There are may things I hate. I hate seeing the vulnerable being exploited. I hate unprofessional behaviour, particularly that of people I work with or who are in the same profession as me, because they undermine the reputation of their peers (including me). I hate stupidity and the passive-aggressive determination of people to continue to be exploited (after they become aware of their circumstances) rather than take some action to liberate themselves.
The following contains examples of all of these circumstances. First, let me summarise the role of a web developer. The job requires you to design and build websites for clients based on their needs. It also requires you to purchase services on behalf of clients, such as domain name registration and website hosting. You also provide advice about coordinating the use of other online services, such as Mailchimp.
The FRA website homepage at 15 January 2015
Sometimes these services are purchased in the name of the client, so they can be billed directly to the client, and sometimes they are bought in the name of the developer, who then bills the client for the services along with additional fees for the administrative labour involved in purchasing them.
The developer keeps records of the relevant usernames and passwords. Ethical developers ensure that their clients are supplied with all these details as an administrative safeguard. If a developer was to be hit by a bus, their clients should not be locked out of their websites.
It’s also about ethics and transparency. If a client wishes to hire others to work for them on their online assets, that’s their choice. As a contractor a web developer does not have an exclusive right to a client’s business unless this has been explicitly contracted. However, many developers have no such ethics and it’s not in their interests to encourage clients to be informed and independent.
You’d be surprised by how often this simple arrangement goes wrong. Clients are useless at keeping records. Developers realise how ignorant and vulnerable clients are and take advantage of this. It can vary from subtle overcharging to deliberate deception and obfuscation, with clients being deliberately denied access to their own sites. Sometimes they don’t even see it happening.
The worst developers make their clients highly dependent on them and unable to take independent action in relation to their own sites. In some cases developers falsely claim intellectual property rights in the sites they have been paid to develop for clients although the intellectual property belongs to the client who commissioned it (unless contracted otherwise). It’s outrageous.
I consider myself community minded. I’m willing to volunteer my time to local issues that interest and concern me. For example, I have been attempting to volunteer with and assist the Fitzroy Residents’ Association (FRA) with their website and online communications since 2008. Unfortunately it hasn’t gone well.
The first attempt in 2008 went nowhere because they didn’t read their email and I could not get in touch with them (they didn’t publish a phone number at the time). I had forgotten all about this until I reread my post about it. My second attempt began in July 2010 (after I first saw their then new website in May 2010) and continued until February 2012 when I quit in exasperation at the incompetence of their then president and the unethical and unprofessional behaviour of their website developer.
After building a site for the FRA in 2010 using WordPress, the developer then kept administrative access to it to himself. Repeated clear requests for an Administrator level user account were refused. An Administrator account in WordPress allows the user to alter every aspect of the site, from content to design to the installation of plugins that add specific functionality.
The developer said he was providing an Administrator user account when he gave one with lesser rights that allowed the FRA to publish content but not alter the design, including the navigation, of the site. It was clear that he was refusing access to the design and functionality areas of the CMS. The FRA wanted to make changes and I wanted to help them, but we were unable to do anything due to this lack of access to the site.
The FRA failed to get an Administrator password from the developer in the entire 2010-2012 period that I was liaising with the president. I can tell when a cause is lost so I gave up and walked away in February 2012. Before you accuse me of being impatient, reconsider that this is a period of 20 months.
The site you see today is as it was designed in 2010. It’s not responsive. The graphic design is ugly and irrelevant to the identity of the organisation it supposedly represents. The information architecture is useless. It has only relatively recently had a plugin installed to deliver a responsive mobile version of the site but the functionality of this is poor.
It’s a mess in need of a new responsive theme, a new information architecture and navigation, and lots of training for its future content creators in how to structure and publish content (such as not posting .pdf and .doc files to the site when the content should be in posts). There is no evidence that the FRA has ever understood the basics of how the site works or how to use it to effectively communicate with the Fitzroy residents it claims to represent.
I’ve remained a subscriber to their email newsletters since then because I’m genuinely interested in local issues. It was from their email newsletter that I learned in late 2014 that the previous president (the one from the 2010-2012 period) had been ousted and a new committee was in charge. They were advertising for volunteers to help with the website, marketing and communications, and many other activities.
I thought I would try to help them for a third time. In December 2014 I attended their final monthly meeting for the year and volunteered my services. In a subsequent meeting with the new committee members I explained the history I’ve outlined above. I also advised them to be clear with the developer about their goals (namely that they required full control of the site and domain name, that they planned to move the hosting elsewhere and redevelop it, with his services no longer being required).
Weeks of ongoing discussion took place between myself and the committee, particularly the new president, about the website and broader ICT issues. I quickly built a test site in WordPress with a new responsive theme that met with their approval. I explained Gmail, Mailchimp and Dropbox. I discussed social media. I told them to stop publishing 3 different organisational email addresses in their email newsletters because it was confusing for their audience.
The current status of the FRA website is this. The developer is still holding the website and its domain name hostage. The FRA is currently paying the developer approximately $300pa for hosting services. This is probably more than what he is paying for his entire hosting package. This is unreasonable and exorbitant and they now know it.
The site is hosted in his hosting account. It’s apparently not a proper reseller account (which developers use because they contain separate packages containing individual client websites within a larger account). The FRA site is in his main account. Consequently the developer refuses to provide CPanel (administrative interface) access to the account because this would then provide access to the other sites there.
The developer is charging the FRA $40pa for domain name registration. The actual cost is $11pa. The rest is his outrageous profit margin and they now know this too. Again, the domain name is registered in the developer’s main account, meaning that administrative access to it as a separate entity cannot be provided.
If you run a whois search on the domain you will see the name of the previous president as the admin contact and the web developer as the technical contact (details correct at the time of publication). The FRA wants to update these contact details but is being refused access by the developer.
The developer continues to refuse to give the FRA an administrator user account for their site. He has been clearly and explicitly asked to do this and what he has provided is only a lesser level of access (which is exactly what he did years ago). I’ve logged into the site using this account and have verified that it is not an administrator account. There can be no denying his actions or his intentions. He has deliberately refused to grant the FRA access to their own property.
Charging exorbitant fees for hosting and domain name registration services is one of the negative behaviours web developers engage in to make a profit. These costs used to be significant but have declined in recent years, though the saving have often not been passed on to clients. When you combine overcharging with holding a client’s property hostage you have a specific circumstance: extortion. The implied threat is ‘pay up or your site will be deleted’.
The FRA is being treated very badly by this developer. His behaviour is unconscionable. He appears to have kidnapped their property to extract a high ransom. He’s been doing it for years and getting away with it. I believe the only way to stop this is to confront him and, if necessary, take action against him, such as through Consumer Affairs Victoria. The FRA could seek advice from the Fitzroy Legal Service.
The incompetence and negligence of the previous president has put the new president in a difficult position. Unfortunately the new president seems unwilling to acknowledge the reality of the situation and doesn’t want to confront the developer. He’d rather publish a new site and abandon the 4 years of existing content (mostly terrible, but it has some historical and SEO value). But he can’t do that without control of the domain name. The FRA may have to register a new one, a scenario that was an SEO disaster for the Smith St traders association in recent years.
I’ve just quit volunteering for the FRA, again. Maybe I will try once more c2019, but I doubt it. I don’t think I have any patience left. Some people and organisations, particularly volunteer not-for-profit community groups, are just too flaky. I’ve learned when to concede defeat (it’s when the client / hostage displays overt signs of Stockholm syndrome and starts defending the developer / captor). Once they’re at that point they’re beyond help…