Our response to the Digsby controversy + new Terms of Use, affiliate auditing

This past week saw a great deal controversy around our service, mostly as a result of this Lifehacker post.

Specifically, Lifehacker and a few other publications expressed anger and frustration at the fact that Digsby, one of our affiliates, uses Plura to leverage users’ latent CPU cycles and power computing nodes whose processing power we subsequently resell to companies such as 80legs.

In particular, there was a lot of back-and-forth around whether Digsby went far enough in disclosing this practice to users.  Last December Digsby explained in a lengthy blog post the different business models they were pursuing, and discussed the grid computing approach and Plura in detail.

The module turns on after your computer has been completely idle for 5 minutes (no mouse or keyboard movement).  It then turns off the instant you move your mouse or the press a key on the keyboard.  We did this so it would have absolutely no effect on your computer’s performance and only uses processing power while your computer is not being used.  It also runs as a “low priority” process so if any application on your computer asks for CPU power it will always get it before the research module gets it.  On laptops, it will use a much smaller portion of your CPUs overall processing power than it will on desktops.  It will also never turn on if your laptop is running on battery power.

So what exactly does it do?  It downloads a very small chunk of data and runs it through a mathematical algorithm to get an end result.  It then reports the result back and gets another chunk of data.  The process repeats on thousands of computers until the computation problem is solved.  The data it gets is kept in RAM while it is being processed so the module does not access your hard drive at any point.  It does not store any data on your computer and it does not access anything at all that identifies you personally.

The post also explained how users could opt-out of the research module (i.e Plura).

But what became clear, however, was that

  • Users never chose to opt-in (the research module was opt-out only, and this option was not surfaced prominently).
  • The blog was the only place where this practice was explicitly discussed, which meant that it slowly faded from memory and over time was less and less likely to be dug up by new users.
  • Disgruntled users weren’t engaged directly, leading to further unrest.

We at Plura insist on proactive and transparent communication with users on the part of every affiliate.  In fact, disclosure requirements are written into our own Terms of Use.  Respected grid computing projects like SETI@Home or Folding@Home have succeeded because their users understood the benefit of the project and willingly gave access to their latent CPU cycles.  Plura is no different.

We understand that few individuals actually read the terms for applications they install or employ on the Web.  We also understand that our business depends on our ability to leverage existing compute capacity via our affiliates and their users, and that any such arrangement must be consciously and explicitly approved if we are to succeed in the long-term.  We take this stuff very seriously, and we have taken it seriously since the very beginning.

Digsby has already made (and continues to make) several important changes to their product as a result, including but not limited to a new installer that addresses Lifehacker and others’ concerns.  We think that Digsby makes a great product, they have been a great partner for us, and we stand behind their efforts to allay users’ concerns and make their use of Plura more evident.  We hope that Digsby’s user base continues to grow, and that this controversy ultimately leads to a better product and a stronger community.

To that end, we are likewise making two important changes.  First, we are amending our own Terms of Use to include more strict and limiting language, requiring a greater degree of disclosure by our affiliates.  The bolded part below represents the new language; the non-bolded part represents the language that we had been previously using. We have added an additional sentence designed to be much mores specific about what does and does not count as full disclosure.

Affiliate agrees to fully disclose the effect of this Agreement to Users, to obtain Users consent for Plura to utilize their excess computer resources, and to protect their privacy as more fully described herein.  By “fully disclose”, Plura means that the Affiliate must make its use of Plura Code visibly apparent to the Affiliate’s Users upon each User’s first interaction with the Affiliate’s products or services.

Additionally, we are instituting a new auditing process to ensure that our Terms of Use are being met.  We pay our affiliates every month based on the number of cycles that they send our way, and each month, every affiliate who receives a check of $50 or more from Plura will be audited for compliance by a member of our team before being paid.  If the Terms of Use are not met, the affiliate agreement will be voided and the relationship will be ended.

One of the completely surprising things about this controversy has been that inquiries and affiliate signups have actually increased significantly as a result, which tells us that our service is fundamentally interesting to companies exploring new business models.  Furthermore, the added burden of disclosure does not seem to have scared anyone off.

We firmly believe with the proper disclosures are in place, we can continue to drive innovation across a wide range of projects that require supercomputer-grade capabilities, in concert with our affiliates and their users.

Thanks for reading this post, and please chime in below with your comments and opinions.  We’re committed to growing Plura’s capabilities, and we know that our success hinges on a trusting relationship between our affiliates and their users.  We want to be a part of the solution and the conversation, and we’re willing to go above and beyond in every way to make Plura a viable service with a strong reputation for honesty and transparency.


24 Responses to “Our response to the Digsby controversy + new Terms of Use, affiliate auditing”

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  2. 2 Laurence November 26, 2010 at 11:50 am

    I just downloaded iGoogle and was searching through their apps. without selecting any of them. When my computer, which has a firewall, questioned me if I would allow a Java App. – Plura access to run on my computer. Without my firewall to block it and my attention to detail in questioning the source of the attempt to use my computer without my permission, I would have inadvertently allowed your program to run, as it looked like another upgrade to Java. I do not appreciate your business attempt to access my computer without my permission. I have read where you go out of your way to be up front with the owners of computers as to your use of them. Yet you are not up front or clear with anyone. You rely on the owners to find and read lengthy policy/legal statements in order to find out who and what is being given permission to access their computers.

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  1. 1 More about our affiliates and customers « Plura Processing Trackback on August 26, 2009 at 1:37 pm
  2. 2 How Plura actually works, in layman’s terms « Plura Processing Trackback on August 28, 2009 at 3:25 pm
  3. 3 In support of Plura and Digsby « The 80legs Blog Trackback on September 18, 2009 at 8:30 am
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