Popular Culture  •  March 3, 2010   

Open Letter to the Supporters of DoGood

Dear DoGooders:

I am writing to you because I noticed that you use DoGood Headquarters‘ advertising service. Please give me a moment to explain to you why DoGood’s service is ultimately harmful to all of us. This is not a simple matter to explain but if you could read this letter to the end, I believe we could agree that everyone will lose by using DoGood’s service. So, bear with me.

free lunchWhen you first read about DoGood’s service, you probably thought, “Hey, this is a great idea!” For philanthropic organizations, it looks almost too good to be true. The economist Milton Friedman popularized the phrase “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. It means if someone gets something for free, somebody else ends up paying for it, and even if it appears to have no cost to anyone, there is a social cost. As a Green organization, you could probably relate to this problem of social cost. For instance, many corporations were allowed to pollute our air at no cost for decades. Not worrying about the pollution made their manufacturing cost lower, but we as a society ended up paying for it. This is what is meant by “Free Lunch”. And, I’ll explain why DoGood is having a Free Lunch at the expense of many others in the cyberspace.

To see how DoGood’s business model impacts the Internet, let’s take it to the extreme, so that the cause and effect become more obvious. Let’s say that all Americans decided to install their plugin. What would happen? The advertisers would know that nobody is actually seeing their ads, so they would not bother advertising on the Web. This means that all advertising-driven websites will die. Nothing in life is black and white like this, but this example allows us to see what happens in-between, that is, all the different shades of gray. Suppose half of the Americans decided to install their plugin. What would happen then? The advertisers would then know that only half of their banners are actually being seen by the visitors (although the record on their ad servers will say the banners were all properly delivered). So, naturally, they will pay for only half of it, which means the value of impressions for all banners will be slashed by half. The publishers will lose half of their income. This is not inconceivable if DoGood’s technology becomes ubiquitous, but for now the impact is too small to quantify. Part of the reason why the effect is not detectable at the moment is because their technology fools the ad servers into thinking that their ads were properly delivered. But the advertisers will soon realize that their ads are not displaying. Again, just because the impact is tiny, does not mean that there is no harm. After all, a hundred years ago, who would have worried about global warming?

Your organization needs good content on the Web in order to place your ads to get people’s attention. Killing the content providers is not in your interest. Nobody will win. Actually, the only company that will benefit from this is DoGood who will pocket 50% of their profit. Furthermore, the type of people who would install DoGood’s plugin are environmentally and socially conscientious. This is a very specific demographic, and they share similar interests, values, and tastes. The vast majority of them would probably never visit websites with right-wing agendas, for instance. This means that these websites would have nothing to worry about. Their advertising revenues will be unaffected. Meanwhile those sites that attract these socially conscientious people will start dying. Wouldn’t this be ironic? By using DoGood’s service, you would be hurting your own team.

There are also moral and ethical issues. DoGood’s position is completely one-sided. They are so preoccupied with the rights of the website visitors that they entirely disregard the rights of the publishers, advertisers, and content creators. Our rights come with responsibilities. We can’t just claim our rights and disregard the rights of others. Just as the audience has a right to see, the publishers and the advertisers have a right to show. Content creators work hard to produce the contents we all enjoy. The least we can do is to let them have their ads. Fighting to get everything you can, without consideration for the other, would create a hostile environment where both sides would have to spend an enormous amount of energy in fighting each other. If DoGood is allowed to continue, the publishers will have to arm themselves to fight also. They will be forced to hire more programmers to counter DoGood’s scheme. It will be a battle between the programmers to circumvent one another. This is very much like how our county wastes billions of dollars of our tax money buying weapons. Peace, obviously, is the cheapest solution. The more hostile we make our cyberspace, the more expensive everything will be. And, the small websites who cannot afford to hire programmers to protect themselves will die first.

Disruptive technologies can be good sometimes. For instance, Craig’s List killed the lucrative classified business for publishers, but this is ultimately good because online listing is far more efficient and therefore cheaper. So, overall, it’s a plus for the whole society. On the other hand, DoGood’s net effect on our society will be negative. You might disagree because DoGood is donating 50% of their profit to philanthropic causes. Surely, those causes will benefit, you might argue. But let’s think about this too for a moment. Suppose I steal music by ripping CDs, making MP3s, and selling them on the street. I then take 50% of the profit and donate it to your organization. From your perspective, this is great. You will get a steady stream of donations from me. You will see me as a generous donor, and I’ll get showered with your respect. A win-win situation, it seems, doesn’t it? Again, this is what is meant by “Free Lunch”. The money you are receiving from me is actually not coming from me. It actually belongs to the musicians and their labels. It is actually stolen money. Suppose the musicians and the labels lost a total of $10,000 in sale because of what I did. If they had to lose that money anyway, wouldn’t it be more efficient if they donated that money directly to you? Instead, what happened is that I pocketed $5,000 and you got $5,000, and in the process, a lot of resources were wasted in production, wrapping, transportation, etc. (more “footprint”). But, in reality, it is unlikely that the musicians and the labels would have given you this money in the first place. However, does this give you the right to take it against their will?

This is what is happening when you receive donations from DoGood. DoGood does not produce any content. There are no writers, photographers, or artists working hard to produce contents that can be supported by ads. Yet they are selling ads. They are getting contents for free, just like I’m getting music for free in my example above. The money that you are receiving as a donation is actually coming from the advertisers who paid for their banners. If these advertisers had to lose this money, it would be far more efficient to give you the money directly. Again, you will get 100% of it because DoGood would not get their cut. But, again, in reality this would not happen, the advertisers are not likely to give you this money. Then again, does this give you the right to take it against their will?

Furthermore, please keep in mind that DoGood does not discriminate which ads they are replacing with their ads, which means even if the publishers are serving philanthropic banners, DoGood will replace them with your banners. Granted, the majority of banner ads are boring, annoying, and socially irrelevant. But there are some businesses that do great things. And, occasionally, there are banners paid for by non-profit organizations. If their banners are replaced by your banner, you are actually stealing their money, because they paid for that. You might even be stealing from the businesses that are already donating money to you. You might say those are a minority, but let’s think about this carefully. DoGood is making a sweeping generalization about the ads that the publishers are serving by calling them “generic”, and using it as an excuse to swap them with their “good” ads. This is nothing short of prejudice. It’s like saying let’s just assume that all Muslims are terrorists, and treat them accordingly. Besides, why should DoGood be in a position to decide what’s “generic” and what’s “good”? Do we all agree about what’s “good”?

Regardless of whose banner you are replacing, the fact that their banners are “generic” does not give you any right to take their money against their will. Everyone has his or her own right to do “good” or not do “good”. We all have different ways that we contribute to our society. You may not agree with how I do “good” things, or you may not support the organizations that I would support. You may even object to some of them. We all have our differences, but we try to respect one another and our differences.

I hope that I’ve explained this well enough for you to agree that DoGood is not what it appears to be. I had a long passionate debate with the founder of DoGood, Faisal Sethi. Many critical questions that I asked him, he could not answer. I asked him how he determined “generic” and “good” when they accept requests from websites to be exempted from their banner swapping. I asked why he should be in a position to make such a judgment. No answer. DoGood claims that their system would not affect the payment the websites receive from click-thru’s (which is the biggest source of their income). I asked him to provide proof to back up that claim, but he could not. And so on...

I’m quite sure that Faisal means well. I believe the problem is that he cannot see the ultimate consequences of his own idea. But I still have hope that he will do the right thing in the end. Unfortunately, I believe his idea has opened the door to others who are not as conscientious as he is to use the same scheme to profit. We already spend so much time, money and effort in fighting schemes like Spams and viruses. We don’t need yet another. So, I hope we can stop it before it gets out of control.

Thank you for reading this.

Dyske Suematsu