Your Everyday Porn Site Developer: The Shady Side of the Start-up Nation

Can Israeli high-tech companies that support pornography and gambling call themselves moral?

In the eyes of many people, those of us in technology evoke an image which is basically correct: of pale engineers huddled over desks for long hours in elegant offices, discussing “algorithms for video compression” or “improving query performance on terabyte-sized databases,” amid intensive preoccupation with the lunch menu and exchanges of dumb jokes in techno-gibberish jargon. This hyperactivity is translated into products whose nature few understand, since Israel is known primarily for deep infrastructure technologies. But these products are conventionally assumed to be of value, if only because so much money flows into the industry, and from it into broader circles of the local economy.

In recent years, “you guys in high tech” − as we are called − have also benefited from a rise in prestige of geekiness, which in our childhood was an object of ridicule and a good reason for being beaten up.

If the founders of Google and Facebook became globally admired figures, a melancholy engineer from Netanya enjoys the crumbs of that glory, even as he grits his teeth in front of a screen late at night.

This collective, positive approach overlooks a few concerns. A major one is the nonparticipation of large segments of Israeli society in this field, which provides a handsome living and an opportunity for upward social mobility. Arabs, the ultra-Orthodox and the elderly are almost completely absent in high-tech companies, and the proportion of women in them is significantly lower than their proportion in the population.

However, there is one major concern that is hidden even more deeply: Growing portions of the Israeli tech industry are engaged in morally dubious fields. Israel is famed for technological innovations, but we have also become a center of outsourcing for some that are based on brazenness, feigned innocence and flawed ethics. Of course, these elements exist abundantly in all areas of life here, but in high tech they seem to assume a particularly grotesque form which merits a separate discussion.

In a porno-technology palace in Tel Aviv’s upscale Ramat Hahayal neighborhood, geeks speak exactly the same jargon. The sofas in their office are appealingly soft, and a stranger will not distinguish between their technological jests and lunch-menu deliberations, and those of their colleagues on an adjacent floor whose expertise does not promote violence and exploitation. It’s hard to believe that they don’t know that their occupation involves and encourages violence and is based on shameful exploitation, largely of women, by criminal elements.

Porno consumers often salve their conscience with a mendacious fantasy about a cheerful coed who takes great pleasure in selling her body, and uses the proceeds to finance her affluent lifestyle. The truth, of course, is very different, and its face is the sad face of victims directly reflected on the engineers’ screens, even as they are busy fixing software bugs. How many times a day do they stop to think about it? What brings a person who is not hungry for bread to choose a place of work like this, in an industry that offers a diverse range of jobs and is crying out for engineers?

One interesting answer lies in the all-embracing aura of high tech, which works wonders when it comes to making moral dilemmas go away. The instant a computer and dry technical terms are involved, the purpose seems to lose all importance: A software developer in a company like this − who would never conceive of working in a brothel, for example, or in a porn video store − is in “high tech,” and that’s that. This blurring is abetted by the fact that most of the public treats high tech as being of one piece, not completely understood but basically positive.

The “mom and pop test” is recommended here: In other words, whether it is easy to imagine a mother proudly telling a friend, “You know my Nadavi − how from the time he was this little he used to fix everyone’s computer? Well, now he’s creating websites where you can sexually exploit hardscrabble women from Eastern Europe. Let me tell you, my heart is bursting with pride!”

‘Download Valley’

Those who wander the path of the questionable ethics of local high tech will also encounter a few large online gambling empires. In the offices of one of them, in Herzliya Pituah, for example, he will be impressed both by the ostentatiousness and also by the seriousness with which the engineers discuss various technical issues relating to the best ways to suck money out of poor folks and addicts. The forex sites ‏(dealing with online trade in foreign currency‏) are a very similar Israeli field of expertise. In the absence of regulation, low-income and ill-informed surfers are offered effortless, quick profits − and end up losing all their money.

Farther along the trail are the software download firms, thanks to which Israel has been dubbed “Download Valley.” These companies − which usually get sympathetic media coverage owing to their significant revenues and the unclear nature of their work − specialize in attracting surfers to install software for some innocent purpose, thus allowing the company to secretly collect information about the user which it then sells to advertisers, or to divert his Web searches to a particular search engine in return for a commission.

The Jewish brain goes into action here in inventing sophisticated ways to camouflage the real purpose of the software, not to mention the stupendous difficulties faced by anyone who tries to remove it. “You remember Michali, who always got 100 in every exam and then studied computers in the army? Well, she has invented this genius thing: When the user tries to remove the program, the button jumps to the side and gives this demonic laugh and you can’t click on it!”

Of course, these examples are very different, and yet people may question the moral flaws in some of these occupations. Everyone has the right to consider and decide that his occupation is a worthy one. Culturally, the interesting and sad discourse revolves around the laundering and the denial mechanisms that employees resort to in order to mitigate their feeling of unease.

The first claim that’s put forward is always the triumphant “It’s legal!” − as though all that is legal is necessarily also moral and the question of what’s right for a person to do with her life is in the hands of her legal counsel. This recourse to the legal realm is, of course, familiar to us from public life here. Why should we complain about a porno engineer in a faded tracksuit if a prime minister who apparently received envelopes stuffed with money, and a senior official who resigned as part of a plea bargain following a sexual harassment episode both take pride in their morality?

It’s legal if the girl is over the age of 18, it’s legal in countries where it is not prohibited, it’s legal in the exotic country in which the company is incorporated, and it’s legal because the user clicked “I agree,” and the fine print below the agreement says that we are allowed to. The number of words you need in order to justify the legality of your occupation is a close approximation of the recommended minimal number of meters to keep between you and that occupation.

The legal structure of many of these companies separates their businesses registered in Andorra, Cyprus, Gibraltar or Bermuda from the Israeli company, which is seemingly involved only in technology development. I have often seen personnel creating in their mind a mirror image of this artificial legal structure for purposes of self-persuasion.

As though a few guys moved by chance to Gibraltar thanks to the comfortable climate and the vibrant Jewish community there, and felt an urge to use our product for whatever.

In addition, “language laundering” works overtime to disguise the true nature of the technology. A perusal of the websites of who-needs-ethics companies turns up a platform for entertainment applications, skill-based online games, sophisticated investment tools and technology to tighten engagement with users. The shame lurks where language laundering exists. Indeed, a useful test for the accidental tourist or job seeker is to try to compare the way the company describes itself with its true occupation.

Another routine argument is: “There’s a lot of money in it.” Indeed, these highly profitable firms pay high salaries and invest in employee welfare. Some additional funds flow into Israel in the form of tax payments and contracts with various service providers. However, this argument is logically no less peculiar than the legalistic one. It’s hard to believe that these people really want to say that profitability equals morality. If so, many other opportunities are available to them in the thriving world of the modern slave trade, along with various other criminal activities.

The worship of wealth is probably also not an adequate explanation; after all, those who are engaged in the exploitation of women by nontechnological means do not enjoy great prestige despite their riches. Apparently, the juxtaposition of high tech and money, which in people’s imagination is linked to pictures of iconic exits in which engineers toast one another with champagne, creates such a powerful effect that many consider it a reasonable equation.

Finally, there is the constructive argument. It has often been claimed that involvement in these sleazy areas, particularly porno and gambling, has given rise in Israel to technical expertise in online services that has been utilized to create new companies located high on the ethical scale, such as non-rapacious Internet advertising and video apps that do not involve exploitation of women. If such a transmission of knowledge actually occurred, it represents justification in retrospect and justifies nothing. Moreover, it gives ridiculous credit to the tycoons of flexible morality, who supposedly “sacrificed themselves” and made a fortune while their thinking was focused on the technological education of the coming generations.

Of course, the majority of Israeli high tech still operates for worthy goals, whether to improve the efficiency of business processes, increase accessibility to information, create new modes of interpersonal communication or ensure information security. I believe that the innovativeness and technological excellence here will continue to maintain a thriving industry. Still, it is worthwhile examining with a critical eye exactly what “the guy in high tech” whom we admire is actually doing. And the job seekers among us will do well to give some thought to what the fruit of their great labor serves.

Shahar Kaminitz is a software entrepreneur and CEO of WorkLight.
 

Marina Zlochin