but I'll bet a lot of people asking "how could they not know" have themselves worked at companies that made at least some of their money in less savory ways. Sometimes it might be why that company survived while contemporaries faded away. Silicon Valley from its earliest days has been full of people who benefited from carefully redacted history, whether they knew it or not.


You talk as if the 'rest of us' in tech are so innocent and pure. Spam is small potatoes compared to the ethical violations many big tech companies get up to on a daily basis.


Yea, good point. We live in an age when a whole set of duplicitous practices are now just referred to as "growth hacking"


Ugh, the number of dark patterns trying to cost me money just to purchase a damned ticket on Ticketbastards today.

Seriously by not clicking the right boxes I could have agreed to pay an extra $42 in add-ons/services for a $15 ticket that had its own $6 in fees added.


Agreed 100%. I usually call the venue and ask if I can purchase tickets directly from them instead of going through Ticketmaster. They don't always say yes, but it's usually cheaper and more pleasant when they do.


Not to mention paying an extra $8 to print your own ticket.


A fool and their money are soon parted.


For Ticketmaster? That's odd, I deal with them quite a bit, and while they've definitely got a racket going on, usually they aren't opting you in for extra stuff (because you'll juts call to complain to their support and get it changed). I have seen them accidentally auto-select certain additions before, but that was a non-standard option on that event, and it was definitely a mistake.


It would be much easier to believe it was a mistake if the balance of "mistakes in the company's favor" vs "mistakes in the customer's favor" were even.

If all the mistakes go the company's way, then, at best, the company is working much harder at avoiding mistakes that hurt themselves than they are at getting it right.

This goes for credit card companies and many other firms.


They like to do things where they offer you something with a yes/no option but don't explain that it's an offer (no call to action or question) and put the price of the service in the smallest text possible.


Oh, I would believe that. They'll make it easy for you to add charges on, and make it confusing as to whether it charges you (if you aren't familiar with the page), they just don't generally have them defaulted to on in my experience (and I buy a lot of tickets from them). They're very good at being just annoying enough to use that you don't like them, but generally not so annoying that you'll refuse to use them, which combined with their existing market dominance keeps them on top.


I paid for extra insurance without meaning to last time I visited their site. Pretty sure the "opt in" button was checked by default.


That's interesting. I wonder if it's saved per account, and defaults to what was last set. It's definitely not defaulted on with my orders.


The other side of the growth hacking coin is retention, which is also fraught with systematic duplicity and dark patterns. Each of us needs to exercise our judgement about how we put food on the table. And if you don't know how the company that signs your checks gets the money to do so, you need to find out.


The problem is that when some manager asks to work on something unethical, the technical people fall over eachother in trying to implement it first.

Lesson: not everything which can be implemented should. And elegant solutions to unethical problems are still ugly.



Well, Total Information Awareness won't build itself, you know. Not yet, anyway.


Or rather "many big $biz_sector companies".


indeed! But the question is ... can tax evasion be considered an ethical violation? :)


Well, by definition yes. Tax evasion and tax fraud are equivalent.

I think you mean tax avoidance, which is quite a different matter. While there's a lot of debate on the matter, in the United States at least, the general rule of thumb was laid down in 1934, and is as follows.

> Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one's taxes -- Judge Learned Hand


Possibly.

However tax evasion and avoidance are often confused, for a public company not avoiding taxes would most certainly be an ethical violation.


While a public company answers to it's shareholders, it also has a responsibility to support the community it lives within, because often success can be directly attributed to where the company started. Aggressively avoiding taxes could very well be considered unethical by some parties.


Some may consider avoiding taxes to be unethical, others might say not avoiding them would violate a fiduciary duty.


From my very minimal accounting course I remember my teacher, who was serving as part of the tax appeals board at the time, telling us that we were allowed to use any opening in the law to save tax but we were not allowed to lie.


The intent of my comment was to draw attention to the other side of this coin.

>You are allowed to use any opening in the law to save on taxes, but not lie.

The other side of that is:

If you (as a C(ETF)O of a company) do not use every opening in the law to save on taxes you may be violating a fiduciary duty to your shareholders.


Oddly enough nobody is concerned with fiduciary duty when a CEO pulls a few million dollar bonus out of a failing company.


The shareholders and board very much are, although for a failing company often they will set up a CEO with the explicit goal to wind down the company my milking it to death (which often takes many months or years, and starts long before employees would be notified about the plan) and offer multimillion bonuses conditional on extracting dozens more millions for shareholders from a dead horse by riding it in sunset until all that's left is debt to "someone else".


The CEOs don't set their comp.

Also, depending on the company "a few million dollars" isn't even a meaningful amount of money.


When people bring up "fiduciary duty" in either a taxes or outsourcing context (i.e. it's Apple's fiduciary duty to build its products in China), I always ask for a pointer to a successful lawsuit in which this particular fiduciary duty was enforced.

Yes, in theory it's their fiduciary duty to minimize taxes, but I've never heard of a board being sued because they didn't squeeze every last dollar out of their tax bill.


First link in the quick Google search I did, which starts with a story where Henry Ford wanted to stop paying special dividends to partial owners. "At trial, Ford testified to his belief that the company made too much money and had an obligation to benefit the public and the firm’s workers and customers." The judge did no agree. I haven't read the whole article yet, but it seems definitely to apply (and also notes there is little precedent in this area).

1: http://www.professorbainbridge.com/professorbainbridgecom/20...


I'd say a 100 year old case speaks to a lack of enforcement of fiduciary duty in the courts.


On the other hand, "Henry Ford got smacked for it" speaks loud enough to stop most executives and their corporate lawyers from testing the waters. Even if some time has passed.



That's just an example of fiduciary duty, not one relevant to taxes or outsourcing, which I mentioned in my original comment.

Again, has anyone every sued a company to demand that they try harder to lower their tax bill or move operations overseas?

Some companies even brag about NOT outsourcing. Socially conscious marketing.


>not one relevant to taxes or outsourcing, which I mentioned in my original comment.

Perhaps this is related to the fact that I wasn't responding to your comment?

>Some companies even brag about NOT outsourcing. Socially conscious marketing.

And?


I think their point is: does refraining from outsourcing expose a company's leadership to fiduciary duty risk?


If such a decision is overwhelmingly likely a bad choice, most likely yes.

However, obviously there's always potential risks and costs involved in outsourcing that need to be taken into account when evaluating such decisions.

This would also presumably require that the leadership be informed of the obviously better course of action.


The dispute was about dividends. No mention of taxes or outsourcing.


(Semi off-topic)

Maybe not what you want, but in 2008, the CEO of KBS, South Korea's public broadcasting corporation, was fired by the government for having agreed to court settlement in dispute with National Tax Service over how much tax KBS should pay.

Yes, he was fired because he had followed the settlement suggested by the freaking court. (The real reason was that he was a liberal appointed by the previous president Roh, and the new government led by conservative Lee Myung-Bak wanted him gone.)

Years later the court ruled that the firing was unlawful (duh), but somehow he wasn't reinstated, and anyways, the damage was done.


So you are of course not taking any advantage of Pension tax reliefs in your 401K and IRA's ?


There's a big difference between taking advantage of pension tax reliefs in exactly the way a tax authority designed them to be used and creating an offshore subsidiary charging artificial royalties to exploit the tax authority's openness to actual foreign-owned businesses investing in the local area.


401K/IRA tax avoidance techniques are codified in law to encourage people to save for retirement so we don't have generations of elderly homeless people.

The tax loopholes that companies like Apple tax advantage of are another thing entirely.


>The tax loopholes that companies like Apple tax advantage of are another thing entirely.

No, the significant ones (i.e. offshore subsidiaries) are very much codified.


Letter of the law vs. spirit of the law.


Subsidiaries in countries with low tax rates certainly aren't against the spirit of the law.


Isn't the spirit to promote foreign investment, as opposed to domestic companies restructuring themselves to look foreign on paper?


I'd imagine it's more about not driving all the domestic companies away.


But.. what about my version of ethics! If only there were a way to take a tally of issues among groups of people with different opinions of ethics and morals..


There's a very clear fiduciary duty to pay as little money in taxes as you can, there exists no such duty to pay too much taxes.

This is very black and white.


No, it isn't. Your statement is wrong and based on a flawed interpretation of Dodge v. Ford that makes the rounds on the Internet and refuses to die.


Thank you. Actions that are deemed to have been taken solely for their tax effects are clearly and explicitly deemed tax evasion by the IRS, and are prosecuted as such. I believe other countries have similar standards. There's a lot of room to give people the benefit of the doubt, e.g. by counting the good will from charitable activities as a credible alternate reason, but there's no license and certainly no requirement to cheat.


>Actions that are deemed to have been taken solely for their tax effects are clearly and explicitly deemed tax evasion by the IRS

This is just not true.


Here are some citations.

https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-14-58.pdf

https://www.irs.gov/Businesses/Guidance-for-Examiners-and-Ma...

Just look up "sham transaction" for plenty more. It's a very well established concept and doctrine. Nobody should be splitting hairs about avoiding vs. evading taxes, or generally pontificating about fiduciary duty, without understanding it.


That's not what you said though.

>Actions that are deemed to have been taken solely for their tax effects are clearly and explicitly deemed tax evasion by the IRS

What you said would make almost all tax avoidance into tax evasion. Hell, even claiming deductions would by your logic be tax evasion.


You didn't read the citations before saying that, did you?


The citations do not support your original claim.


No? Could you expand on that a little please.

Based on my reading there certainly exists such a duty when it's beneficial, obviously tax avoidance isn't explicitly beneficial though. Potential law changes or even bad press could cost more than the amount of money saved.


No, there isn't. There is a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of shareholders. To extrapolate that out to tax evasion is just plain silly.


I suggest you reread my comments as I never made such a connection.

tax avoidance=/=tax evasion


Could you please try to be more consistent about which of your two accounts - ryanlol vs. ryanl0l - you use for your replies here? Keeping up with one is tedious enough.


You should reconsider whatever client program you're using if it's causing issues.


It's not my client. It's you replying with one account so you can still downvote with the other. That "all's fair" attitude seems to exist in more domains than just taxes.


If you're that worried about your internet points, perhaps you should email hn@ycombinator.com and find out that I've in fact not downvoted your replies.

(In the future you might want to do that before accusing others of such)


What? No it wouldn't.


You lost your appetite because you thought someone was a spammer? There are a lot of companies that perform much worse ethical behavior that spamming (e.g. LinkedIn's existence is thanks to unwanted invite request sent to all your contacts, SocialCam abused Facebook OpenGraph so heavily they had to shut it down.) Just because they get away with it in secrecy doesn't mean it's not happening. So you can pretend you live in a world where majority of people are saints or their crimes are not as bad as something that is demonized heavily in public like email spamming but then again we why would you.


Did you miss the part where I mentioned malware authors and identity thieves? They're far worse even than LinkedIn or SocialCam, but hierarchies of evil aren't the point. It doesn't matter whether spamming or spying or stealing is worse. I don't want to spend time with any of them, but the point is that they're not easily recognizable. I was refuting the "how could you not know" assumption that bad actors look or smell bad (or something) so that they're easy to spot. I'm not pretending anything, and I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't make up things for others to say just so you can disagree or condescend.


I worked at a web development studio. One of our clients was MannaTech, basically a marketing company that sold snake-oil to parents of sick children, claiming it could "cure" everything from cancer to down syndrome. They were under investigation by the Texas DA at one point.

We tracked our work hourly, so I donated all the money I made from that particular work to St. Jude's hospital, which actually does cure cancer in children, but it still irks me to this day.


Looked this up, and it's not only selling snake-oil to parents of sick children, it's MLM selling snake oil to parents of sick children. I honestly didn't think such a level of depravity was possible.

Oh, and they had Ben Carson for a spokesman for a while. Amazing.


Yeah. My new policy is that if an employer wants to have any sort of business dealings with MannaRelief or MannaTech, it's them or me - I'll walk away.


You know it's bad when Texas is willing to investigate.

Source: am a long time resident of TX; it's business-friendly reputation is well earned, IMO.


I used to work for a company that was purchased by a Multi Level Marketing coughpyramidschemecough company similar to Herbalife. They purchased us for our technology to power their platform. There was supposed to be very little overlap with their business, so I did not feel too worried about it.

As time went on, our focus was more on how to sell more of the parent company's products. I also learned more on how the MLM business really worked, and I was disgusted at how the system preyed on the vulnerable. With very few jobs in the area, I continued working there. I eventually moved and turned down requests to work remotely.

None of my co-workers seemed to have cared. Either that, or they understood it was still one of the better tech opportunities in an area with very few.


Does it have a name like a rejected Asterix character by any chance?


In Utah County, by chance?


> Multi Level Marketing coughpyramidschemecough company similar to Herbalife

Definitely could be Utah county, but

> one of the better tech opportunities in an area with very few

Probably not Utah county. The greater than 4000 tech companies[1] in and around Utah County cannot hire software engineers fast enough.

[1]: http://siliconslopes.com/about/utah-economy/


where do you look for jobs in utah? Craigslist seems pretty dead. Thanks!


Now I'm curious... How did they sell the change in focus to your team/company? What aspects about MLM did you find most surprising?


There was no change in focus per se. The company was an e-commerce site, and the parent company was going to simply be another vendor. They were using our in-house technology to power their external (to us) e-commerce presence, besides the placement of their products on our site.

However, their products started to receive more and more focus on our site. If their highly profitable products had competitors in certain categories, we would eliminate those other products. SEO was optimized for those products. The underlying tech focus did not change. The UI team continued working on UIs, mobile teams on the app, etc.

MLM was/is designed to fail. The barriers of entry for any form of compensation were incredibly high. If you satisfied some requirement of the program, there would be another one that was not achieved, invalidating any profits. I had zero insights on the parent company's network, but I simply do not see how a new person could make any money at all.

Although our location, at least those in tech, had nothing to do with the MLM program, except for putting the products on the site (through the standard vendor process), it was still uneasy to be part of. I was not starving. I had a choice to not be part of it, so I exercised that choice. I should add the MLMs are completely legal under strict federal guidelines. Nothing illegal was happening, it was a bit too immoral for my personal standards.


Working at this type of company will eat at your soul. Really, you only have about 40 years of work in you.

It sounds like a lot, but when you consider is takes a few years (sometimes more) to figure out what you like. A few more to get good at it. And then you have maybe 20 peak years of productivity, you sure as hell don't want to spend any of it at something you can't respect.

When you are done with your career at 60 or 65, you want to be able to look back and say "I did this" or "I created that" or "I helped this many people", not "I worked at that shitty adware company for 2 years because they have me free food and beer"


Interviewed at a company called Rakuten Loyalty in Boston a few years ago. At that time it was the exact same thing, a malware / adware browser toolbar company, and they also sold white label toolbars. Took me the entire interview to figure out what they actually did. Their website [0] now has very little information about what they actually do, with a generic contact form. But an archive.org [1] of their old website shows the truth. Funny how they hide what they actually do now.

[0] http://www.rakutenrewards.com/ [1] https://web.archive.org/web/20121216021038/http://rakutenloy...


I guess I'm not entirely shocked since Rakuten the parent company and Japanese ecommerce site has very questionable tactics like emails you can't opt out of and forcing new employees to sign up a large number of friends/relatives to the Rakuten credit card.


Huh? How exactly did the "force" you to get others to sign up for a CC? I also have no problem opting out of Rakuten emails.


New employees at HQ have quotas.


Hah, wow. I went to JS meetups at their office without realizing that.


AngularJS meetup? Yeah, that office was posh!


I interviewed at 50onRed a few years ago soon after I left college. I went through the interview process, received an offer, and was on the verge of accepting.

It was at this point I realized that I barely understood what the company actually did. I set up another in-person interview, except this time with the roles reversed. I asked them to walk me through their products and platforms so I could better understand what I would be working on. Ten minutes in, I realized what I was looking at. I treaded water until the end of the interview and called them a few days later to decline the offer.

The [engineering] team was solid, the tech was intriguing (a lot of expressjs microservices and interesting design patterns), and the offices were great. But given the wealth of compelling opportunities for javascript engineers, I couldn't come up with a good reason to work on something so insipid and manipulative. This article is strangely validating, perhaps in a schadenfreude kind of way.


Good for you. If more people were like you, companies like 50onRed wouldn't exist.

I think you may have meant "insidious", though, not "insipid" — because "insipid" is the opposite of "intriguing" and "compelling".


I think it works. The 'problem' 50onRed is 'solving' is not an intriguing or compelling one.


I interviewed for a co-op position there and was turned down. I guess they saved me some time.


What's a co-op position?


Cooperative education.

In my opinion a CS program is totally incomplete without a co-op requirement. My program requirements 12 full months co-op to graduate.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooperative_education

"Cooperative education (or co-operative education) is a structured method of combining classroom-based education with practical work experience. A cooperative education experience, commonly known as a "co-op", provides academic credit for structured job experience."

Practically co-ops are usually 6 months long and you apply to them like a regular job, just a temp position. Co-op positions are available all over the country. As long as you do full time work related to your degree program it counts. Your boss has to evaluate you and submit the short evaluation to your school. If you do very badly you don't get credit but it's a pass/fail, no grades.


I finished 1 semester of CS co-op just recently. I go to RIT, not sure if co-op is very popular across the US or not but I can say it's actually a great experience and worth extending your stay in school from 4 to 5 years.


Generally it's an extended internship as a supplemental part of a university curriculum.


Exactly. To further hypothesize, Drexel, a Philadelphia university, offers mostly 5 year degrees with co-ops which more often than not involve local Philadelphia companies.


Hah! Philadelphia! That makes perfect sense.


Worth noting that the reporter on this story is a beat reporter who has been covering the Philadelphia tech scene closely for years now. She knows it like no one else.


Agreed- Juliana is top-shelf.


I had no idea there is a such a large industry doing this type of stuff until building a Windows 10 machine recently for VR. So many "free", seemingly kosher apps seem to install sneaky adware in the main app installation process these days

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Download_Valley

http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexkonrad/2015/02/25/israeli-un...


Today my mother got AD on her phone with "Android update", it was a pop-up from one of normal sites she visit. So she touched "update now" as she normally do with system messages about update... Then she confirmed, then she got 2 SMS, in one that deal was finalized. WTF? I've checked with Orange and indeed she was charged and subscription was started, 20 euro a month for some 3 shitty sms per week. They have turned this subscription off. THIS practices should be stopped. This is really a plague, I see those on my desktop and phone on regular basis, i know they are fake updates but most people don't..


My mother had this as well but with a game. We simply reversed the charge and continued pay the subscription like normal. They made one vague attempt to get that extra money then gave up. While I'm not a lawyer I doubt such charges would stand up on court.


Often the billing is directly on the phone bill which means the traditional chargeback system won't really help you (it's not a credit card charge and you probably don't want to try to chargeback your phone company). One interesting thing many people don't know is that telcos, almost always oligopolists, are themselves pocketing 30-50% of those fraudulent charges (as they are the payment processor and their rates are extremely high), which helps explain their ambivalence to these sorts of scams.


I've seen an ad for GTA5 for iOS and Android (obvious scam) on Facebook, and thousands of people liking, and hundreds of comments, most seemed organic, of people tagging their friends.

Copyright infringement + scam, right there on Facebook.


its trivial and free to block all the subscription sms 'services' aka scams in Poland, and probably the rest of EU.


Tak właśnie zrobiłem ;)


I worked at a company very briefly in the early aughts. I thought I was hired to be on the team that built the platform. But before we would do that we needed to have a list of beta users. So my job was writing bots that scoured forums and other social networks for contact information (emails, phone numbers, names, etc.)

It took me a week to realize what I was actually doing then another week to plan and execute my escape. The rest of the team were east european and did not give a fuck about what they were doing, it was good money to them.

They eventually did release a product with a few thousand users. Not long after, Facebook changed their signup strategy from schools to the general public and the rest is history.


Maybe I just forget what it's like to be a beginner, but how on earth do you work on Ad Injection software and not realize that you're working on Ad Injection?!


When I first moved to New York, I worked at a company that was an Ad Injection toolbar. I had no idea what the company did for six months.

They hired me to make them a website. I worked alongside an art director and a content creator. Everyday, the reoccurring question was, "what exactly do we do". I was disconnected from the sales staff and the marketing side, so I kept working on a basic WordPress site.

Six months in, we heard that the office was going to close. There was little to no warning, then a week later, we heard that the FCC raided the Florida home office for the CEO breaking tons of spam laws.

The overall structure of the company wasn't necessarily designed to keep people unaware of what they were doing. Instead, they had so many things that the company did, but most of the other "things" didnt make any money. When you boiled down the operations, you realized there was a small number of things that was hugely profitable (spam/toolbars), then a ton of other things that were nonsense and unprofitable.


Sounds like Adknowledge?


Microservices!

I went for an interview at a startup, where the very charismatic CEO explained how their wonderful product helped website owners optimise their content based on their user's profiles. He forgot to mention that those profiles were built using all sorts of illegal and TOS-breaking practices to build display ads for gambling sites. I only found this out by accident, months after the (failed) interview, when talking about them with somebody at a meetup.

So I guess it's possible if the business has a specific strategy for doing it.


These guys are _very_ good at selling, in other words, making something seem good and pure and beautiful. I ended up in an almost identical company doing identical tech. At first we were building an anti-spam platform for which the user would only see two ads a day from us, and none from anyone else. Seemed like a good trade off. Except we never got to the anti-spam bit -- just the ad bit. I was gone within 3 months of arriving.

It might have just been that particular company at that time, but I've never worked with so many morally questionable people at one company. Never again.


I got the impression he wasn't working directly on the ad injection software at all. He was working either on different software or in a different division of the company. It sounds like 5oonRed has a culture of not talking about the ad injection and that their internal jargon was designed to disguise it.

He wasn't shocked to find that he personally had been writing an ad injector. He was shocked to find that the company he was working for made such software without his realizing it and that it derived most of its revenue from said software.


>5oonRed

It's 50onRed, apparently. The article uses a font with Text Figures which makes '0's look like 'o's.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Text_figures


Adtech in general is kind of difficult to grok at first. It's dense with jargon and is largely driven by partnerships and resale. To a newcomer the industry can be very opaque.

It's likely they weren't working on the actual ad injection itself, but rather the backend systems that select and count the ads. From that perspective it's just a matter of handling X requests per second, without it necessarily being clear where the traffic comes from.

When I worked at Adzerk, we'd be approached occasionally by companies doing this kind of garbage. They were always very good at disguising their actual traffic sources. Our sales team had to be very adept at asking the right questions to eliminate the shitty partners quickly.


Because you would only realize if you were actually writing the extensions, which only takes one or two person to do because all they do is inject a javascript file into each page.


You could be working on the auction side (where ads bid to be served to that particular user profile), or a bunch of other infrastructure stuff.


"The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons." - Jean Renoir

Right out of school I worked at a company that builds deep packet inspection hardware and it seems like a dream job: good pay, smart people, interesting problems, reasonable schedule. Too bad about the product though.


I don't really see a problem with working on something like that. There's a legitimate use for technologies like that. The problems are laws and social structures that allow those technologies to be abused. I don't fault the engineer who makes a better gun, but I might fault the marketing department that sells it in a market knowing it will be used for harm (don't be a war profiteer), or the the politicians that resist sane restrictions .


Because he was not. Maybe he was working on a backend, or on a UI, or on testing, or on automation, or sysdmin, or 100 of other places.


I find it difficult to understand how you would even interview & accept a job without understanding what the company did.


Once you learn that they are selling ads on websites, "what does the company do to earn money" seems to be sufficiently answered.

Also I would strongly suspect that most traders of stolen goods (ad spots, in this case) would have a path for legitimately acquired merchandise as well, not only for plausible deniability but also because they sure would not mind paying their bills in a clean way, they just failed to resist the lure of the extra cash. With that in place, you'd have to actually work in the shady part to know about it, or have bird's eye numbers of the whole company where you might see that output does not match the legitimate input.


"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" --Upton Sinclair


I really think this quote is a bit unfair here. Especially in the startup scene, many companies have quite vague product descriptions. I've worked at a place where it took me 3 months to figure out what they were doing (nothing immoral BTW, just very complex/diverse products).


But for those three months you had no idea whether what they were doing was moral or not, and you didn't check.


A nice tech jobs in a cushy air-conditioned office that lets you feed your family: Jobs like these don't grow on trees.


I used to work for a residential Real Estate platform, as a network/server OS/hardware worker. I didn't realize I had been hired by email spammers until we got Spamhaus emails, and my job became getting us off the RBLs.


Years ago I worked at a place where I didn't know what the company did. I knew they made physical products (had a factory in the building) that had some sort of industrial use. However I didn't have the very specific domain knowledge to understand what those products did and my job didn't depend on it. My team was the only software team not writing firmware - we worked on the intranet. It didn't help that all conversations were filled with jargon.


I got the impression it's just super fun. We're doing ad syndication! We sell space on websites! We have an innovative peer disruption space sorting alorithm optimizer!


I have a colleague you might like to meet. Understanding anything is not his forté. He turns up, does what he is told, goes home, and is paid at then end of the month. Except maybe the "does what he is told" part, but that is a different story!


It's pretty easy to compartmentalize your staff. In fact, it's necessary, as it allows people to not feel "responsible" even when aware that they are doing something wrong. So one person makes the sales calls, and another ships the products, and another makes the products, and another does the billing, and they're all just executing SOPs and minding their own business...


I got the impression that the employees in the article were making ads. When you make ads you don't necessarily notice how exactly those ads get in front of users. When they say that the didn't know how the company made money, they probably meant that they thought it worked like other ad companies: paying websites for ad spots.


and how do you work fulltime for a company and not bother to figure out what they do?


I have a colleague you might like to meet. Understanding anything is not his forté. He turns up, does what he is told, goes home, and is paid at then end of the month. Except maybe the "does what he is told" part, but that is a completely different rant.


"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" -Upton Sinclair


Good question. If they actually figured out a strategy to do this, it seems to me that it would be a maddening job. Oh look! A free lunch!


Pro Tip: The "what questions can we answer about $COMPANY" section at the end of an engineering interview should be used to ask about the business model and revenue/monetization, not just the tech stack


More generally, not knowing how a company makes money should be a huge problem for someone candidating.

Given the choice, a company with a sane business model has less chances to go under (== not going through interviews again in 6 months), and it should also give an idea of how much and in which way the comapny has any chance to grow.


It sounds like they danced around the question when asked directly by someone not in the company.


It's good to hear that all the C[ETF]Os of adware business found their employment at Facebook/Google/Amazon.


Yeah, this jumped out at me too. I'm not very reassured about such morally dubious characters working for companies that control most of our digital lives.


>Gill tells me he doesn’t consider himself in the adware business. He prefers, instead, to describe 50onRed as a company that keeps content free for users.

I love that bit. How does injecting ads into random sites help keep content free for users?

Who's buying those ads by the way? Sure it sound like a terrible company, but I can help thinking that their customers are worse.


If anything, hijacking page real estate makes it less likely the user will click on non-injected ads (which actually pay something out to the content creator).

I believe content creators have a right to seek compensation for their work - whether it's through ads, affiliate links, or a subscription model.

But what 50onRed does is thievery from the creators, plain and simple.


I worked in the user experience team at that one big American domain company (that's well known for mostly the wrong reasons.) Similar situation as the story: great coworkers, great pay, & great perks.

One of the products I was assigned was the interface for customers to configure those sites that are intended to monetize a domain with filler content meant to fool a visitor just enough to milk them for a few cents with seemingly legitimate articles/posts and an e-commerce feature that was essentially a storefront built entirely from affiliate links.

Unlike the individual in the story, it was immediately clear what my task was: make spamming the Internet as user-friendly as possible. Unfortunately there was no mental gymnastics I could do to reconcile that.

Especially since the second product I had was domain auctions, which alone is nothing more than virtual real estate, but together with the first product is the makings of a thinly-veiled means to skim money off the top of online purchases made by ignorant users AND to fool people into believing they could profit from otherwise idle domains (by first paying the company for the monetizing product first, of course.)

And a tiny fraction of our customers did make a good income with those 2 offerings but the significant majority would never net a dime.

Aside from the pay and perks, the only professional payoff was also having the company's support site in my charge. I was proud of the work I did on that and it was a feature of my portfolio. But it wasn't enough and I was too disillusioned and discouraged overall by the day to day work. It wasn't long before I let it get to me, my performance began to suffer, and I needed to get out of there. (Admittedly, the nature of the job wasn't well-suited to my strengths either so it was probably fortunate I lasted as long as I did...)

I was able to cash in quite nicely on the experience gained there with a good offer on an out-of-state position with a generous relocation package. So, no, it wasn't all bad and, like the person in the story, the coworkers were largely really great (some going to work for large, well-known tech companies) and though I value the experience overall, it revealed just how much money can be made if you're willing to profit from people's ignorance and greed, just by framing your product or service in a particular way.


> “Like, man, this is a really nice office,” he recalls thinking. “Open floor plan...”

So "Tyler" wasn't a programmer, then. Got it.


Programmers don't have to dislike open floor plans. I know this because I am one.


Not everybody dislikes an open floor plan.


You're right of cause, but strangely enough I never meet anyone who liked open floor plans that didn't have a pair of head phones glued to their head half the day.

It's personal preference of cause, but I believe that the disadvantages starts to cancel out any benefits at around 6-8 people per office.


He also didn't like octagonal windows, and definitely used a spatula when making omelettes.


Any kind of task that requires long periods of concentration is unfit for an open floor plan.

I'm a writer and man, I hate writing with people around me


I went to a meetup that they hosted once, and it was pretty obvious that they were up to something, but they did have a really cool office.


I visited Limewire's offices, once. Three story office in Tribeca, with giant kitchens that were bigger than my apartment, game rooms, the works.

It seems to me that the more ambiguous your business strategy is, the more you have to show off to convince others that it isn't.


I think it's more like, if you have a cool office with nice kitchens you can pay your employees crap and they still think they're getting a great deal.


Mildly off-topic, but why do sites like this highlight the "top highlight"? I always find it really off-putting (in a "Oh, you tracking EVERYTHING I do" sort of way")


"sites like this" = Medium.com sub-brands. I don’t know why Medium chooses to do that. I dislike it, too.


"Nice reading interest you have there. I'd hate to see anything happen to it."

</godfather>


I interviewed three times at a company once which didn't seem to have a clear business model. Only in the last interview with the CEO did I realize he was running a ponzi scheme.


This is like the Mickey Mouse version of the 'The Firm'.


whenever I am looking at a company, I google it, I scrape Glassdoor, I look for news articles about it. "How do you make money" is usually on the menu of "things I specifically care about". I'd advise others do do the same. Learn well what the company you're talking to does to earn a buck and who they are beholden to.

I avoid adtech, myself.


I've been to a Python Meetup there previously, nice office, nice tech talks. Their sponsor overview certainly didn't disclose what they actually did.

Makes me wonder about the other ad platforms in town.


Sometimes this adware crap hijacks legitimate open source projects as well and installs on unsuspecting users like this guy:

https://forum.videolan.org/viewtopic.php?t=78825


There are many businesses that are built around exploiting vulnerable customers or users, and it is common for such businesses to have contrived complicated ethical justifications for their conduct. I'm thinking in particular of law and finance.


I also always wonder how the people working on engineering land mines do.


I once had a conversation with someone who had worked on surface-to-surface missile guidance.

He did it because he didn't make the connection between the circuits and the software in front of him and the deaths they caused.

Then there was a war and he saw the missiles on the news with pictures of casualties, and suddenly it was "Holy fuck - this stuff actually kills people!"

Some people think small picture, and he just couldn't get from the work on his desk to dead bodies without the help of front-line footage.

Of course there are also people who are just fine with that kind of work. I don't understand that ethical space at all - but from what I've seen they simply don't understand why anyone would have a problem with what they do.


I got this information second hand, but for what it's worth: There was a graduate student at my university that was well known and highly regarded for his stellar software engineering skills. At one point he took a job writing a missile guidance system. His reasoning was that there were two options, either he wrote the system, and could make damn sure it worked exactly to spec, or someone else would write the system, and do about as good a job as the other complex software engineering projects he had encountered. In essence: he took the job to minimize collateral damage.


You have to decide when you work for miltech or any dual use tech company if you are cool with it.

At my first job (hydrodynamics R&D)I was tasked with analyzing high sped files from one of our test rigs.

It was quite obvious what the rig was simulating and my office mates said oh yes thats REDACTED the Update to REDATED - I had to sit down and think how I felt about this.

I do draw the line a at Chem, Bio and Payday Loans.


Yeah, understanding the other side is difficult.

I'll try to explain the other side, but it probably won't make sense to you. (as your side makes no sense to me) The trouble is that people can have fundamentally different value systems, priorities, and fears.

Maybe the best way to explain it is to say how you appear to the other side. I'm sure you will disagree, which is kind of the point.

You look kind of naïve and childish. You appear to believe in some utopian fantasy where all people are good and have or can be converted to a value system that is like your own, with the possible exception of conservatives. You fail to make any effort to protect your nation and culture from being overrun by the brutish, violent, and lazy. You somehow imagine that people from places like Syria and Mexico make better neighbors than many of the conservative people in your own country. Basically, your views fail at self-preservation. You are in denial of the historic fact that every nation is built upon a hill of skulls, and the fact that this is the natural way of nature. You imagine that you can refuse to pile up skulls without becoming part of the pile.

If your world were real, I'd rather live in it. I'm not going to deny reality just because I don't like it. Conflict is eternal. I prefer that my people win.

It's actually unethical to avoid the conflict. You're ceding ground to the enemy. You let down your descendants, friends, and neighbors. They will be impovershed, killed, and -- as we've seen with ISIS -- enslaved. This shit really happens. It may take decades or even centuries, but every bit of inaction and appeasement brings that day closer.

For some reason, you push risk and long-term bad consequences out of your mind. It's like you can't see them. You focus on the positive only, kind of like a gambler.

Your optimism probably makes you a happier person. :-)


i'm surprised the article never explicitly spelt out the main point - for most people, accepting a job offer is a major sunk cost, so it's a lot harder to quit a job even after a few months than it is to reject an offer from the outset. i'm pretty sure 50onred were counting on that.


Odd that there aren't any visitor posts on their facebook page..


My friend works at Spokeo. If you don't know about them they are basically a people search engine. He keeps asking me to work there, but I just cant get over the moral implications of scrapping peoples lives and putting it up for viewing for a price. Something about the product just scratches me wrong so I haven't applied. It is really too bad as their tech seems solid and the offices are amazing.


advertisers feel duped when they pay top dollar for what they believe to be “genuine, legitimate, honest ads

Yeah right. No clean hands in that game.


There was an interesting defcon talk a few years back from someone who was a malware developer about his experiences working at a job developing malware.

https://youtu.be/k2mdUcOXW6I


How do you not ask what the company does before joining as an FTE? Even discounting moral hazards... wouldn't you want to know what the mission is? Especially at a startup-y type of place?


I'd always wondered how all those Bond villains got their henchmen to work on crazy remote islands. I guess the perks were good! Just don't ask what we do ^_^


I remember interviewing for a search company, but then found most of the work and business was spent on adverts! No thanks Google!


> you’d see ads on sites like Wikipedia or Target.com 

Normally we call that vandalism. They should be facing criminal charges, not civil lawsuits and pressure from Google.


There's no case afaik, because they disclose everything in the original agreement when you install their software.

Unethical, sure, but there's little the law can do to prevent people from agreeing to such things.

Maybe a requirement for certain disclosures to be made more prominent (like for cigarettes)?


It would be an interesting case if someone tried this with the venerable TV industry: rent/borrow/buy our special HDMI cable/tuner, let us replace your ads, and we'll pay half your cable bill if you let us put our ads up instead.

Methinks the broadcasters would pounce down like a ton of bricks and their lawyers would use every loose corner of the law to bury you perpetually `a la Aereo.`


Is this replacing ads, or just adding more?

Even if it is replacing ads, to argue that it's illegal seems to require saying that ad blocking is illegal (adblock plus has been sued for this, but so far not successfully).

Also https://brave.com/ uses basically the same technique.


I have this vague recollection that friends whose families subscribed to HBO in the 1980s said they didn't show ads at all, because subscribers were directly paying for the programming through their subscriptions (whereas free-to-air stations felt they had to run ads because viewer weren't paying directly). Was this actually true? Does anyone else have a similar recollection?

I'm just wondering if there was a particular moment when people's intuitions about where you could expect to see ads on television changed.


AFAIK this is still true of HBO.


> there's little the law can do to prevent people from agreeing to such things.

True, iff the customer was adequately informed about the offer in a way most people will understand. Contracts are not supposed to be a "gotcha" with extra terms buried in the fine print. If the installer only featured the "bait" and mentioned the adware behind a dark pattern UI or deep in the text of the contract, a judge could (and should) void that part of the contract.

> Maybe a requirement for certain disclosures to be made more prominent

At a minimum.

That said, the issue isn't really with the person that installs the software. There isn't a contract between the adware scammers and e.g. Target or Wikipedia.


>a judge could (and should) void that part of the contract.

There's a difference between voiding a contract that no longer obligates people, and voiding a contract to make actions taken under it illegal. I'm not sure there's good precedent for the latter.

>There isn't a contract between the adware scammers and e.g. Target or Wikipedia.

They're not touching Wikipedia, they're running on the user's computer and manipulating their local served page of Wikipedia. I don't see why anyone else would have a case.


Anny illegal terms in a contract are void.


The argument isn't that it's illegal, but that it wasn't properly agreed to.




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