Wednesday, August 24, 2011

CNet screws the pooch, wraps all downloads in crapware installer

Update 2: According to Renegade on the DonationCoder forums, my initial understanding of what CNet is doing is not entirely accurate. Rather than actually wrapping software installers in an additional install routine that makes unrelated offers to users for CNet's profit, CNet is instead giving users a download manager with ads in it that then downloads the original software's installer. This is not as bad as initially thought, in particular it probably has far less significant legal consequences (if any), but it's still a bad practice on CNet's part, especially without notifying developers or giving them a clear, free opt-out method.

Update: Some good-ish news from Seth Rosenblatt of CNet, posted in a comment on GHacks.

In case you haven't heard, CNet has decided to take the morally reprehensible and legally questionably step of wrapping all downloads on its web property in a proprietary installer that prompts users to install a toolbar or other "offer". The profits from this go straight to CNet, authors don't see a dime. Not only that but they have the gall to charge authors for the ability to remove the crapware installer. They're claiming all this is "for the benefit of the user", but there's no real benefit to the user anyone seems to be able to point to. Needless to say many software authors are horrified, angry, and looking for options. DonationCoder has some discussion and thoughts from a few such software authors affected by this new policy.

As an added sad little wrinkle, many authors don't even choose to upload their software to, it gets up there through other means, user submission or editor selection for example. Authors then have to request their software be removed, and sometimes it takes a while to get a response. Meanwhile CNet is now profiting off their app as long as it's up there.

From a moral standpoint this is clearly very bad. CNet is making money off of the work of others while doing little or nothing themselves. Providing hosting is great, but it's pretty cheap these days. Reviews are helpful but take little time in the overview style CNet uses. What other value is CNet providing? But obviously nobody expects big companies to act on moral grounds. What's more surprising is that they see this as a legally sound move given that many software products are distributed with explicit EULA and/or distribution agreements that prohibit modification, commercial use, and profiting by 3rd parties. While CNet may or may not have dealt with this for larger, commercial vendors, I'm certain they haven't done so for smaller authors whose legal right to determine the distribution terms of their software is just as valid and important as larger publishers.

Many are now wondering what to do in the wake of this new policy. I think the options are pretty clear:

If you are a software downloader who might have used in the past, stop immediately, do not pass go, do not download another file from them, and don't return to their site. If you're really feeling fired up about it like I am, write them a polite by clear email. You can do that here:;contentNav
It also wouldn't hurt to Twitter, post on Facebook, Google+, or write your own blog post. Spreading awareness is the strongest weapon we as normal users have.

To get your software fix now that you can't use, consider Fileforum, Snapfiles, Softpedia, or Brothersoft. Note: I'm not personally vouching for any of these, they're just other sites I'm familiar with and which, to my knowledge, are not yet bundling crapware. Of course the best policy is always to download from the official website for the software in question, if possible.

If you are a software author whose software is currently hosted on your choices might be a bit more complicated, but they are still fairly clear. You can of course simply remove your software outright (and email a strongly worded complaint to CNet while you're at it). I think this is the simplest and perhaps best approach, but you might be concerned you'll lose search engine placement, reputation, reviews, download stats, etc. Some of this is true, yes, but the question is whether it's worth compromising your relationship with your users for this. When a user downloads your software from, their user experience is compromised with no real benefit to you, the customer is likely to be unaware of the source of the crapware that may get installed, and they're likely to blame you. By removing your software you may be losing some downloads, but you are ultimately protecting your long-term relationship with your users and that's worth a lot more than a few extra downloads. 

Some might question whether it has any affect on CNet for you to remove your software. The likely answer is no, unless your software is extremely popular, but if 100s or 1000s of authors do this, then it may in fact impact their bottom line. But more importantly it's the value of your relationship with your users that is at stake here, not whether you can in fact strike back at CNet. Being able to do that could be vindicating, perhaps even bring about change eventually, but it is much harder to achieve and the effect is questionable. What is not questionable is that your relationship with your actual users is damaged by CNet's download wrapper policy, so you owe it to yourself and your users, if nothing else.

One possibility that has been mentioned if you do want to keep your software on, perhaps even use it as a weapon against CNet, is to use your own installer detection routines to trigger informative or anti-CNet messages whenever your installation is launched from a CNet wrapper installer. This may in fact be an effective weapon, though I doubt CNet would tolerate it for long. But I'm very curious to see someone try it.

One last thought for developers, if your EULA or distribution terms are clearly stated and indicate that what CNet is doing are illegal, you might consider letting them know about this fact (politely but firmly). They should be aware that they are on legally dubious ground. I doubt any real lawsuits will come of it, but you never know. Perhaps an enterprising software author with a bee in their bonnet could even setup a petition or Facebook group to collect interest in a class action suit...

The sad thing is has been a pretty decent site for a long time and has been around since the earlier days of the Internet. I myself have used it as a source of free software downloads for years. Yes, I've enjoyed the benefits of these free services and, yes, taken them for granted. But they survived this long without screwing over their users, I can't help but wonder why now. Maybe CBS Interactive is looking to balance the books and squeezing some of its business units for revenue to make up the difference, who knows. 

All of this upset could have been avoided, too. CNet has a need to remain profitable to survive, that's certainly understandable. They provide some services that do deserve some kind of compensation, even if "only" ad revenue. They made the decision that they needed additional revenue sources, which is their right. Where things got off track is not consulting the authors of the very software they depend on for their high traffic numbers and existing income. What they may be doing now is gambling on a new revenue source at the possible expense of an older one, if the outrage I'm seeing is indeed any real indication of future usage and traffic numbers. It could in fact affect their bottom line and they may end up seeing a net negative in profit as a result.

What CNet should have done is roll out a new developer incentive program. Something like OpenCandy, but CNet-driven and opt-in. Share the revenue from installer-based offers with the software authors themselves. Then they become your biggest advocates and sales agents. This is what OpenCandy has done, and while I am not totally in favor of it, it has been relatively successful so far. CNet has the enviable position of also being able to offer software authors not only a revenue source from software bundling options, but also an effective, proven platform for promoting and distributing their software. Add a few premium services and they've got an additional revenue source without compromising existing value and reputation. This approach could have been very successful.

It's not too late. CNet has gotten a lot of publicity from this - negative publicity but publicity nonetheless. If they changed to an opt-in, revenue-sharing model, they could turn the negative into positive and while rolling out an opt-in service from the beginning might not have made such a big splash, you can bet those who already reported on the current policy would mention an update, thus ensuring greater publicity for the venture. Could CNet be that savvy that it was planned this way all along? I doubt it. But that would be pretty clever, not to mention devious...

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