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Spam: the biggest danger to the freedom of the internet. This blog also includes SEO, viruses, trojans and Internet Explorer - things that degrade the web experience.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The dubious ethics of

The business practices of combine the two things that make my blood boil: spammers and recruiters.

Exposing the Email spam

Back in the Usenet days one of the newsgroups I lurked in was learning how spam was being combatted. This was when confirmed opt-in was an innovation (and a step too far for “honest bulk email marketers”). This was back in the day where the anonymous Spews managed to slow down the rapid rise in spam by disincentivising ISPs and webhosts from hosting these organisations

I remember being aghast when spam volume passed 50% of all email (today it’s well in the upper 90% range).

I watched how spammers try to defend their actions and heard every argument ranging from outright denial through to claiming bulk email is protected under freedom of speech.

The arguments spammers used to prove their methods were legitimate business practices include:

Cold calling recruiters

I am a web-developer with over 10 years of commercial experience ranging from a FTSE-100 listed Financial Giants, two (soon to be three) massive and (at times) most well respected technology companies on the planet. I’m very proud of my accomplishments and track record. I’m also proud of the fact that I’m not a job-hopper, when I commit my future to an organisation I take it seriously.

Unfortunately that means I’m a target for recruiters and head-hunters. And there’s absolutely nothing I can do to avoid that. I’m convinced that early on in my career a fellow employee gave the HR employee database to recruiters, because I suddenly started to get multiple calls a day from recruiters.

How do you stop that torrent? Damage done, they had my work number, my mobile phone number, even my own home phone number. And I could not opt-out of this constant intrusion in my life. Some days were intolerable. I had some real bastards phoning me over and over. They just would not stop.

At one point in Yahoo I had two particularly ugly moments with cold-caller recruiters (they’d both cajoled their way through reception claiming they were friends of mine). I was already under pressure and stressed to deliver to an upcoming deadline, and these calls pushed me over. I broke down. I was too close to a heart-attack, I worried myself sick.

I have no desk-phone at LOVEFiLM, by my request. And yet that still doesn’t keep the recruiters at bay. Three months ago I got called to reception because a delivery company was attempting to deliver a sensitive package to me at my work address (this was exceptionally odd because I never used the office address for anything). I had to confirm that I would be available for a time slot tomorrow, they gambled on 12:00 to 14:00 (again, very odd, and unlike any other delivery company), insisting that if I wasn’t available I had to name someone in my department to be available to sign for it in my absence. So I confimed I would be around at that time. And then they changed their mind and decided that the package could only be delivered next week. Ping, this didn’t add up. So I told them I wasn’t interested, and told them to give the package back to the sender, and hung up. In reflection, it was clear this was a recruiter fishing for information about the people I work with. Turns out this is a pretty common tactic.

I hate recruiters. They are intrusive, and I cannot stop them. I didn’t opt into their lists, and I have no way of opting out. I have no way out, and I have to deal with this scum intruding on my life on a daily basis.

Recruiters and head-hunters are all over LinkedIn, I get a steady stream of emails asking me to phone them, asking what’s the best way of reaching me (d’uh!), and I’m sure that’s the starting point of the package delivery farce detailed above. (It’s despicable that recruiters don’t pay for LinkedIn’s Recruiter services, but spam people through LinkedIn mails, and cajole well connected people to link up so that they can plunder their connections for keyword matches).

With recruiters I have adopted a firm rule, I reply respectfully to contacts from people who actually are employed by the hiring company, and name that company clearly on first contact. Every other recruiter, it varies by my mood, since they cold-contacted me that could be anything from ignoring you to full-out abusive language. I didn’t opt in to being harrassed by recruiters, and I have no way of opting out, so they deserve my scorn, my hatred, a piece of my mind, and my bile.

(I’ve also watched one superbly talented Python developer not be hired - despite being the top candidate - because the recruiter they used demanded 30% of their annual salary as their fee. Recruiters make talented people unhireable.)

The evidence against

So what is Crunchbase describe them as an online tool to hire developers. It is a directory of software developers where their resume is automatically generated based on their Open Source contributions.. Masterbranch describe themselves as a site for developers and employers who are looking for great developers.

Essentially it’s a fake job-site with fake profiles created from data from Github and Google code. These profiles are designed to attract employers (so recruiters and headhunters will not be far behind) with profiles of active developers. None of these developers have opted into having their profiles automatically generated and presented to others as if they were looking for employment.

Employers can peruse these profiles and then “get in touch” with these developers. That happened to me on Thursday. I received an email out-of-the-blue from (with a reply to address of with the subject of MOO Print Ltd has shown interest in your experience as a developer, with the message of:

We are writing to you because there is someone from MOO Print Ltd who has shown interest in what you do and would like to get in touch with you.

In Masterbranch we have already created a profile of yours based on your experience as a developer, you can also complete it with relevant information such as your job preferences or studies if you want. You just have to click here and confirm this is your CV.


The Masterbranch team

This message was sent by Masterbranch because an employer is interested in what you do. If you do not wish to receive this type of email from Masterbranch in the future, please click in the link below to unsubscribe.

(For the record, reacted promptly and efficiently to my complaint, and I’m very satisfied with the outcome, and I’m happy I can continue recommend them to others as a principled employer.)

Look at this email - a company no-one has heard of contacts me out-of-the-blue, name dropping a company I’ve greatly respected (and know at least one world-class engineer working there), with an invitation to flesh out “my profile” by confirming that what they have is my CV. So they have fraudulently represented me as someone looking for employment.

Then they also produce the classic spammer technique of an opt-out link.

A Google search shows essentially one page of results, a Crunchbase article (clearly a stub article, with zero links to actual coverage), and two results from itself, and nothing else of note. Clearly no-one has written about them independently. Ah, they have a twitter account.

Perusing their twitter feed I see something that makes me deeply uncomfortable. They deal with complaints from developers being opted in without their consent by just deleting the complainant’s profile. (They did that with me today because of my outburst on Twitter). In spam circles this is called list-washing, a despicable approach of if you don’t complain, you must therefore want to receive these.

The MasterBranch spam facts

So, the facts then:

Aggregated together, it is clear that are spammers.

And, since they are ever so helpful in categorising developers into groups of keywords, is a recruiter’s dream. None of the LinkedIn social-network restrictions. I really feel sorry for every developer who has a public project on GitHub written in Java - your nightmare of being harrassed by recruiters making up their monthly numbers at your expense are right around the corner.

I’m very disappointed by They come across as spammers. Back in the early days of email spam, Spammers disguised themselves as naive and constantly error-prone.

I can’t believe a startup today cannot see past it’s own ego and see the damage they are doing to their reputation by their activities. The practice of list-washing (removing just the profiles of people who complain) is unsatisfactory. The continued practice of displaying profiles suggesting in any way that these people are seeking employment is unethical, and potentially libelious.

My guess is that Masterbranch are a bunch of technical people with very little understanding or empathy about privacy and lack a sense of responsibility. They probably won’t understand why I’m outraged, even after they deleted my profile. They lack common sense and common decency that’s expected within a community of peers. And that means they come across as greasy spammers.

Getting out of the mire need to clean up their business pretty quickly. They need to do the following:

My continued vocal anger at MasterBranch

I will never use this service, it’s already seriously damaged as a business proposition, and it’s developer usefulness will plummet when the recruiters discover it. They are dead in the water because they live at the intersection of spammers and recruiters - the worst combination of neighbours. Spam is their business technique, recruiters are their key audience.

As long as they continue to listwash complaints instead of appropriately addressing the root of the problem (opting everyone in by default), I will continue to be vocal against their activities.

They are either spammers or clueless, but either way they’ve opted developers in to being harassed by recruiters, most likely against developer's wishes. They need to reverse their opt-out approach and instead adopt a proper confirmed opt-in (MailChimp is a great example of a successful bulk-email business using a confirmed opt-in - it builds trust with their mail recipients, and so brings in big names because of that trust and sensitivity).

Stay away from, especially if you want to be taken seriously by talented developers.

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