Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at the Terms of Use pages created by various social media platforms. After the recent controversy surrounding the Pinterest Terms of Use, I thought it might be a good idea to dig deeper into some of these mind-numbingly boring legal documents to see what other nuggets might be hiding amongst the legalese.

One of the more interesting ones that I uncovered was in the Facebook Terms of Use.

Periodically, someone in my Facebook feed will post a link to a Facebook Page about the “Keep Facebook Free Revolution” or “Stop Facebook from charging $4/month“. Until this point, these have all be hoaxes that tend to generate a lot of Likes and Shares, because people want Facebook to be free and get irritated when they hear rumors of Facebook proposing charges.

In fact, Facebook has done a pretty good job of reassuring users that they will continue to be free by posting it on their blog and by posting it clearly on their login page.

In light of becoming a public company, will Facebook have to start charging Developers and Publishers?

Will Facebook always be free for everyone? Their Terms of Use indicates otherwise.

Obviously, the tradeoff to Facebook being free is that they have to monetize the site through Ads. This means ads in your timeline and ads in the right-rail of the site. For the most part, I think users are okay with the ads, as long as they are targeted to their needs and aren’t obtrusive to interacting with Facebook. Up until now, however, Facebook has had the luxury of being a privately-held company, which means they aren’t beholden to the whims and fancies of public investors. With that about to change, I have grown more curious as to how they will handle the pressure from their public investors to generate revenue.

Which leads me to the nugget!

Buried deep in the “Special Provisions Applicable to Developers/Operators of Applications and Websites ” section of their Terms of Use, is a provision that says:

14. We do not guarantee that Platform will always be free.

Wait…what?

I just logged in and the front page of Facebook clearly indicated “It’s free and always will be.” Right?!? Free…always?!?

The disparity between the two likely lies in the target audience. By stating “It’s free and always will be.” on the front page of Facebook, the company is communicating to end-users that they intend to keep Facebook a free resource for general users.

The statement of “We do not guarantee that the Platform will always be free.” is more targeted at the development community, indicating that the ability to build apps that integrate directly into Facebook might come at a charge in the future. While game developers like Zynga (the makers of Farmville) and nearly every brand page out there currently enjoy the Facebook developer platform free of charge, this one line, buried amongst the legalese of the Terms of Use document, clearly indicates that these services could come with a surcharge in the future.

The question is how much, and whether brands and developers would be willing to pay to participate on Facebook. We know that social gaming accounts for a massive amount of time on Facebook, so if developers like Zynga found it more lucrative to publish their games elsewhere due to high charges by Facebook, would it also lead to a bleeding of Facebook users to other platforms? Who knows.

So, with that single provision buried in their Terms of Use, Facebook leaves a lot of questions unanswered:

  • Will Facebook start charging for access to their development platform?
  • If so, when will they start and how much will the charge developers, brands and publishers?
  • If Facebook does start to charge, will the costs drive developers, brands and publishers to other platforms?
  • If the developers, brands and publishers leave will Facebook users leave, as well?

While there hasn’t been any indication by Facebook that they’re going to start to charge developers any time soon, it could be something that we see arise soon after their Initial Public Offering (IPO), when the company becomes more beholden to their shareholders, rather than their users. I guess we’ll find out soon enough…

What we do know is that while Facebook is free for users, developers, companies, and organizations…it has become a huge part of our life, impacting how much time we spend eating, sleeping, and even caring for others. Would charging developers impact that passion? Only time will tell.

Have thoughts or questions? I always love to hear them in comments!

Cheers!

–Sean