Quite a few years ago, a popular Linux site began displaying ads from Microsoft on their home page. Big ones, at a prominent location above the fold. Some were fancy Flash ads, attention getters, mainly for branding purposes. Others were FUD, “independent” TCO studies bought and paid for by Redmond that “proved” it was cheaper to hand MS a wheelbarrow of money to run a Windows server than to run a free Linux server.
The first time I saw a Windows ad on this FOSS site, I chuckled. I figured that if I ran a FOSS site and Microsoft came to me and offered multiple thousands of dollars for a medium rectangle ad, I’d be more than happy to redesign my page to accommodate them. You see, I believe the First Amendment’s a two way street, that if I expect free speech for myself, I have to be willing to give it to others.
I understood the griping by many of the users of the site, but I figured they were missing the point. To me, Microsoft ads on a Linux site meant that Redmond’s marketing folks were missing their mark by more than a mile. What were they thinking? Did they expect a little FUD on a site for Linux users to convince hard-core penguinistas to drop EXT for NTFS?
Recently, when this same site “laid off” practically their whole staff and greatly reduced their content, the issue of Redmond’s ads came up again, with many expressing the opinion that Microsoft’s money was behind the move. I can certainly see how it might smell that way, but my experience working at radio stations and newspapers has taught me that odors can be deceiving.
Microsoft’s money very likely had nothing to do with the layoffs. Even so, this incident has caused me to change my thinking on the subject. The problem is one of perception. Although the actions taken by the site were probably relatively innocent, based on necessity brought about by a weak economy and lack of cash flow, the always-suspicious-of-Microsoft readership was immediately more than willing to jump on the bandwagon and proclaim “this is what happens when you crawl into bed with Microsoft!” This is a dangerous position for a news organization to find itself in, for when you lose the trust of your readers, you’ve lost it all.
This loss of trust isn’t entirely unfounded. Even those of us who’re inclined to defend the site can’t be absolutely positive that Ballmer & Company isn’t calling at least a few of the shots from behind the curtain. I have experienced first hand the undue influence a big spending advertiser can have, both in print and in broadcasting.
I’ve written for newspapers that had a firm firewall established between advertising sales and editorial. On occasion an ad rep would wander over into the editorial department, irate because an article had been critical of an advertiser, but it never went anywhere. The editor would just explain to the sales rep that the article was objective, true and newsworthy, secure in the knowledge that management would back him up.
However, I’ve also worked for newspapers and radio stations where a writer or talk show host didn’t dare write an article or utter a sentence critical of an advertiser, for fear of standing in unemployment lines. Once, at a newstalk station where I pulled down the midday slot, I got into an on air discussion with listeners about a story that had been on the front page of the local newspaper that day, in an article critical of an insurance company that was a big advertiser on the station.
As soon as my air shift ended, I was called upstairs to meet with a very unhappy station manager, who couldn’t understand why I would criticize a company that was putting beans on my table. It didn’t matter that the story was newsworthy enough to be on the front page of the daily paper, nor did it matter that I’d said several times during the discussion that this company had always been a good corporate citizen of our city and that this was just one small incident. I was made to call the president of the insurance company to apologize and was admonished to never say anything negative about this company again.
I understood the reasoning of my boss, even if I disagreed. This advertiser was probably responsible for fifteen to twenty percent of the station’s income. They were also very community spirited. All it took was a phone call to get them on board to sponsor, over and above what they were already spending with us, any special community oriented programing, such as coverage of local little league baseball. In other words, they were too important to our bottom line for us to take a chance loosing them.
And so it would be with Microsoft advertising on a FOSS site.
It would be difficult to turn Redmond down if they came knocking with pockets filled with advertising dollars. It would also become too easy to become addicted to that flow of money once you started taking it. With the extra money, writers could be hired to beef up content and investments could be made to improve the site’s functionality. Very quickly the site could become dependent on Microsoft dollars and could be in the position of not being able to afford to lose MS as a client without losing everything. At that point it might be tempting to “take it easy” on Microsoft when they begin bullying Android phone makers or making exclusive deals in violation of the GPL with renegade open source companies. It could become too easy to lose all credibility with the FOSS community.
In any deal with the devil, the devil wins.