Top 10 IT villains

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Top 10 IT villains

Every industry has its share of villains, and the computing world is no different. Here's the top ten people we love to hate.

This reputation is sometimes earned, sometimes not. The term villain stems from Roman times and was used to describe someone who worked the land but was without honour.

In latter years it evolved into many forms, ranging from the man in a black hat and twisted moustache tying a young maiden to railroad tracks to Keyser Söze.

You'd be hard pressed to find such villains in the lists below. None have killed anyone (that we know of) and their actions have not been criminal in the most part, with one or two exceptions. Instead they are people who we feel have either harmed the industry in some way, or just really annoyed us.

Some are shrewd businessmen whose tactics have garnered them a long list of enemies.

Others are well-meaning individuals whose mistakes earned them the ire of the public, while still others are moral crusaders who don't mind being seen as a heel by the unwashed masses.

In the spirit of Newton's third law we'll be doing an IT heroes piece next week. Let us know if there's anyone you think should be included on the list.

Honourable mention- Deidre LaCarte

Shaun Nichols: In the late 90s as the internet was carving out its place in mainstream culture, a student named Deidre LaCarte created a web page as a tribute to her pet hamster. The result was, you guessed it, Hampsterdance. One of the earliest and most annoying internet memes ever recorded.

The page combined a long collection of dancing cartoon hamsters with an infectious, high-pitched jingle that was, ironically, a bit like having an actual rodent gnawing at one's brain.

However, the site was also a hit with the burgeoning crowd of web "newbies." The page became the first of many pointless internet phenomena and likely drove hundreds of high school computer teachers to seek psychiatric help.

Iain Thomson: I have to say I'm gobsmacked at Shaun's restraint on this one. When we were coming up with the list LaCarte was one of his top picks, and certainly the one that inspired the most bile. It's not often we discuss a list and the phrase “impaled on a rusty spike” is heard.

Hampsterdance was annoying certainly. It spawned cheesy singles that made it into the charts in a number of countries and I personally blame it for the Dancing Baby syndrome that took off later, and made it onto the egregious 'Ally McBeal'.

As memes go it was everywhere for a while but its influence has faded. It seems the pain, for some, has not.

Honourable mention: Ted Stevens

Iain Thomson: Stevens, the former Senator from Alaska, earned ridicule for his 2006 speech against net neutrality, where he described the internet as a 'series of tubes' and managed to confuse the internet and email. What made this worse was that he had a major role in regulating internet commerce.

It's a bit like your doctor showing a complete lack of knowledge by prescribing a course of leeches for a bad back. Here was a chap who showed cavalier disregard for the industry he was regulating and his words sent shivers down the spine of people in the business of building ecommerce.

In actual fact the series of tubes analogy from a technical standpoint could have been justified by someone who knew what they were talking about. But Stevens patently didn't, and it sounded like he was reading a poorly formed briefing paper from a lobbyist rather than expressing a viewpoint.

Net neutrality is too important an issue to be left to people who don't know what they are talking about. Following his conviction on seven corruption charges Stevens is now thankfully out of the loop on internet regulation and may be spending some time in prison, where one hopes he won't spend time finding out another wrong use of a series of tubes.

Shaun Nichols: Stevens may have made it into the top ten had his error not been so laughable. The scary thought is that it came in the context of such an important debate.

At the time he made his infamous quote, Stevens was likely the best-informed person in the room on the subject of net neutrality. Think about that for a moment; these men are debating what essentially amounts to the future of ecommerce and communications in the US, and the most knowledgeable person in this group thinks that the internet functions much in the same way as the pneumatic deposit system at a drive-through bank branch.

As disliked as he may be in the computing world, Stevens is perhaps even more of a villain amongst his constituents in Alaska. The former senator now faces a considerable prison term for corruption.

10. Sony BMG

Shaun Nichols: In the years following the rise and fall of Napster and peer-to-peer internet sharing, music labels launched an all-out war on music piracy. Their weapons included both lawsuits and a class of copy-protection software known as "digital rights management" or DRM.

In 2005, however, Sony BMG took things way too far. In an attempt to thwart piracy of its music, the label equipped a collection of 52 album releases with a type of software known as a rootkit. The rootkit installed itself below the normal operating system level, making the protections extremely difficult to spot and remove.

Unfortunately, the rootkit also contained an exploitable flaw which put users at risk for a catastrophic malware attack. Sony was now faced with explaining why it had left so many of its users exposed to attack without their knowledge or consent.

Fallout from the incident left Sony BMG as the poster child for the paranoia and panic amongst record labels and galvanised an anti-DRM movement that eventually led many of the largest music retailers to strip DRM software from their offerings.

Iain Thomson: What really stuck in my throat wasn't so much that Sony put the rootkit in, disgusting though that was. It was that they didn't seem to care about it.

As proof of this here's a quote from Thomas Hesse, Sony BMG's global digital business president, "Most people, I think, don't even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?" One major security vendor had that printed up on tshirts and I and others took great delight in wearing it to Sony press conferences.

Shaun has this right to a degree; that a music company thought it had the right to introduce a security vulnerability onto your computer was the beginning of the end for DRM technology. It struck at the heart of the music company's sense of entitlement and doomed the process in the long run.

9. Steve Jobs

Iain Thomson: To some Jobs is a hero, to others he's a manchild who threw his toys out of the pram because he couldn't do things his way.

Jobs had a great opportunity to shape the way the computing revolution evolved, and he has had a dramatic effect. But it could have been so much more and if he hadn't been so childish about the whole thing we could all be using better computers.

Jobs is a visionary, he saw how things could be. But when he didn't get to personally direct it he threw his hands up and walked away. Many Apple staff felt personally betrayed when he sold his stock and walked away from the company and they had a point.

He also sounds like a complete nightmare to work with; fostering paranoia among some staff and encouraging the building up of little cliques and empires, so long as they all report to him. A senior Apple employee told us that no advert, press statement or product idea gets the go-ahead unless Jobs has approved it personally. This is the work of a perfectionist, but also someone with an ego the size of Mars that needs regular stroking.

Shaun Nichols: Nobody in the computing world is more polarizing than Jobs.

He has garnered a cult-like collection of zealots for his role as Apple's chief. But his unpredictable actions and abrasive style have also garnered plenty of enemies. Many in the Valley tell stories of Jobs routinely belittling employees and at times being so irate that he would fire whoever was unlucky enough to be standing next to him in the lift at the time.

And it is not only within Apple that Jobs has built a considerable reputation for being less than hospitable. His dealings with the press have been rare and often contentious. Last year, a New York Times reporter answered his phone and was greeted with the following: "This is Steve Jobs. You think I'm an arrogant [expletive] who thinks he's above the law, and I think you're a slime bucket who gets most of his facts wrong."

Like Bill Gates, however, Jobs also got results. His penchant for picking out successful technologies is legendary, and his list of projects includes the Macintosh, OS X and the iPhone.

8. Mark Zuckerberg

Shaun Nichols: Zuckerberg is quickly establishing himself as the next generation of internet villain. At the tender age of 24, what has Zuckerberg done so wrong as to earn him a spot on our list?

Yes, there are still some who say that he more or less stole the idea for Facebook from his Harvard classmates, but Silicon Valley has a short memory when it comes to those sort of things. Zuckerberg didn't really win the ire of the computing public until long after, when Facebook became the most-popular social networking site on the planet.

First, there was the infamous Beacon program. Intended as a way to bump ad revenues, the Beacon tool proved just a bit too nosey and sparked a user uproar over privacy concerns.

Then, there was the disastrous attempt to update the terms and conditions of the site. Again, Zuckerberg's image took a hit when users against the plan and demand that the terms be re-written.

Most recently, there was a redesign the site undertook earlier this month. When users overwhelmingly voted against the of the site, Zuckerberg once again found himself forced to admit that his company made a mistake.

Those mistakes, however, seem to be piling up. Facebook appears to have become a victim of its own success as millions now base their social lives on the service, every mistake the young CEO makes gets magnified and causes yet another online mob to pick up their pitchforks and torches. Thus, young Mr. Zuckerberg finds his list of detractors growing daily.

Iain Thomson: I questioned Shaun's inclusion on this list with a comment that he wasn't that bad. After a lengthy recital of sins from my co-worker I was forced to admit he had a point.

Facebook has done many things right. It wasn't the first social networking site, nor will it be the last, but it was the best, for a while. Traditionally I've eschewed social networking sites but after getting email after email about this thing I joined up.

While there have been some positive aspects to Facebook – getting in contact with long lost friends, free poker and the ability to search for source material – on the whole the results have been negative.

I've found out about the breakup of friend's relationships online, when a call would have been preferable. I've seen photos I shouldn't, come across cheesy status updates and been bombarded with stupid virtual applications. I'm sorry, but if you want to send me a drink I expect a bottle of single malt on the desk rather than some lousy icon.

7. Zango

Iain Thomson: Advertisers fund the internet to a large extent, but when does advertising stop and privacy kick in?

Zango is determined to find out. The company has had various guises over the years - 180solutions, ePIPO and Hotbar – but the basic function remains the same, to get adverts in front of us whether we like it or not.

In the early Wild West days of the internet the company played fast and loose with the hardware of computer users. A useful application could contain one of Zango's adware applications that would have pop-ups exploding on the screen like acne on a teenager's face.

Even once laws were enforced to limit the activities of companies like Zango the company wormed its way around them as far as possible. It was fined, broke the terms of the fine and proved a of security software companies in its pursuit of profit. Zango is as persistent as herpes, without the pleasurable build-up that leads you to catch it.

Shaun Nichols: A few years ago I was able to sit down and speak with Zango founder Keith Smith. He was a nice enough person, but clearly aware that his company was more or less hated in many circles, and he was willing to accept that.

Zango constantly operates on a very fine but profitable line. Users download the software to access content such as games and movies in exchange for allowing the company to place ads onto their system. The company maintains that it clearly notifies users what the software does before anything is installed. Critics of the company maintain that Zango routinely deceives users and more or less uses covert methods to infect systems with adware.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, but there is no denying the company's perception within the IT world. Any administrator who has struggled with removing the software, (particularly in the early days of Zango when shady affiliates were sometimes used to distribute the software,) likely holds a less than stellar opinion of the company and its products.

6. Jack Thompson

Shaun Nichols: Former attorney and activist Jack Thompson may be the most-hated man in the gaming world, and he doesn't seem to mind that much. The Florida based moral crusader has long been campaigning against what he sees as excessive depravity and violence in video games today.

For game developers and players, however, Thompson is a wet blanket who is looking to stamp out their legal rights. Amongst his most notable campaigns were targeted at Take Two Interactive and its hugely popular franchise.

Fortunately for the gamers, Thompson hasn't been too successful. GTA continues to sit a the top of the gaming world and Thompson recently found himself disbarred in Florida for misconduct.

Iain Thomson: Thompson is a hate figure for some gamers, but personally I find him a joke.

He's been raving about the dangers of video games for years now and what has it got him? Well, disbarred for one, but more importantly the coming generation hasn't turned into homicidal manics roaming the streets raping and pillaging all and sundry.

It's an old joke that if video games had any effect on people then the generation that grew up playing Pac Man would be running around listening to music of repetitive beats gobbling little white pills. But time has shown that video games don't make people into murderers.

Yes, some violent people play violent video games, but suggesting a link is like saying coffee is a gateway drug because most heroin addicts start on caffeine. Thompson tried to make a career out of demonising computer games and the result has not been a big pay-off but humiliation and what looks to me like madness.

Read on to page two for the top five!


Iain Thomson: ECHELON is the signals intercept and examination system run by what Churchill called 'the English speaking peoples' - Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

To the tinfoil hat brigade ECHELON is the thing of nightmares. A network of base stations around the world, satellites in space and hookups to internet providers that has the potential to monitor every phone call, fax, email and internet search on the planet.

But that last sentence should raise red flags in the minds of people who think. The sheer amount of data that would be collected would render any meaningful analysis impossible. Now there are software tools that would facilitate the collection of intelligence but even they are limited. This is why the great Firewall of China will fail - the amount of people needed to maintain such a system will grow so large that the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits to those that maintain it.

But that aside ECHELON does maintain the facility for targeted spying. This can be both a good and bad thing. US politician Henry Stimson shut down the US intelligence gathering network in the 1920s because "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail", something he later recanted. Signals intelligence can win more wars than a division of hardened troops and that was never more true than today.

The downside is that such great power can be corrupting. The EU has already raised serious concerns over ECHELON's use in commercial espionage and reporters have found numerous cases of the system being abused both by individuals to spy on targets and by governments seeking the edge in negotiations.

If systems like ECHELON are going to be in place they need to be globally run on a level playing field with full oversight. Until that comes, everyone's going to be looking over their online shoulders.

Shaun Nichols: Nothing says "Big Brother" like a giant unknown computer system capable of monitoring every piece of data transmitted on the planet. While ECHELON will likely never be recording and archiving your phone conversation with mum, the idea that it could sends shivers down the spine of most people.

People these days almost uniformly hold a negative view of politicians, and an even more negative view of their ethics. When those politicians are also in possession of an extremely powerful surveillance system, you have the makings of a truly controversial set-up. ECHELON has more than proved that true.

4. Gary Thuerk

Shaun Nichols: In 1978, DEC marketer Gary Thuerk sent a message to hundreds of ARPAnet users to advertise an event the company was holding in Los Angeles.

Had those recipients known that they had just become a part of history, the likely would have been less annoyed. Thuerk had just sent the world's first spam message, and the reaction was much like that which people have today when they open their inboxes to a flood of pharmaceutical offers and Nigerian bank scams.

Had Thuerk not sent his infamous invitation, it's almost certain that someone else would have figured out the efficiency of sending hundreds of people unsolicited messages. Still, his ill-advised attempt at promotion has made him one of the most infamous villains in web history.

Iain Thomson: Thuerk may have been the first spammer but Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel made it commercial and their names deserve to be mentioned in the halls of infamy.

Spam is junk mail gone electronic. It's an annoyance at best but a positive security risk at worst. Spam is now the chief vector for computer malware and no reputable company would use it to advertise their products.

Sadly a lot of disreputable companies still use it, usually selling quack cures or dating fraud sites. But we have to ask ourselves to take some personal responsibility here. Spam exists because it works. If no-one answered spam emails then they would die off. It's stupid and credulous consumers that allow spam to survive.

3. SCO

Iain Thomson: Where to start with SCO? The company launched an attack on open source that made it one of the most hated names in the industry.

SCO claimed, in simplified terms, that it owned the rights to certain sections of UNIX that Linux had cribbed. Chief executive Darl McBride did the media circuit basically doing a mafia shakedown of anyone daring to use open source. We'll sue unless you buy a license from us was the message.

Amazingly enough a handful of companies actually did do this - something for which they are scorned for today. Having a SCO license is the equivalent of a pair of 32 inch purple corduroy bell bottoms in the corporate closet.

SCO learnt the important lesson that you don't muck around with the open source community. Never have such an assembly of geeks been so organised in a single purpose, or at least not since the rumours that nude photos of Janeane Garofalo were available online.

The result that SCO bit the corporate dust and a promising company was destroyed. This is something Microsoft might like to think about as it launches its action against TomTom by claiming Linux infringes its patents.

Shaun Nichols: The rise of Linux was one of the feel-good moments in IT history. An open system which anyone could access and toy with had risen to become one of the most prevalent technologies in the enterprise world. Linux seemed like the future of computing.

Then SCO came in and tried to rain on everyone's parade. The company claimed that it and it alone held the rights to Linux and that all of the hugely successful Linux vendors would have to fork over huge cuts of their profits,

Had it succeeded, SCO would have seen a colossal pay day. Unfortunately for the company, it didn't. An entire industry seemed to cheer as SCO slowly slipped into bankruptcy amidst a sea of countersuits.

2. Bill Gates

Shaun Nichols: The Machiavelli of Microsoft, Gates masterminded a two-decade stretch of controversial business deals which saw his small software company become one of the most profitable outfits in the world and in turn garnered Gates with a reputation as a shrewd businessman who would stop at nothing to come out on top.

From his first dealings to acquire the basis for MS-DOS to his motivations for pushing the Windows Operating System and later the company's contentious anti-trust dealings in the US and Europe, Gates has amassed a list of detractors that stretches into the tens of millions.

But that's not to say he isn't a good guy inside. Our #2 computing villain is also one of the top philanthropists on the planet today. His charitable contributions through the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation are well-documented and are making huge differences in many, many lives.

Iain Thomson: Bill's charitable work is redeeming his reputation in my eyes but his sins are many.

Leaving aside the dog that is Windows Vista Bill's tactics have caused some serious harm to certain areas of the industry. Browser development is a case in point. Once Internet Explorer had achieved a near monopoly it stopped being something Microsoft concentrated on and languished for years. This allowed malware writers to target it with great effect.

It could be said that the Windows monoculture that Gates set up allowed wide scale computing to take off. This is correct but, as we are increasingly discovering in agriculture, monocultures aren't particularly healthy in the long run. Once a vulnerability is found then it can be exploited on a large scale - something that causes Windows users headaches and Apple users extreme smugness.

In the long term Bill Gates' effect on the planet is likely to be beneficial, but in the short term it has caused much harm, not least for Steve Ballmer's dancing skills.


Iain Thomson: China's chairman Mao had a huge number of faults but his reported quote that "when the winds of change blow, some people build walls, others build windmills," is inspired.

Media organisations like the MPAA and RIAA aren't so much building walls as massive windbreaks, while sending out agents to destroy every windmill they can find in an effort to save their business model. They will fail, because those that stand in the way of technology are doomed .

Let me say right off the bat that theft is wrong. You can't walk into a store and start helping yourself to CDs and DVDs without paying by saying that you have a fast internet connection and so you're entitled to get stuff for free.

But neither is it ethical to spend millions snooping on private individuals and bringing shake-down lawsuits against them for something they may not have done. The courts are now processing claims against individuals accused of downloading music illegally on the flimsiest of grounds. The media organisations take the view that if your IP address is spotted downloading materials that are under copyright then you are guilty, and are using lobbying muscle to get such practices bound into law.

But with a range of IP masking tools like Tor around such claims are bogus. What the media industries are trying to do is preserve their business models in the face of the internet. Other industries have bent and changed in the face of technology and prospered. The media industry seems unwilling to accept this.

Shaun Nichols: Nothing says "villain" like suing old ladies and children. The RIAA's campaign of suing those who did nothing more than download a single song on a P2P network was reckless at best and epically malicious and arrogant at worst.

One can see how a sense of desperation could arise in the industry. Record labels had been more or less absent for the rise of the web and when online services began to offer music, sales of CD's plummeted. There is, however, no excuse for the way the labels reacted.

The RIAA did and still does have a right to prevent unauthorised distribution of their product, but the group quickly squandered any sympathy they may have had with their draconian legal campaign. As it is, the RIAA is now giving the tobacco and oil companies a run for their money as the most-hated industry organisation around.

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