Some Explanations and Rationalizations

As for Myself

Sometime in or around 1995 I wrote a set of instructions for blocking MSIE from a website. It helps to appreciate this in context -- Microsoft had belatedly realized the web existed, and were exerting their considerable energies to extend their monpoly to include it. They were openly employing a lot of very dirty tricks, and openly encouraging platform incompatibility while just as openly exploiting their monopoly position on the desktop to secure a monopoly position in the browser market. At the time it was very straightforward and simple to judge MS as an evil monopoly which deserved no sympathy. So I worked out a way to retaliate by abusing the same users that MS themselves was abusing in their effort to dominate the Internet. I put it on my homepage and dumped the instructions for doing so into another. Aside from occasionally dumping in a new method when someone emailed me one, I've scarcely thought about it since then.

However, it's gotten a lot of traffic -- sometimes hundreds of hits a day when it would be sent to a mailing list somewhere, or more recently mentioned in someone's blog. And for a year or more during the bubble, it was the #2 result in a Yahoo search for "Internet Explorer."

It tends to attract roughly two reactions -- knee-jerk flames from IE users who have been inconvenienced or feel personally slighted, and more enlightened criticism from people who feel the web should be accessible to everyone without regard for what software they use.

I have a lot of sympathy for the latter position. I write free software. I work on Debian. I agitate in my career for open standards and avoidance of single-source and nonreproducible technical solutions. I'd have no real sympathy for anyone who used the techniques I documented to inhibit access to content that matters, even to those who use MSIE by choice (and as is often pointed out, some people don't have a choice.)

However, personal homepages are a sort of peculiarity. For one thing, most of them, including mine, have no content that's worth reading. I only applied it to the root page of the site -- the rest, which includes some potentially useful or actually interesting material, have never had the IE block applied. I left a clickthrough at the bottom that would let MSIE users through to the rest of the site once I'd harassed them a bit with my opinions. So for the most part, no one was harmed -- most of the people who saw it at all were just checking to see if the domain was taken. Also, most personal pages are essentially opinion pieces, not informational resources -- and I was providing an opinion, in a way that made much more of an impression than any "best viewed with any browser" logo would have. For anyone not totally repelled by that opinion, I left a link at the bottom to proceed on to the real homepage to find some even less interesting ones.

I have no real sympathy for the lowest common denominator. I'm not a mass market commodity. Most of the stuff I have to say isn't going to be of any interest to the novice computer user who doesn't understand how to install a browser or why they might want to -- and the rest is usually accessed via search engine referrals anyway. Which leaves me with a very small uncomplicated stage from which to issue unexpected opinions to unsuspecting passers-by.

It was also a chance to make a statement about platform compatibility in a way that momentarily makes people feel a bit of the same feelings that monopolies and software monocultures impose on the comparatively few that don't play along. Most MSIE users never encountered a site that tossed them out at the front door saying "we don't support your browser" -- but there were enough of them around to irritate those who preferred other options (like the homepages that block IE, they had little worth viewing; unlike IE, they often had one specific thing that one needed -- a government tax site, a payroll company, etc.) It's a bit like a demonstrative experiment in discrimination undertaken by a schoolteacher in 1968 -- discussed in the book A Class Divided, and in a PBS documentary of the same name.

Sometime around 2002 I gave up and turned the blocking off completely. Microsoft had been convicted of illegal monopoly tactics in a federal court, and anyone who cared knew about their behavior. They'd also failed to take control of the web, thanks in substantial part to the devoted and unexpectedly good timing of the Linux community and the efforts of the Apache Software Foundation, plus the foundation already laid by the GNU Project. MSIE came to dominate the browser market, but MS had failed to close off accessibility to non-MS browsers; never since 1995 has any significant portion of the web been rendered unavailable to users of non-MS browsers or on non-MS operating systems. A lot more immediately from my standpoint, the PHP code I was using to implement the blocking was in an old and crufty section of the site and it was more trouble than it was worth to keep working (mainly because the bit that allowed MSIE users to click through to the homepage kept breaking as the PHP API evolved.)

As for Everyone Else

Most of the (very few) people I know that have used the blocking techniques I documented are doing so in much the same way I did -- emitting little frustrated squeaks of outrage on personal pages. No one ever to my knowledge applied the trick to any site that mattered in any substantial way. A few anti-MS advocacy sites linked to it. As a piece of propaganda, the instructions themselves were far more effective (and reached a much larger audience) than the actual sites using the technique -- indeed, that's probably how you reached this page.

Every week or so someone links to the IE blocking instructions from a discussion forum someplace. Reactions vary -- usually there's some derisive commentary, often a brief argument over browser choice. About half the time someone (often the initial poster) announces "I'm going to do this to my site." Now and then a person or two downloads a competing browser. A few staunchly unenlightened types announce "I'm sticking with MSIE because it's what my customers use." And there's a little discussion, and the phrase "open standards" gets mentioned a few times. Then it peters out. And that's about what one can hope for from a minor guerilla opinion piece -- that for a few minutes you made people think about something.