Unethical Website of the Month January 2006
Combine the arrogance of privacy zealots, the cult idealism of web geeks, and the freewheeling rationalizations of the ethically irresponsible, and what do you get? Why, January's Unethical Website, BugMeNot.com!
BugMeNot allows web users to access sites that require on-line registration, so they don't have to divulge their real names, e-mail addresses or other personal information. Through BugMeNot, they share active user names and passwords for more than 130 forced-registration sites, such as the New York Times, and Washington Post sites. In other words, the site facilitates dishonesty in multiple ways. It permits users to access information from a provider without meeting the conditions required by that provider for access, and it facilitates deception, as consumers acquire entry to restricted sites by using false identities. Naturally, BugMeNot claims justifications for this. Under the reasonable question, "Why Not Register?" the site offers these answers, followed here by the Scoreboard's comments:
BugMeNot's next question on its site is "Is it ethically justifiable to do this?"
It refers visitors to a debate on the subject over at the Poynter site, where the defenders of BugMeNot are putting their ethical ignorance on prominent display. Here's a typical argument, from a poster who actually used a BugMeNot phony user account to log onto Poynter, which requires registration:
The obvious problem with this argument is that one does register to use a library. Material on a website can be moved around the world, while information in a library can only be used within the library without registration. The library analogy actually justifies required registration more directly than it does registration fraud. A second weakness is that it suggests an obvious and honest solution to the BugMeNot defender's dilemma. He doesn't want to register to read the Times for free? Fine…he can go to the library! He doesn't want to, though, because the internet is more convenient, an added value that justifies additional requirements from the information provider.
But worst of all is this patently untrue statement:
Some written words are free, some are not. When a person or an organization creates written material, they have a right to distribute it or not at their discretion. If I write a diary for myself, BugMeNot's clientele have no claim on those words; even they would not go that far. If I put my personal diary on the web so only I can access it, even "the spirit of the internet" wouldn't dictate that I had to share it with the world.
Now, let's assume that I only want my wife, son, and parents to read my on-line diary. I give them access codes; again, I have that right: they're my words. Then I decide that I want 20 of my friends to have access, but nobody else; they get access codes too. Next a stranger comes to me and says, "You know, I hear there's great stuff on your website; they say you write like Faulkner. (This is a hypothetical, remember.) Can I gain access to it?" "Hmmm," I say. "Sure, but you have to pay me five dollars." This is my right. If he doesn't want to pay, then he doesn't get to read my private, family-and-friends-only Faulkneresque prose. It's his choice, but mine too. Would it be ethical for him to gain access to my site by fooling me with a counterfeit bill? Or by promising to pay me in the future and never doing so? Or by using a rubber check? Of course not.
Well, if I want his name, zip code and e-mail address instead of money, the situation is unchanged. He still has a choice: give me what I require, or don't use the site. I have a right to limit access to my work in any way I choose. And the fact that I choose to exercise that right does not give the stranger a justification for using misrepresentation and dishonesty in order to read my words.
BugMeNot is unethical. Those who use BugMeNot are unethical. And if "the spirit of the internet" justifies theft, then it's unethical too.