A certain forum site that shall remain nameless has just gone for-profit. They recently put ads on the site, and now they’ve incorporated – not as a non-profit, which would provide all the protections they claim are the reasons, and be more advantageous tax-wise besides, but as a for-profit entity. Besides explaining certain things, such as the administrator’s total obsession with search-engine rankings, this raises a couple of ethical questions:

  • The value of the site is in its content, which is provided by its users. So far, at least a score of those users have provided more of that value-creating content than have either of the site administrators (most of whose posts are official in nature and not very interesting) on the basis of contributing to a community. The terms of service explicitly deny any responsibility for that content, even though it’s policed carefully and any “safe haven” status would thus be highly questionable. Now the owners expect to have their cake and too, deriving profit from that very content for which they refuse to be held responsible.
  • The site’s owners have been soliciting contributions for some time now, supposedly to defray costs. I know which rate plan they’re on, at which hosting service, and I have personally contributed over half of that cost. I’m hardly the only contributor, and the staff are all volunteers. Unless the owners are spending many hundreds of dollars on search-engine consultants (a distinct possibility, even though that business is 100% snake oil) it’s hard to believe that costs aren’t already being covered. Now those contributions become part of the for-profit entity’s bottom line.

I have no problem with running a discussion forum as a for-profit enterprise, as long as it’s done honestly. Unfortunately, that has not been done. The users – including and perhaps most especially the staff – on the site have quite simply been used for commercial gain, with their contributions solicited under what many would consider false pretenses.