It would certainly be an interesting development if an app that lets people dress up their Facebook profiles to make them look more like My Space pages somehow led to Facebook's downfall.
That's because the free version of PageRage includes ads--ads that Facebook makes no money from, and that, in some cases, apparently obscure the ads from which Facebook does profit.
The PageRage advertisements are reportedly big and splashy and push products from major companies such as The Gap and AT&T. But that's not the only pushing they do; they purportedly also knock ads sold by Facebook further down the page. And that's caused the world-famous social network to label PageRage as "adware"--despite the app's apparent usefulness to anyone who simply has to individualize his or her Facebook profile by making it resemble, say, a Hawaiian shirt.
(The Gap and other advertisers, by the way, say they have no direct dealings with PageRage or its creator Sambreel, Steel reports. That's because Sambreel, which makes the money from the ads, works with third-party companies that broker the actual ad space.)
Facebook and PageRage aren't the only actors in this drama, Steel says. Google, Yahoo, and Bing-purveyor Microsoft are involved as well, owing to an app called BuzzDock, also from Sambreel, that lets users search multiple search engines at once and that can similarly interfere with money-making advertisements. Other Sambreel apps are part of the dustup as well, such as Drop Down Deals, which automatically displays coupons on shopping sites.
Citing an anonymous source, Steel says Facebook has sent Sambreel cease-and-desist letters and that Sambreel, for its part, says it has "no contractual relationship with Facebook and is therefore not bound by their policies."
Sambreel says as well that users freely download its apps, that ads powered by its apps are clearly labeled to differentiate them from ads on the underlying Web page, that it sells ad-free versions of its apps for about two dollars apiece, and that users can delete its software if they decide to. Also, with PageRage other people can't see your profile modifications unless they've decided to install the app too.
"It is a nasty term to call us adware," Steel quotes Sambreel CFO Kai Hankinson as saying. "The term we prefer is ad-supported software."
It's not clear whether Facebook, Google, or the others can do much about the situation. Steel reports that the legal issues are by no means clear cut. "The strength of a legal case would depend on whether consumers are confused about the tradeoffs for downloading the software and also how the technology actually works to alter the Web sites people see," she writes, citing information from a lawyer specializing in intellectual-property, media, and technology law. She also notes that blocking software like PageRage "can turn into a game of cat and mouse software updates."
The litany of company statements that Steel quotes in response to her queries are as follows:
Facebook: "[We are] reviewing all possible legal, technical, and policy options to address this situation and ensure the best possible experience for our users."
Google: "Applications that are installed without clear disclosure, that are hard to remove, and that modify users' experiences in unexpected ways are bad for users and the Web as a whole."
Microsoft: "We do not support adware that irresponsibly displays advertisements in ways that fail to respect the rights of users, advertisers, and Web service providers, and we will take action where appropriate to protect our customers and platforms."
Sambreel: "If anything, we are probably increasing user engagement or increasing the enjoyment users have on their sites."
Yahoo: No comment.
Here's a PageRage promo video that's posted on YouTube:
Update, December 10, 8:17 a.m.: adds detail about PageRage app.