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Facebook Gives ‘Social Fixer’ Ultimatum

Things aren’t going well for Matt Kruse, the developer of the über-popular Social Fixer browser extension which gives users control over how their Facebook pages and news feeds appear to them. It works within the browser and doesn’t affect the experience of anyone on Facebook other than the user. With it, status updates can be tabbed, items can be filtered, and it allows hiding or blocking sponsored stories and other advertising that runs through the news feed.

The last we heard, about three weeks ago, Zuckerberg’s people had taken down Social Fixer‘s popular Facebook page, a place for users to testify for the app and seek help and for Mr. Kruse to make announcements about updates and so forth. FB was claiming it removed the page due to reports of spamming, but was offering no way for him to plead his case.

On Saturday we learned he’s managed to make contact, both by email and phone, with actual human beings who work for Facebook. They’re always very understanding, Mr. Kruse says, and at least pretend to want to see his side.

Unfortunately, they simply can’t allow him to keep some features in his extension, they say. If he refuses to remove them not only will he lose his Facebook page, which he’s by now willing to do, they will turn the matter over to their legal department as well. He can expect a cease and desist letter and might eventually be sued. Even if they don’t sue, they could still remove his personal Facebook account, making it difficult for him to keep in touch with friends and family, or mark SocialFixer.com, the app’s website, as risky or spammy, meaning links to the site would no longer be allowed on Facebook.

Social Fixer graphic

Graphic from Social Fixer’s website with article announcing Facebook’s ultimatum.

Although Mr. Kruse is convinced he’s not operating outside Facebook’s terms with Social Fixer, he knows he can’t afford a legal battle against the social network’s billions. He’s a young Midwestern family guy with a couple of kids to be concerned about. Even though Social Fixer has seen about a million downloads, he doesn’t make much money from it. The extension is offered free, donation requested, pay what you can.

Facebook wants him to remove Friend Tracker, News Feed Tabs, News Feed Filters and all “blocking of ads, sponsored stories, etc.” If he removes those features, Social Fixer’s page will be returned, complete with its history, and Facebook will not involve their legal department. He’s taking the deal. He can’t afford not to do so.

Mr. Kruse is being very candid with his users and supporters. In an article on the Social Fixer website, after laying out Facebook’s position and his rebuttal on a point by point basis, he says:

“For now, my plan is to comply with their requests and remove the features that they object to. The purpose is not just to get the Page back (how this all started) but also to avoid the possible actions above.

“As many users have already noted, this makes Social Fixer much less useful. I agree. I will continue working on ways to bring these features back. Many have suggested that I contact the EFF about this, and I plan to do so.”

Mr. Kruse goes out of his way to focus on Facebook the corporation without personally attacking the people from the company who’ve dealt with him one-on-one. Just the opposite, he praises their generosity and even explains the company’s argument for targeting Social Fixer:

  • Not all extension authors have good intentions. Some may steal user data, insert malware, etc. They [Facebook] need to watch out for the “bad guys”, and so are very cautious about what extensions do and how.
  • When extensions are installed on shared computers, other users may find themselves with an altered Facebook experience and not realize the cause. This may result in support requests or complaints to Facebook.
  • Not all extension authors keep their code updated with Facebook’s frequent changes, so the user experience could get worse over time and things may break.

None of these would seem to be reasons that would warrant Facebook’s actions. Interestingly, there’s no mention of concerns about losing advertising revenue, although the ability to remove ads from the news feed was in the basket of items that must go away. When Mr. Kruse wondered why Ad Blocker Plus still enjoys a page on Facebook, the Facebook folk seemed rather uninterested and claimed they weren’t familiar with Ad Blocker Plus but that they’d look into it.

Most likely, Facebook’s legal suits have already determined they don’t have a case against ad-blocking extensions because they don’t target Facebook specifically; unless overridden they treat sites from Facebook to FOSS Force to Perez Hilton equally. This leaves a line too defined to be blurred. The ad blockers merely enhance the browser and don’t modify the functionality of a site.

Social Fixer's Matt Kruse

Social Fixer’s Matt Kruse

Social Fixer targets Facebook specifically, but it also doesn’t modify any pages functionality. It doesn’t touch their API or developer platform. Mr. Kruse’s minders at Facebook don’t seem to understand nor be interested in this fact, which might mean the legal department is already involved as this smells of lawyerly advice. Lawyers are good at saying things like, “You don’t know anything about that, and don’t express an interest.”

After the Social Fixer page went down, Charlie Warzel at BuzzFeed wrote an excellent article dealing with Mr. Kruse’s troubles, The End of the Power User. He points out that more and more, power users are being given the cold shoulder:

“It feels, in many respects, like the end of an era for a certain kind of developer, and the users they serve. Building out a successful platform — at least partially — on the backs of outside developers has been a hallmark of tech innovation for decades. But now there is little left for them to build on. Facebook is a powerful public company with an interest in keeping things proprietary, Twitter is weeks away from its stock market debut, and Tumblr has been swallowed up by Yahoo. Of the new breed of mega services out there, most are self-contained, focused apps. There’s no room in the Snapchats and WhatsApps of the world for a third party. A Snapchat app for power users is just Snapchat.”

In a nutshell, the Facebook developers got tired of trying to keep up and thwart Social Fixer’s functions so they’re setting up new playground rules. The extension gets to keep some of it’s capabilities, but loses in key areas. This means I lose, because I use it, and you lose even if you don’t use it. It also illustrates how software freedom is being made ever more difficult by the public cloud and those who control it.

Unfortunately, for many of users abandoning Facebook is not an option. Many, if not most, users of the social site have become reconnected with many long lost friends there. Facebook is now the place to go for a modern day equivalent of a Kodak moment.

There is a FOSS option, however, Diaspora.

A few years back, I played around with it for a while, and even tried to get a group of friends to use it. Personally, I found it very functional and liked the way it combined aspects of both Facebook and Twitter. Many of my Facebook friends, however, found it to be “geeky” and clumsy.

Saturday night, for the first time in a couple of years, I logged-on to find the developers have made a lot of progress since my last visit. It’s changed plenty and now has a look and feel that should seem very familiar to Facebook users. Indeed, about the only Facebookers who won’t like it are those who absolutely don’t want a learning curve at all.

They’ve also been working on Facebook integration to ease the migration process. Friends lists and profiles can easily be imported, and it’s possible to post to Facebook and Diaspora simultaneously.

Facebook is pretty much within their rights to do anything they want with their site. It might be getting to be time to attempt the move to Diaspora again. If we can get our social “friends” to just open an account and putz around for awhile, they might decide to stay, especially those aware enough to be concerned about Facebook ethics.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux.

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