Earlier this month, a company called Ad.ly that was previously paying celebrities to endorse brands through their Facebook Page updates complied with Facebook’s request to stop operating on the social network. At the time it was unclear what policy Ad.ly had specifically broken, but we’ve now learned from Facebook that the company was violating Section 3.1 of the site’s terms of service which dictates “You will not send or otherwise post unauthorized commercial communications (such as spam) on Facebook.”
Ad.ly’s business model, which continues to operate on Twitter, was in direct violation of the term. This case of policy enforcement demonstrates that in order to preserve the user experience, Facebook will not allow for the direct monetization of its communication channels — both closing the door on several potential Facebook Platform business models and helping to preserve the quality of overall communication for users.
The aim of section 3.1 of the TOS is to keep Facebook’s social channels such as the news feed, wall, and messages free of content that degrades the user experience. Facebook has previously disallowed apps that allow users to earn money for charities by posting news feed stories, and worked with Amazon to change a promotion that was incentivizing wall posts with free gift cards. It also changed its policy in 2008 to prevent games from rewarding users for inviting their friends.
Without these policies and enforcement, channels typically filled with updates about friends and branded messages users had opted in to could become polluted with what are essentially advertisements that users hadn’t consented to receive. The dissatisfaction this problem causes could lead to a drop in overall trust and engagement with companies on the platform, harming its long-term potential to make money for third-parties and the site itself. For this reason, Facebook also keeps its own ads unobtrusive and restricted to the sidebar, and aggressively defends the integrity of its social channels.
Ad.ly had also committed a minor policy violation when it created a fake user profile that celebrities could add as an admin to their Pages to allow for publishing of the endorsements. Some speculated this was the reason Ad.ly was asked to cease its practice, but a Facebook spokesperson told us that “monetizing posts on Pages or profiles is against our terms.” Its violation of this term was the real reason Ad.ly had to leave Facebook.
Some might be confused why a brand’s Page can publish promotional materials and product links to the feed, but can’t accept money to promote another brand. The distinction is that when users Like a Page, they authorize it to send them its own content as permitted by Section 3.1 of the TOS, but do not authorize it to publish the content of others.
Facebook tries to present its policies clearly, with its challenge in cases like this being that it can’t conceivably craft a rule for every possibly use of the platform — yet it needs to be as close to perfect as possible to maintain its relationships with developers. In this particular instance, it needed to take action regardless of what it had previously said in order to protect what it considers to be a key value of its business: communication that’s valuable to users.
Update: It’s important to note that some brands and other figures may still be paying celebrities for Page update endorsements, but that these deals may be being negotiated secretly. Without the updates being published through a specific app, it may be difficult for Facebook to monitor or prevent this violation of its policies.