Online Gambling, Microsoft, and Feeling OK

From today’s newswire: MICROSOFT, GOOGLE AND YAHOO! PAY MILLIONS TO U.S. FOR THEIR PAST PROMOTION OF ILLEGAL GAMBLING.

I worked for the MSN Gaming Zone during the height of the online casino advertising boom (1999-2001). In either 1999 or 2000, I forget which, >50% of our revenue came from a few online casino conglomerates. It was my forceful introduction to the role online advertising can play in guiding “product” team decisions – we were running ads for now-defunct brands like 888.com on every page, we were ignoring advertising guidelines to allow them to run ads that looked like our pages or game controls, we were sourcing games which were good fits for casino advertising, we were building new advertising products (like pop-unders) for casino customers (and X10 cameras). While we were still trying to move the game products forward (this was when we brought Bejeweled), ad-driven development was paramount. My job was to shepherd game and ad products, so I spent my time dealing with this balance.

Our focus at the time was ruthlessly short-term – we didn’t spend the time (have the time?) to invest in similarly scalable revenue diversification (i.e. we had other partners in the advergaming space, but implementing them was much more expensive – until we did the first proof-of-concept Bejeweled skin, hacked up in my office with pictures of team members replacing the jewels, everything was a multi-month effort) and we never once thought about legality. I’m guessing we just thought that someone else was thinking about it (we were just one property in the MSN fold, after all, and while gambling sites were especially interested in our customers, we didn’t “own” the partner).

(This isn’t an indictment of the team, btw. It was clear that there were pressures above our station that were “encouraging” this behavior, and we were executing in an environment that was much more about showing financial progress than building long-term value. That seemed to change in future years.)

In the end, one reason I left this job (to work on backend gaming technologies) was that I felt very uncomfortable with the products that were paying our salary. I don’t have some agenda against gambling – I play the occasional game, as do my parents. But I was sure that combination of the flashy advertising that looked like our site, the egg-on pitches, and the sleazy methods some of these companies used to hook people would, no doubt, pull money out of the pockets of people who could least afford it. I respected the company’s right to allow people to choose to engage in gambling, but I didn’t need to be part of it. I also decided that if I ever worked for a company that supported itself through advertising (as I do today), I would need to be comfortable with the advertisers.

So now Microsoft needs to pay $21MM as recompense. The money is going to different places – missing and exploited children (I think it’s a large leap from online gambling, but it’s not like it’s a bad cause), PSA’s for online gaming, etc. – and I’m not sure I’m uncomfortable with the primary reason being a legal one, since the practical nature of online gaming legality was at best murky until 2006 – but it’s an interesting closure to those days.

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