by Alison Bass

Q&A with John Barrows, Creator of Prudence Software, on Ethics

Feb 01, 20013 mins
IT Leadership

John Barrows is founder and president of Blue Wolf Network, an Internet software company in Portland, Ore. Two years ago, he created a software tool called Prudence, which let parents see where their children were surfing on the Web. But in the past 12 months, Barrows, a parent himself, has declined to upgrade Prudence for a rather unusual reason: ethical considerations.

CIO: I understand retail outlets are still selling Prudence, but you have chosen not to improve the package to make it competitive with similar tools. Why?

Barrows: I’ve lost interest in developing tools like Prudence because they are being used in ways I don’t like. There are companies that are installing software like this to spy on their own employees. There are parents who are using it to spy on their children and wives using it to spy on their husbands and vice versa. I never intended Prudence to be a tool for people to use to spy on each other. Maybe the FBI has a right to spy on people?maybe it doesn’t?but I don’t want to be part of it.

Why then did you develop Prudence in the first place?

At the time, there was a lot of debate about kids having easy access to pornography sites on the Web, and I wanted to do something about it. My idea was not to filter stuff, which is akin to censorship, but to allow a parent to see what their child was doing and to say to their children, “I have the ability to monitor you; here are the rules and if you don’t follow the rules, I have the ability to restrict your access to the Internet.” I thought parents would use it responsibly. But what I’m finding is that parents are spying on their kids and not telling them. And I totally disagree with that.

So if you’re not upgrading Prudence, will it become obsolete? And can your company afford that?

Yes to both questions. Prudence is losing in the competitive battle because there are other products out there that are more upgraded. And that’s fine with me. I’ve moved on to develop different business products. For instance, I’ve launched one Internet startup that is an e-commerce site that sells boating supplies online, and I am starting another software company whose product allows digital movies to be streamed into hotel rooms. It’s not like I’m running a multimillion-dollar business that depends on one software package. This is a small business, and because it’s my own, I can make decisions that tie in with my own personal ethics.