really bad attitude.
© 1998 Jamie Zawinski <jwz@jwz.org>


The first three newsgroups created inside Netscape (then Mosaic Communications), when our news server went online the first time, were mcom.general, mcom.humour, and mcom.bad-attitude.

The Bad Attitude newsgroup was a continuation of a tradition started at SGI: it was an anything-goes forum for venting. It was a place to get things off your chest in as inappropriate and vitriolic a way as you felt like. It was for catharsis, and telling the truth without fear of reprisals.

That is, it was while the company was small enough to be composed primarily of Reasonable People.

As the company grew, it began to attract a different... caliber of people; for lack of a better term, let's call them ``losers.'' These pusillanimous latecomers entered our playground and raised all manner of ruckus. It started with the merely annoying specter of Politically Correctness, and its associated notion that it's better to say nothing than to say something that might accidentally offend someone somewhere. Then later things got worse: there were a number of incidents where people got reprimanded through official channels for things they had said on Bad Attitude.

And that, basically, was the end of that. Our playground had been spoiled, so I took my toys and went home: I created a private mailing list, ``really-bad-attitude,'' and invited the cool kids to join. After the first few days, as other requests to join came in, I instituted an entrance exam: you could be on RBA only if you first flamed so hard that bile flowed from your eye sockets. Before letting you on the list, I wanted to see some proof that you knew why we were here. Because before engaging in a battle of wits, one must ensure that one's opponent is armed. (This entrance exam policy had worked well back in the heyday of the now-defunct Unix-Haters mailing list, and it worked quite well for RBA as well.)

RBA lasted for more than two years, and clocked in at around 4000 messages. Then, disaster struck:

Subject: Bad / Really Bad Attitude
Date: Thu, 20 Aug 1998 10:11:12 -0700
From: kwalker@netscape.com (Kent Walker)
To: jwz, sclatter

Jamie / Sarah --

Microsoft has subpoenaed the contents of bad attitude and really bad attitude. I need to get a print-out of the contents of both asap (today would be good), preferably formated as individual messages so that we can produce one and not another. (I'm hoping that we've followed the document retention policy and deleted materials older than 90 days, but I fear we haven't.) Please call me with any questions. Many thanks.
-- Kent

How did the Evil Empire's lawyers find out about BA and RBA? Well, there was an article about them in issue 10 of Fast Company; and I think that they were also mentioned in Speeding the Net.

Sarah's first response, which really pretty much summed it up, was ``Omigod.'' A couple of hours later, as she began committing the four year history of the mcom.bad-attitude newsgroup to paper, she said:

Subject: Re: Bad / Really Bad Attitude
Date: Thu, 20 Aug 1998 11:42:04 -0700
From: Sarah Clatterbuck <sclatter@netscape.com>
To: jwz

I now have an HP LaserJet 5si sitting in my cube printing like there was no tomorrow. I just loaded the second ream of paper. The stack of pages already printed is about 4" high.

And I keep thinking to myself, Microsoft is going to pay some jackass lawyer $200 and hour to find out that we hate our cafeteria food, don't like the security posters, had a sucky newsfeed, and think ``Navigator'' was a cooler name than ``Communicator''.

And I smile.

I called the lawyer. I made my arguments. How the RBA mailing list was a private forum that I had set up to have scathingly unofficial conversations amongst my personal friends. How it had nothing to do with our jobs, and no impact on the decisions of the company (as no list members were managers.) How, if an archive did exist, it was on media that was my personal property, not the company's.

I pointed out that I had made a promise to these people at the beginning that the list would be kept completely private: nothing left the list. Nothing. I pointed out that because of this expectation of privacy, many people had said many things on this list in the heat of anger. Many people had said many things that, if they got back to their manager, could very well cost them their jobs.

He said, ``I understand. But I'm looking at a subpoena. If we don't turn it over, we will be in contempt of court.''

I asked if it would help if I were to resign. He told me that even if I had quit months ago, I would still be hearing from him today.

He told me that he would do his best to ensure that the material was kept confidential, and stayed in the hands of lawyers and out of the hands of managers. But that he couldn't make any promises. Which I interpret to mean, ``the world will be reading the Really Bad Attitude mailing list in C/NET any day now.''

The subpoena asked for, among other things,

All electronic mail messages -- including all such messages maintained on any employee's personal computer, any external storage medium, any mail server or mail backup server share, tape archive, hardcopy or otherwise -- sent or received by any present or former Netscape employee associated with an e-mail alias maintained by Jamie Zawinsky [sic] entitled "Bad Attitude" or "Really Bad Attitude."

The worst part of this isn't that my personal mail has been raided; that part doesn't bother me so much. What bothers me is that I'm being forced to break a promise. I'm being ordered by the courts to rat on my friends.

So of course I disbanded the mailing list (having been dealt a blow like this, there was no way it could recover anyway) and turned over all of the messages I could find to the Netscape legal staff. Suffice it to say that this really ruined my day.

I got a lot of messages from the peanut gallery to the effect of, ``well why didn't you just lie? They can't prove what you have saved.'' That may be, but what if they can? I don't know what kind of monitoring Netscape does of their network. I don't know that someone might not come knocking on my door and ask to see the contents of all of my backup tapes. That's a gamble that hardly seems worth it. I got equally silly messages like, ``if you had kept all of your email encrypted, this wouldn't be a problem.'' These people also miss the point. Sure, you can have a file that is strongly encrypted. And then an officer of the court will order you to type your pass-phrase to unlock it. And either you do so, or you go to jail.

``Be sure and thank everyone on the really-bad-attitude mailing list for this. It's really good for our company.''
-- Marc Andreessen, 31-Aug-1998.

In hindsight, complying with the company's Document Retention Policy (which at Netscape was basically, ``shred anything within 90 days unless you can't get your job done without it'') might have been a good idea. But in any event, I sure am glad that I keep my work mail and personal mail in separate folders. I'm going to increase that separation soon, and keep them on separate machines entirely. And I encourage you to do the same. Though it's not really clear how much good that will do; if you work for a company like Netscape, with powerful enemies and a powerful ``kick me'' sign on its back, saving anything at all, even your personal mail, could be ill-advised.

Is it even possible to work at a company and archive your email? We have this stupid Document Retention Policy for a reason, and it seems that that reason, like software patents, is too onerous to be withstood.

Perhaps its best to just never say anything that you wouldn't want published.


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