Earlier this year, MyBroadband spoke to the CEO of Web9, a locally-produced search engine which constantly sent out spam emails to South Africans.
These emails obfuscated the sender name to impersonate well-known companies including “Google”, “Facebook”, “BCX” and “SARS” in an attempt to trick recipients into opening the link in the mail.
The objective of sending out these mails was to provide marketing for the Web9 search engine and appeal to potential advertisers by offering a voucher to buy ads on the Web9 website.
Web9 blasted out emails to users under false names every day, and people found that they were unable to unsubscribe from the mailing list using the provided link.
MyBroadband tracked down Shingi Mushipe, the man behind the Web9 platform and its spam emails, and spoke to him about these emails.
Mushipe admitted that he had been sending out spam emails to try and promote his website, adding that his company had a brief trademark dispute with Google in 2015 over the name of his platform, which was then called “Goofrica” – a portmanteau of the words “Google” and “Africa”.
Since the publication of MyBroadband’s initial article, Mushipe has received heavy backlash from recipients of his emails and has now issued a public apology to all affected South Africans.
In his apology, Mushipe explains how he came to found Web9, saying he got his first computer when he was 11 years old and by 2013, he had created websites for friends and companies using open-source tools.
He then moved on to a new challenge – creating the Web9 search engine.
“It took 4 months for me to build the first version of my new search engine and advertising platform,” Mushipe said.
“I needed the cheapest way to reach large numbers of people so I settled on email marketing.”
“I built automated Python scripts to collect business email addresses from all over the internet and a dashboard to keep track of all the emails which were opened and clicked,” he said.
Mushipe said that people began to sign up for his service and he spent the next few years adding new features to ensure his advertisers were appropriately catered for.
Upgrades and complaints
In 2016, Mushipe “upgraded” his marketing system to blast out marketing emails continuously – “24 hours a day, 7 days a week” – and said he watched the angry complaints about the emails flood the company’s Facebook and Hellopeter pages.
He said he received emails and calls where recipients of his spam mails would threaten him with bodily harm, but he resolved to continue signing up customers and ignore the complaints.
According to Mushipe, Web9 has indexed and ranked millions of web pages and has thousands of registered advertisers, with its mission being to “download the entire Internet and replicate all of the features from Google on top of a low-cost advertising platform”.
“We have to build a truly great African search engine because we cannot rely 100% on American services which can be cut off at any time as Huawei found out,” he said.
Mushipe said that his perspective on the flood of complaints changed when he received an email from MyBroadband requesting comment regarding the proliferation of email spam from Web9.
He provided feedback to MyBroadband and noted the angry response to the article which was published on the topic, but it was one interaction which upset him the most.
“I was unhappy though when one particular individual started calling a company where I do consulting work and posting negative reviews on their Facebook page,” he said.
“I then had a heated exchange with this person where I said some things which I shouldn’t have. I have since apologised to him because I do understand the anger and frustration which my actions have caused.”
The way forward
Mushipe said that he is aware of the consequences of his actions and has resolved to implement various measures to reduce the negative impact of Web9 spam emails.
The unsubscribe link in the Web9 emails was not working, but Mushipe did track the unsubscribe requests and said these users who requested to stop receiving Web9 emails have now been removed from the list.
He added that he has sent an apology to all users who requested to unsubscribe from the emails and has ensured that the unsubscribe link in the Web9 emails is now working properly.
Lastly, Mushipe has stated that his Web9 marketing emails will no longer impersonate other companies in the “From” field and it will be made clear to recipients that the email is sent from Web9.
“To everyone who has received Web9 emails and failed to unsubscribe I sincerely apologise, it was never my intention to harm anyone,” Mushipe said.
“Most importantly I am committed to finding more legitimate ways of marketing. It’s time for Web9 to grow up.”
You can read Shingi Mushipe’s full public apology here.