Anti-Virus's control fetish

By George Smith
Posted: 28/02/2002 at 22:55 GMT

"Network Associates would never sponsor nor condone attempts to censor
anyone anywhere."

Uttered for Forbes by NAI el Jefe Gene Hodges and published 4 February
in an article in which he denied the company had tried to churlishly
prevent Vmyths founder Rob Rosenberger from going forward with a
commentary embarrassing to the firm. It is my favorite quote this


It's unparalleled, even ballsy, meretriciousness. What guts it must
have taken to say it, knowing that someone could peremptorily
clothesline you publicly over the issue of censorship, but betting
that they would not!

But luck was no lady, the dice came up snake-eyes, and three days
later New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer filed a lawsuit
against Network Associates over an odious clause -- a "restrictive
covenant" in the parlance -- that the company had employed in its end
user license agreement to hinder the public's ability to criticize its
software products. "It is unconscionable that a reputable software
developer such as Network Associates would seek to chill and censor
public speech . . ." read Spitzer's boilerplate PR.

And so everyone got another opportunity to acquaint themselves with
how Network Associates wrenches true causes false ways. In this case,
the messy job of damage control was left to a fixer from the legal
department. "We only want to ensure that potential reviewers of our
software have the most current version" is an approximation of the
cant prepared for the job. It was an exquisite misapplication of
language because it allows the company just enough wiggle room to
discredit all potential future bad news about its product by claiming
the review inaccurate due to lack of current version -- the current
edition being always whatever the company says it is, always
potentially one minor revision ahead of the disobedient consumer.

You must admire the propagandistic skill that went into coming up with
such a thing. To twist the interpretation of a demand that is inimical
to consumers into something that almost sounds solicitous takes no
small measure of ingenuity. And getting a reporter to print it without
immediately following it with something supercilious is an even more
awe-inspiring talent.

However, this is just in the natural character of corporate

Too Animalistic

You see, way back in the mists of time -- like the late '90s -- the
American anti-virus market was a great deal more competitive than it
is now. It was accurate to call it a mutually antagonistic,
animalistic industry where everybody woke up to the new day hoping
everybody else had failed the night before.

Inspecting the software of competitors for the purposes of planting
bad news and nasty reviews was an industry game. Many played it
clandestinely; the makers of the McAfee anti-virus, however, often
wound up in the spotlight for such oafish practices.

For instance, in 1997 McAfee's (now Network Associates) beta-test
division uncovered a security gap in Symantec's Norton Utilities. The
company promptly went to Windows Sources magazine with the
information. The magazine subsequently published the code McAfee
Associates had ferreted out. Outing someone's internal mess for the
sake of business embarrassment is, of course, pro forma comsec
practice. But I do not recall any McAfee employees checking with
Symantec to see if they had the correct version of the software before
publication of product hostile information.

The same year, the company "reviewed" the software of a UK-based
competitor in a strange press release that complained of a "cheat
mode" present in the rival product.

It read: "The cheat mode can cause Dr. Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit to
show inflated virus detection results when the product is being
reviewed by trade publications or independent third party testing

At the time, Dr. Solomon's Anti-virus Toolkit was regularly detecting
more viruses than the middlebrow McAfee anti-virus, so -- in a sense
-- one could, indeed, sort of say that Solomon's virus detection rates
were "inflated" with respect to the other.

As a claim, though, it sounded so irrational it had no effect other
than to provoke gales of laughter in anti-virus circles at the
martinet-like behavior of the company.

In 2002, however, there are far fewer competitors to wake up hating.  
Real competition has long since fallen by the wayside; the anti-virus
industry is a long-stagnant domain. But the corporate propensity for
paranoid bile remains an institutionalized part of its character. It
is never surprising, then, when it spills onto consumers or any
outsider who might choose to say something unfavorable.

Anyone who has worked in the anti-virus industry since the late '80s
knows its fetish for controlling behavior is deeply rooted, and
unlikely to be muted by just one lawsuit.

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