Censorship: A Reviewer’s Guide

Network Associates has worked hard to earn a reputation for protecting data from those who could manipulate it for their own ends. We just never knew how hard.

The security software specialist found itself in legal hot water recently when it was pulled into court by the New York state attorney

general’s office. At issue is a clause in the company’s download documentation for subsidiary McAfee’s products which prohibits customers from publishing reviews or benchmark test results without Network Associates’ consent. The State of New York calls this censorship and an attack on the First Amendment.

Spokespeople for Network Associates have reportedly said the clause is intended to make sure reviewers are using the most current versions of its products. Though it has since watered down the clause to a request rather than a demand, it defends itself with the argument that as a software developer, it is within its rights to dictate customers’ rights of use. According to a U.S. media report, Network Associates is concerned that reviewers will compare an old version of its product with a current version of its competitors’.

It’s hard to gauge how strictly the so-called censorship clause is enforced, but the New York case may bring more unfavourable attention on McAfee and Network Associates than any product review. The U.S. consumer technology magazine PC Week, for example, evaluated McAfee Virus Scan 6.0 late last year. The reviewer liked it, and gave it a four out of five possible points. However, PC Week also offers an online mechanism for readers to post their own personal ratings, complete with detailed comments about their experiences.

Though there are a few raves, many of PC Week’s readers were sharing horror stories. One said the product deleted all their Outlook Express mail, including archived materials, without warning and without any infection. Another said it corrupted the “”.dbx”” Outlook Express files in Windows 2000 Pro. Still others said it caused severe problems with the graphics and trashed the autoexec.bat without cleaning them after un-install. The overall member rating? One and a half points out of five.

It seems unlikely that PC Week’s readers would have allowed Network Associates to vet their reviews before they submitted them to the magazine — several said they had a hard time getting a hold of the company at all. It’s even less likely that PC Week would check with Network Associates before posting them. On the other hand, the State of New York mentions at least one case where Network Associates allegedly used the clause in its user agreement to ask a U.S. technology publication to retract a negative review of McAfee’s Gauntlet firewall software.

It’s possible that the American law allows software companies to make customers comply with anything they like in a user agreement, but it is not in Network Associates’ best interests to fight this fight. This kind of behaviour might be expected from a small technology firm that didn’t understand the dynamics of publishing and benchmarking, but not a major player.

No reputable news organization would agree to let a vendor approve a product review (including this one). Vendors put pressure on the media that cover them, but we must be free of coercion if we are to maintain our credibility with readers. Network Associates says it only wants to make sure its customers have the “”best information”” before they make a purchasing decision, but anyone who saw a review with an old version of VirusScan comparing it with a newer version of Norton Utilities would probably do more research. As the ratings on PC Week’s site demonstrate, users base their buying patterns on past experience, not review material alone.

It must be frustrating for a company that makes its living keeping data under lock and key to lose control over its reputation to so many potentially misguided minds. But that’s the risk artists, film studios, book publishers and other technology companies make every day. One way or another, word gets out. You can’t throw down a Gauntlet without expecting someone to pick it up.

sschick@plesman.com

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