Profession: Profession is a term that can only correctly be applied to certain learned or chartered callings: the law, medicine, the civil service, teaching, accountancy for example. Other callings, such as journalism, are trades. – Telegraph style guide
I ruffled a few feathers (who me?) when I said that there is no such thing as the web profession, and by extension, there is no such thing as the web professional.
I meant it literally.
Web design and development are trades which are open to anyone. There are no formal qualifications required, no fixed curriculum, and no accreditation processes. These low barriers to entry mean that the web industry remains loose, flexible, and unorganised.
That lack of organisation is also our industry’s greatest flaw. At a time of potentially catastrophic regulatory change, our industry is completely absent from the political processes which govern our trade. Nor are we speaking up as an industry to defend colleagues at risk of deportation after decades of legal residence.
There is another consequence of our stubborn refusal to organise as a profession.
For some, the web industry’s lack of professional organisation is an opportunity ripe for exploitation.
As I have noted in the past, anyone can buy a domain, set up a web site, use mildly controlling language, and claim – through that web presence alone – to possess some kind of authority over the web industry. At best, these web sites are harmless moneyspinners. At worst, these web sites can stray on the wrong side of the law.
We now have evidence of a faux industry body that hasn’t just strayed on the wrong side of the law, but has barreled through it with a juggernaut.
IWDRO: fake industry body, fake claims, fake clients
Today Darren at the Smallbizgeek blog has published the results of an investigation he has conducted for several months into a for-profit business soliciting web designers and developers into membership of a lead generation scheme. There is strong evidence that many of the “leads” are in fact what jobseekers know as ‘fishing vacancies’: fake opportunities posted to the site to get people registered. As you will see, the dozens of members he spoke with – some of whom were all but harassed into joining the scheme – have gained nothing from their membership dues other than the cynicism borne of a lesson learnt.
Where this got interesting from the legal perspective is that the business running the scheme has been openly claiming to be the official industry regulator of the web design and development professions within the UK.
This was not said as a slip of the tongue in a sales pitch. This was their core marketing strategy.
But don’t take it from me. Take it from Patrician In A Suit.
This video was on YouTube. They pulled it on 18 November after Darren’s blog post went live. I knew they were going to pull it, so I downloaded and saved it in advance. Here it is.
(Technically, downloading a YouTube video is not legal, if the pot would like to accuse me of making tea with my black kettle.)
(That’s the very model of industry diversity saying “Welcome to the Internet Web Site and Development Regulatory Office. The IWDRO is THE regulatory office governing internet based commerce and associated industry services.” [As we say in Glasgow, are you f**k.] “The IWDRO work with companies and consumers in a regulatory capacity to provide accreditation for those companies who meet standards within the industry and are committed to working toward a code of conduct that ensures good and ethical practices.” [No you don’t.] )
Who is this guy? He’s not connected to the company. I know this because, bizarrely, I happened to spot him in an advert for Haribo. It’s an actor.
Outside the lead generation scheme, this for-profit business does not carry out any of the activities you would associate with a regulator, such as accreditation and recertification. (What sort of accreditation could they possibly do? Validate your code?)
Their organisational values page, which claims “we operate in a transparent and consistent manner with professionalism as a priority” and “we make certain that all internal and external communications are accountable, consistent, timely and transparent”, is playground guff, not a statement of legally binding regulatory obligations.
They do have a membership Code of Conduct which, considering their own behavior, reads as a bit of a piss-take.
Another difference between this outfit and a legitimate regulator is that the business does not act as an advocate, as legitimate industry bodies do, within the legislative and political spheres. Unlike these groups, they are not travelling around the UK soliciting members’ input on digital and Brexit to feed up to Parliament and the Department for Exiting the EU. In a year of political upheaval for the digital industries, their social media accounts remain entirely self-promotional.
What is remarkable is that this faux industry body has been exposed before. This post is the second search engine result for them. If that post is to be believed, this business is being run by an individual or individuals using multiple false identities. Yet rather than taking the hint, as is clear from the comments there and in Darren’s research, they have actually escalated. So much for operating in a transparent manner with professionalism as a priority.
There can be no other conclusion. Whatever this company’s true motivations are, they are using the term “regulator” to frighten aspiring digital workers into handing over their money.
It is as crass and shameful as that.
Who are these people?
So just who is behind the “UK’s only official regulator”? Is there anything in their personal or professional backgrounds which qualify them for a position of such weighty responsibility? What skills and values to they bring to the table? What inspired them to claim a position of authority over thee and me?
To answer these questions – due diligence, if you will – let’s take a look at IWDRO’s publicly available company records. What you’ll find will, as with everything connected to this shady operation, raise more questions than answers.
According to IWDRO’s Companies House filings, IWDRO is a private company limited by shares. There are 100 shares. 10 are held by Director One, and 90 shares are held by Director Two.
The company is registered under Standard Industrial Classification Code 84130, “regulation of and contribution to more efficient operation of businesses”, which certainly appears to be a corner of this woefully outdated taxonomy system which is ripe for abuse.
Looking again at the Companies House filings, we learn the company is a three man band: one Director (one), one Commercial Lawyer (two), and one Solicitor (three).
Director One: Simon/Chris/Chris/Chris
Olly has covered the identity of Director One in detail, including the suspicious crossover in ownership with a web design agency. (A cynic might suggest that the “lead generation” scheme’s main beneficiary is in fact the web design business he owns.) A comment on that post from someone approached by IWDRO, who then did some digging, says they discovered four different LinkedIn profiles using the same photo. These names have cropped up before in discussions about this organisation.
So right off the bat we have questions and problems that go way beyond professional qualifications for leadership. We don’t even know if we are dealing with one individual, two, three, four, or one individual and three sock puppets.
It gets worse.
Meet our other two “regulators”.
Director Two: International Man of Mystery
Our second IWDRO director is Barry. We know he’s 61, a Commercial Lawyer, British, and living in Malaysia. We also know he is the Majority Shareholder, a topic he’s rather prickly about.
That is all we know about him. And this is the damndest thing.
Do a search for him yourself. There is no footprint for him outside IWDRO. Nothing. No LinkedIn profile, no CV, no page on any law firm’s web site, no potted history of any background he might have in tech and web, no conference talks, no Github page (you see my point)…nothing.
This man does not exist outside IWDRO.
This is important. We need to know what these men think they have which qualifies them to have started a for-profit business claiming regulatory authority over your work and mine.
What we have so far is two directors who don’t just lack any moral or professional qualifications for leadership in a changing industry – we’re struggling to establish whether they exist at all or whether they are sock puppets or fake identities.
All we know of dear Barry is that in April of this year he sent this letter to Olly, who wrote the first blog post exposing IWDRO’s lead generation scam. It’s a legally bunk Cease and Desist order not worth the PDF it was printed on. (As it is, it was printed on Excello Law letterhead.) In the letter Barry repeats the claim – as a commercial lawyer, on a law firm’s letterhead – that “IWDRO is a reputable business, providing services to its members, which it regulates” (emphasis mine). It’s rather telling that Olly’s reply back to the legally invalid cease & desist letter generated no response.
Barry signed the letter “Director and Majority Shareholder”. That’s how he sees himself – not as a regulator, not as a leader, not as the shepherd of a scattered flock. Majority shareholder.
We would love to ask Barry to offer a statement to the contrary, but we have no way of contacting him. His contact information is given as c/o Excello Law. And again, he does not exist – not an email address, not a contact page on a law firm’s site, nothing – outside IWDRO’s company filings.
Whoever Barry is, or rather, if he even exists, there’s only one thing we can say for sure. This company exists solely to make it rain for him, and he would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.
Director Three, Tom: Solicitor/company secretary/narcissist
Everyone, meet Tom. Tom, meet an industry which would like to have a word or two with you.
Tom appears in this advertorial promoting the IWDRO which appeared on page 12, issue 239 of Web Designer Magazine. This was published sometime in 2015. Click to view full size.
Tom Sutcliffe is a partner at Excello Law. For what it’s worth, his background is sport, not tech. There are, believe it or not, quite a few tech-savvy solicitors – meaning lawyers who code, program, hack, develop, and encrypt – which more than qualifies them to advise on the everyday business issues facing designers and developers. He is not one of them.
According to the Web Designer advertorial, Tom is also keen on “supporting professional and ethical business”, so surely he won’t mind this little bit of transparency and due diligence.
You see, Tom Sutcliffe has been the IWDRO’s company secretary since January 2013.
He is also the owner of the IWDRO domain. I have never had a client ask me to use their lawyer for any of their domain contacts. He is the registrar, administrative, and technical contact.
In the advertorial he extols the virtues of the organisation. This was not the first time he did. Until last week, a professionally produced video of him at his previous law firm was available on YouTube and Vimeo. It has now been deleted. In the video he (the company secretary, a commercial lawyer), sitting in front of a shelf of self-nominated vanity awards, did the same sort of promotional spiel in support of the IWDRO despite the howling false claim in the company’s very name. If he was involved with IWDRO before he moved to Excello Law in late 2014, does that suggest that he brought the IWDRO with him?
This advertorial, really, is all about how the IWDRO idea works out really well for them. Now, you could ask why someone with a vested interest in the company is in the advertorial, as opposed to an actual designer or developer, or indeed, a happy IWDRO member. It’s not the only question you should be asking.
In the advertorial, which reeks of someone interviewing themselves with their own questions, there is this exchange:
Q. The IWDRO recently teamed up with Excello Law, business and commercial solicitors. How did you get involved with them?
A. The IWDRO engaged one of Excello’s commercial lawyers to assist with the legal issues arising when the concept was born a couple of years ago. The value added by this relationship went way beyond the provision of legal services and it became apparent that a good commercial lawyer thinks differently, and complements, an organisation with objectives like the IWDRO’s…
*sound clip of a record scratching*
Whoa whoa whoa hold on just a sec.
You do realise he’s talking about himself here?
He is the commercial lawyer who was engaged when the concept was born. He is the good commercial lawyer who thinks differently.
Darren and I put ourselves at legal risk to bring this story to you, but let me tell you this: we’re doing so because of people who have the chutzpah to kiss their own arses in the third person.
Kissing their own arses in the context of promoting a private for-profit company taking the industry I love for a ride.
Kissing their own arses while falsely claiming regulatory authority over an unregulated trade.
Kissing their own arses over their business idea that’s so brilliant it’s five figures in the red.
For what it’s worth, I was a company director once, very briefly, at a local social enterprise. I left after a matter of months when it became clear that the company was not what I had been told it was. All the promises about community development this and social inclusion that were a load of crap: it was one man’s vanity vehicle, a device to grab money and status within the Scottish third sector elite, and we directors were expected to rubber-stamp his narcissism. I smelled shite, called bullshit, and left.
What I didn’t do was facilitate some legal fudges in the business’s name, double down my efforts to expand the false representation, and stick my own face into their print ads.
Call that my code of conduct. But I am not a lawyer…
Back in Excello’s swish office in Liverpool – which is, of course, the IWDRO’s registered address – the advertorial was accompanied by a 50% discount on membership. What a desperate price cut on an allegedly essential service.
— WebDesignerMag (@WebDesignerMag) May 20, 2015
So there we have it. IWDRO is three men:
1. Someone who may be using sock puppets;
2. A greedy fake lawyer;
3. Someone who likes looking at awards and pictures of himself.
Ladies and gentlemen, your “official industry regulators.”
What the law says
I would encourage you to read Darren’s post and share it within your networks. From the legal perspective, pay attention to these sections within it:
No one, repeat no one, can claim regulatory authority over an unregulated trade. The web design and development industries are so immature (literally – we were only born in the 1990s) that we have yet to establish an industry body or trade organisation, much less create barriers to entry requiring regulatory approval for those working in the field.
“Regulator” is supposed to mean something.
Regulators have authority vested in them by a profession – and remember, the web industry is not a profession – which they receive in exchange for providing professionals with accreditation and the right to work. A legitimate regulator can remove someone from an industry and ban them from ever working in it again. No one can ban you from working in web development. The worst that this business can do is kick you out of their own club without refunding your membership fee.
Posing as a “regulator” is illegal under UK company law.
This company pastes a law firm’s logo into their header and onto every conceivable communication. There is no excuse for not knowing that posing as a regulator is illegal under UK company law, and there can be no other conclusion regarding their motives for promoting themselves as one. Who exactly appointed and approved them as 1) the UK’s 2) only 3) official 4) regulator? Absolutely no one. This goes way beyond pedestrian false advertising.
The use of the phrases “regulator” or “regulatory”
As this organisation’s possibly fake Malaysian lawyer well knows, “regulator” and “regulatory” are protected terms. You cannot just use them in a business’s name. The post provides screen grab evidence suggesting that this business knows they are using these terms unethically as well as illegally.
Can you imagine, for example, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons getting member GPs to pay them additional fees to bid for private sector contracts? An industry regulator selling job leads would create a situation where professionals could lose accreditation for failing to play the bidding game. Absolutely not.
So… Is There a Legitimate Web Dev Association?
No, and there is no excuse for that either. But that is our own fault, and no one else’s.
What can members do?
Some members will have joined this faux industry body thinking that being approved by an “official regulator” offered some sort of protection for their own business. Please be aware that if you have joined this or any other fake industry body making misleading claims in order to get the proverbial membership badge, you yourself are now engaging in false advertising. You should remove all links to them.
Do be aware, as you will read in Darren’s post, that this business does not remove the logos and listings of expired members from their roster, meaning you will continue to be affiliated with this group despite quitting your membership. In fact, if you want your listing removed, you have to pay to renew your membership.
But what of formal sanctions? That is up to you. Don’t feel ashamed to come forward. Nothing can happen to them unless you take action, so please report them to the authorities detailed at the bottom of Darren’s post.
Part of the ugly and difficult process of growing up as an industry is calling out those who would do it harm. For that reason I would like to personally thank Darren for the months of research he has put into making a real difference in his industry.
Postscript: Excello Law’s response
On 17 November I emailed Excello Law (the letter is in the comments). I wanted to know what they knew, when they knew it, and how it was even possible that a reputable commercial law firm could endorse a two-bit fake regulatory scam.
When Excello Law’s reply appeared in my inbox I was expecting a missive of arse-covering legalese or even a threat against myself. What I got was this.
As a result of that investigation, Excello Law’s logo disappeared from IWDRO’s company’s header.
I wrote back:
Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.
However, I note that as of 9:08 AM on 21 November, the Excello Law logo still appears on the IWDRO’s “Iapproved” web site: http://iapproved.org/ which invites businesses to submit leads.
Lower down on the page is a testimonial from an alleged IWDRO customer. This has been identified (http://www.smallbizgeek.co.uk/proclaimed-web-industry-regulator-sells-low-quality-business-leads/#comment-285) as a false testimonial, in violation of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, and the “customer” has been identified as a stock photo.
In other words, Excello Law’s endorsement appears above yet another double violation of business law (the false testimonial and the illegal use of the word “regulator” in IWDRO’s name, clearly visible in the footer).
In the link above you will also see that IWDRO actively discussed their partnership with Excello Law in the context of false claims about negotiations with four different governments to recognise their “regulatory authority.”
We wish you the best of luck on your investigation today.
In the meantime we remain perplexed as to how the word “Regulatory” in IWDRO’s name did not catch the attention of a commercial law firm which has no excuse for not knowing better.
On 22 November I received a second email from Excello Law:
Obviously we can’t expect Excello to disclose what they discovered in their internal investigation, nor is their any point in asking.
However, it’s clear from those two letters that I hit a nerve.
I simply cannot imagine how it is possible that Excello Law was unaware of IWDRO’s claims and activities until I took the time to alert them. It is an incredible failure of due diligence if they genuinely had no clue.
On the other hand, if they were aware, it is something else entirely.
Postscript: the lies have stopped
As of December, thanks to Darren’s investigation, the IWDRO has redesigned their web site and seemingly repackaged their service operation.
They are now – wait for it – yet another garden variety pay-per-inclusion directory.
Yet another attempt to sell aspiring industry workers the notion of paying for exclusivity and validation.
Yet another sad and self-serving moneyspinner.
You could ask yourself Really? Is this all they’ve got?
Then again, they never had anything to begin with. Banal Chamber of Commerce-style backslapping is all they are capable of achieving. Not representation, not advocacy, not professional development. You get a certificate on the wall and a pat on the head. Anyone thick enough to pay for that frankly deserves it.
The important thing is that all notions and claims of being a regulator – either the UK, worldwide, official, only, or otherwise – have been removed from the web site, as have all publicly visible links to Excello Law.
Additionally, IWDRO’s Facebook page has been deleted. Excello Law’s logo, however, remains in the header of IWDRO’s Twitter profile.
But has anything actually changed? Of course not. Their name, IWDRO, remains the same. An abbreviation of Internet Web Site Regulatory Office, a fudge which allows them to claim “we don’t have ‘regulator’ in our name” with a straight face. Their company officers, including the Excello Law solicitor and Barry the international man of mystery, remain in post. The lead generation machine roars on. They remain heavily in debt.
In the meantime we still need members who joined the faux regulator based on the company’s false claims to report them to Action Fraud. You should be looking to get your money back. Members taken in by the notion of the partnership with Excello Law should also report the latter to the Legal Ombudsman.
This was not a victory
Getting these sleazy fake regulators to shut their greedy mouths may feel like a quick win.
However, the fact remains that our industry has never been more at risk than it is today.
Designers and developers are in the middle of a perfect storm of poorly drafted digital legislation, opaque political processes, and uninformed external attacks. We can now throw reactionary, racist, and authoritarian political currents on top of that.
More than ever, we need to come together as an industry and face these problems head-on. We need real organisations, real leadership, and real advocacy. We need people who are going to roll their sleeves up, get out from behind their keyboards, and strain every sinew to keep our industry alive.
What we don’t need is to have our time wasted by cowards hiding behind lies, shiny dashboards, and vanity awards.
We’ve got work to do.
About the author
Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.