The WordPress Incident: Spam or not? And thoughts on prevention.

Andy Bayo started it with Wordpress Website's Search Engine Spam and a long thread of comments followed. All the blogosphere is buzzing about it.

The ethical question is: Is a behavior like this acceptable? Is it acceptable without disclosing it right away? Is it acceptable if you run an open source project? Is it spam?

Jonas Luster says: Nope, no spam. Let's touch this first as it seems one of the central questions to be answereed before we tackle the rest.

Jonas says (among other stuff):

Spam involves other, involuntary, carriers. No comment boxes were contaminated, no mailboxes, no Usenet forums, and certainly no one spent a single byte of extra bandwidth (with the exception of the links from Wordpress.Org) on it. It’s not spam.

The point of the links in the case of Wordpress was to bring up pagerank and thus position in search engine results.

The point was to get results there that did not really deserve the position they got and were thus to be considered "noise". The involuntary carrier is of course the owner of the search engine and the searchers have traffic with content they do not wish to receive. A crystal clear case of spam: "(advertising) noise on a channel that hinders communication".

Don Alphonso sees an indicator for the fact that Matt knew he was ding something wrong when he hid the links via CSS 'outside' the viewport. (His entry is in German.)

Now some people argue that this behavior would have been ok... had Matt been open about it.

If it was spam for cash it was unethical. Being open about it beforehand would not have made any sense.

That dealt with we have the connection between spamming for cash and open source.

Does running an open source project imply vowing ethical behavior in all other net matters? Will unethical net-behavior damage the open source project, the piece of softare itself or the movement in general?

Ralf Graf seems to think that way, cause he states that (article is in German) this behavior is not acceptale for someone working in an open source project.

We already found out the behavior was not acceptable, but why this connection to the nature of the license the software the person is working on (and that not alone)?

This is complex.

The basis for the spam-deal was the high pagerank of the site. This pagerank was gained through "automatic" backlinks from each installation of WordPress (and through all inds of backlinks on articles in the blog(s) of course). so the basis of the deal was a 'capital' that was 'transferred' to for it's work. and this 'capital' was abused for spamming.

Now Jonas and others argue that, while getting money for this specific action was a bad idea the money had to be earned, for the 'greater good' of the project. The argumentation on many blogs is, that an open source project also has to be open about the ways its acquires it's cash.

Why exactly would that be? (and this is a different question from the one about whether it was spam or not)

On the one hand there are companies who distrubute their software with open source licenses. Do they have to disclose how they make their money (beyond thos restrictions imposed by stock exchanges or tax laws)? If they don't have to do this, why should individuals?

Well: Usually open source projects have central figures. Other developers give input to OS projects not only because they like the piece of software or becase they use it and want it to do something specific.

So 'trusting' the key persons in an open source project is also a key factor for the success of the software. If the person shows unethical behavior in connection to the software... ok, that is the end of it.

But how about this case?

The disappointment was not created in direct context to the weblog system WordPress but by (ab)using the popularity of the site connected to the software.

Now, the site also has a donation button, and we are arriving at a key point there. Obviously the donations were not enough to keep the costly services (including Ping-o-Matic) running and this was one of the reasons to accept the money and to not think TOO hard about ethics. There is often the argument that we have to pay politicians better to make then unvulnerable to bribery. If we don't donate to open source software (and open license content) we can't really throw the first stone.

Now openness about the 'bad deal' would not have helped, but openness about financial requirements would have. In order to receive 'justified' amounts of money maybe open source worker will have to be open about how much they need to get in order to serve the community. They need not disclose other sources of income, but I see no problem in saying: Hosting and traffic cost ..., donationas are at ..., I put ... hours into this in the last month, donations are at ...$/hour at the moment. Why not? It would not give away the total earnings of single exposed developers but it would show the users of 'open services' how little their 'heroes' receive. It would be a news basis for trust. Not onaly in this case.

Matts own blog has a first staement (being the promise of one) and lot’s of supportive comments.

And finally I agree with Robert Basic that humans err and should not be 'executed' (also in German).

If you want a German summary, please comment and I will try to write one ;-)

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