July 29, 2008 | By Fred von Lohmann

In Memoriam: Ed Foster, 1949-2008

Ed Foster, the journalist and consumer advocate behind InfoWorld's GripeLine column and GripeLog blog, died of a heart attack this weekend. He was 59.

It's no exaggeration to say that Ed was one of the preeminent consumer rights activists of the digital age. During his more than 20 years as a "reader advocate" at InfoWorld, he was far ahead of his time, recognizing that in a world increasingly dominated by software and online services, the digital consumer needed a champion when squaring off against the likes of Microsoft, Adobe or AutoDesk. Following in the traditions of the best consumer reporters before him, Ed exposed software vendors and online service providers that treated their customers shabbily.

But it was in his tireless work against "sneakwraps" -- those "end user license agreements" (EULAs) and "terms of service" (TOS) that require our "agreement" -- that Ed was without peer. You may not be reading all those "agreements" before you click thru, but Ed was. He recognized earlier than most that sneakwraps were going to be the digital consumer's worst nemesis, the mechanism that stripped consumers of the legal protections they enjoy when buying a book, a chair, or an automobile. Long before most consumer groups were thinking about sneakwraps, Ed was covering and participating in efforts to block UCITA, a package of state laws pushed by large software vendors that would have stripped consumers of valuable protections under contract law (UCITA was ultimately adopted by only two states, VA and MD, and has since been abandoned). Ed also contributed his insights on DRM, product activation, and reverse engineering to groups like AFFECT (Americans For Fair Electronic Tranactions) and EFF, making sure we knew what consumers were dealing with in the trenches.

Ed will be sorely missed, both professionally and personally, by all who benefited from his wisdom. Here are a few of my personal favorites from among his remarkable output of columns and posts:

Embroidering on a Copyright Shakedown Theme -- casting the spotlight on the "Embroidery Software Protection Coalition" (ESPC) after it sent settlement demand letters to grandmothers who bought embroidery software on eBay. Based on Ed's tip, EFF stepped in to protect the interests of innocent purchasers.

Sneakwrap Files: McAfee Automatic Renewals -- a consumer advocate's classic, wherein Ed confronts McAfee over the "automatic renewal" provision buried in the fine print of their EULA. McAfee backs down and coughs up a refund.

The Lexmark Car -- an April Fool's post explaining what the world would be like if a car manufacturer tried to get away with the kinds of shenanigans practiced by Lexmark in connection with their laser toner cartridges.

Into the DMCA Groove -- in 2003, an eBay seller gets into hot water after trying to auction a promo CD given away at The Gap. Ed cries foul, predicting 5 years in advance the exact outcome of EFF's UMG v. Augusto case, where a court found that "promo use only" labels can't trump the first sale doctrine.


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