I'm a Thief!

If you participate in discussions on Usenet, sooner or later you'll encounter someone who doesn't have a firm grasp of the facts but who tries to fake it anyway. In May 2000, one such knucklehead tried to tell me that I'm a thief because of the freedom I enjoy when browsing documents on the World Wide Web.

The Focus

Visitors to a Web site are not obligated to volunteer their computer hardware and browser software for use as no-cost billboards.

The Background

The topic of "stealing from Web sites" came out of a candid discussion (euphemism for argument) in the comp.infosystems.www.authoring.html newsgroup between me and Bill, a professional newsgroup troll who promised to be my personal nemesis for the rest of eternity. I used to refer to Bill by a fictitious name in this document in order to keep attention focused on the topic, not the personalities, but after more than two years, I don't think that's important now.

The discussion started by contrasting the desire of a company to present a consistent brand image with the futility of doing that with HTML on the World Wide Web, because the markup language was intended for flexibility and adaptability, attributes that are antithetical to preserving a "look and feel."

Bill had spent days arguing and arguing that a commercial Web site's primary objective is to preserve its company's corporate image at all costs, even if it means deliberately shutting out visitors whose browser configurations don't match what the site designer thinks is the "right" configuration.

I have no doubt some companies, and some Web designers, see the Web exactly that way. There are plenty of sites on the Web that exhibit this short-sighted philosophy.

I reminded Bill of the wide diversity in Web user agents (graphical, text-based, hands-free/eyes-free audio, etc.), the existence of users with special needs or disabilities, and the numerous ways visitors have to configure their browsing environments to satisfy their own preferences.

Bill responded by repeating much the same argument again and again, that commercial interests try very hard to exert as much control as possible over their Web sites' appearance, because preservation of the corporate image is paramount (according to Bill, that is), and that telling customers to take a hike is okay if they aren't going to see that corporate image exactly the way the site designer wants.

Bill seems to believe that the only reason I don't cow to his point of view is because I must not understand it. And if he repeats it over and over, maybe I'll get it and agree with him.

But I do understand Bill's point. The problem, as it were, is that I also understand the technical realities of the Web.

My counterpoint was that the World Wide Web gives the lion's share of freedom and power to the visitor. The very nature of HTML, and the way it brings together text and other media formats, means that visitors to a Web site can easily pick and choose what resources they want to pull across the Net to their own systems. That power exists in the visitor's hands because it was meant to exist there.

I suppose that if the Web had been invented after the corporate world got interested in e-commerce, things might have been more consistent with Bill's thinking. But it didn't happen that way.

Chuck Taylor is a Thief!

Later in the discussion, I alluded to the fact that I use filtering software to avoid downloading advertisements and other material I'm not interested in reading. Bill then asserted that I'm a thief. In Usenet message <39232573.81DF024C@bother.me>, Bill rationalized his accusation with the following pair of quotes (punctuation Bill's):

If you used my search engine and turned off my logo and my ads deliberately for the sake of not looking at them, you are stealing. You are taking something without paying for it.

Are you suggesting you use an ad filter. If you are then you really are a thief as you are not paying for the content you use.

Why Bill thinks downloading a Web site logo amounts to paying for the service is a mystery that only he understands. There's a little grain of truth in the case of advertisements, however: presumably his site earns a penny or two each time the advertisement is downloaded. But that isn't me paying those pennies, it's the advertiser.

Of course caching proxy servers are preventing him from earning a few extra pennies too, and the mainstream Web browsers are willing conspirators by fitting their browsers with the option to disable image downloading, but Bill's beef is only with an individual visitor like me.

I challenged Bill to turn me in for committing theft on a regular basis, but he slunk away muttering weak putdowns instead (see Usenet message <3923E11D.A2490C24@bother.me>).

Not the First Time

This isn't the first time someone has insisted that I'm obligated to download advertisements when I fetch a document from a Web server. Another Usenaut claimed that his site monitors whether or not a visitor downloads advertisements and, if not, refuses to deliver the full content available.

The rationale was similar to Bill's: running a Web server costs money, responding to HTTP requests costs money, so a visitor who sends an HTTP request to a Web server should "pay" by also requesting an advertisement or two as well.

Waste Bandwidth Or Else!

So a visitor who wants a document from a Web server is obligated, in Bill's mind, to share in the costs of providing the document. Sharing those costs means wasting extra bandwidth and data transfer time to download advertisements the visitor isn't interested in seeing.

That's consistent with older media formats: a newspaper reader has to put up with ads scattered throughout the paper; a television viewer has to wait through periodic commercial breaks, and so on. It only follows that the same rules apply to the World Wide Web, right?

Wrong.

The World Wide Web is dramatically different than print or television. The technologies and media formats in use on the Web give users far more freedom and power than traditional communications media. Users can obtain (or develop themselves) software tools to take electronic information, filter it, analyze it, translate it, reformat it, and present it in any form that meets their needs.

Users also have the freedom not to fetch material they're not interested in--that's an intentional feature of the World Wide Web. If a Web site is funded in whole or in part by advertising revenue, and if the site allows anyone with a Web browser to connect and fetch resources, then the site gambles that it will get the cooperation of enough visitors to sustain itself. A site that assumes visitors will as a matter of course download ads is working with a broken revenue model.

If a site isn't willing to take that gamble, then it can always establish a members-only system where visitors pay a fee for an account with which they can access the site's resources. Such subscription-based sites appear to be successful, at least those that provide information and services that are unique and in demand by consumers.

A site that remains open to the general public, however, shouldn't be surprised when visitors take advantage of its availability. Furthermore, the site's owner doesn't have any justification for accusing visitors of stealing when they retrieve material from the site. The site's owner may have every right to pepper his documents with advertisements, but visitors are under absolutely no obligation to volunteer their computer hardware and software for use by advertisers as no-cost billboards, soapboxes, or public-address systems.

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Last update: 20 Jul 2003 -- (Copyright) -- (Contact)