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:

  • It's a breach of privacy.
    Well, actually, no it isn't. A breach of privacy would be if one were forced to give a site personal information. But anyone can simply refuse, and not use the site. BugMeNot's version of "breach of privacy" would also apply, presumable, to having to fill out an application in order to get a credit card.

  • Sites don't have a great track record with the whole spam thing.
    Which sites don't have a "great track record" with spam? BugMeNot doesn't know or care, nor does it only provide dummy accounts for access to sites that they know abuse registration information. It also strains credulity that the operators of BugMeNot haven't found an effective spam filter. This is an especially pathetic excuse among a list of pathetic excuses.

  • It's contrary to the fundamental spirit of the net. Just ask Google.
    Or just ask the file-sharing apologists. Spare us the "fundamental spirit of the net" nonsense. The translation of this sentence is, simply, "we don't like having to register." Too bad. Don't use the site then. The "spirit of the net" is evolving, and just because BugMeNot's creators think all information in cyberspace should be free (a self-serving and unrealistic contention), that doesn't give them license to steal it.

  • It's pointless due to the significant percentage of users who enter fake demographic details anyway.
    "Everybody does it!" The Golden Rationalization strikes again! Isn't it remarkable how every advocate for the unethical eventually comes around to this invalid argument?

  • It's a waste of time.
    Huh? If the content you want isn't worth filling out a registration form, then why do you want it? If it's worth the time to acquire a fake registration, why isn't it worth the time to acquire a real one? Let's see…you find out that a site requires registration, so you leave that site to go to BugMeNot, see if the site is one it has dummy user names for, then go back to the original site? Why is this time well spent while honestly registering is a waste of time?
    Here's a handy ethics tip: taking the time to do something honestly and fairly is always time well spent.

  • It's annoying as hell.
    So are paying taxes and buying gas. That doesn't justify cheating on your taxes and driving out of the gas station without paying. BugMeNot's excuses are getting progressively more desperate.

  • Imagine if every site required registration to access content.
    Here's a somewhat more creative rationalization: justifying conduct under a current situation by projecting it onto an imaginary one! "OK, I killed my husband, but imagine if he had been coming at me with a knife!" "Yes, I robbed the bank, but imagine if I needed it to buy medicine for a sick child!" Imagine if every pregnant woman had an abortion…the species would be doomed! Imagine if everyone drove an SUV! Imagine if Wal-Mart was the only retail store! Bulletin to BugMeNot: every site doesn't require registration, in fact, the overwhelming majority of sites don't require registration. Now what's your excuse?

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:

"Information on the internet, especially sites targeted in this forum such as nytimes.com, has always been accessible for free in libraries. To take information out of a library you have two choices. Either "register", or pay for the content. Meaning, either pay $.05 and make a photocopy, or sign up for a library card. But the information itself has always been free, no strings attached. There is no "signing in" to walk into a library, no personalized log in to access their databases…The primary (moral) issue here is that the written word has always been available for free, and we are absolutely within our moral right to continue having free access."

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:

the written word has always been available for free, and we are absolutely within our moral right to continue having free access"

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.

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