Today's Lesson: Make Facebook Angry, And They'll Censor You Into Oblivion

Facebook is well on its way to becoming the most popular way that people share links, photos, and other content with their friends. For many sites it’s becoming a powerful new driver of traffic — get people to ‘Like’ your stuff, and Facebook’s network effects will expose it to dozens of their friends.

Just make sure not to do something that might make Facebook angry. Otherwise it might nuke every link to your site, choking off this river of traffic that you’ve worked so hard to build.

That’s the message Facebook sent today with its censorship of links to Lamebook, a humor site that posts lewd conversations spotted on the social network. Facebook has confirmed that it is automatically blocking all links to Lamebook and that it has also removed the company’s ‘Fan’ page. Not because the content was offensive, mind you, but because Facebook doesn’t like Lamebook.

Update: Facebook CTO Bret Taylor has written this statement, explaining that this was a mistake. Note that this story originally broke this morning and I’ve been in contact with Facebook most of the afternoon, so this clearly wasn’t just a bug:

This was a mistake on our part. In the process of dealing with a routine trademark violation issue regarding some links posted to Facebook, we blocked all mentions of the phrase “lamebook” on Facebook. We are committed to promoting free expression on Facebook. We apologize for our mistake in this case, and we are working to fix the process that led to this happening.

Bret Taylor

The move was precipitated by a legal battle between the two companies. Lamebook filed for a declaratory judgement earlier this month that would assert that it is not violating Facebook’s trademark (the two parties have apparently been in negotiations over this for some time). Unsurprisingly, Facebook followed that up with a suit alleging that Lamebook violated its trademark.

Okay, so Facebook doesn’t like Lamebook’s name. I don’t agree with Facebook’s stance, but fair enough — it isn’t the first big company that’s overzealous when it comes to protecting its trademark. But by blocking Lamebook’s content, Facebook is crossing a line.

Not only is it currently impossible to share a Lamebook link to your News Feed or a friend’s Facebook Wall — you can’t even include them as part of a direct message or email to friends (you get an error message indicating that it’s “abusive or spammy”, which isn’t even accurate). That’s completely outrageous, and it’s a warning flag that comes only a few days after Facebook announced a new hybrid email/IM/SMS product. Do you really want someone to be censoring your outbound email?

One reason why Google has done so well is that people trust it. If you sue Google, it isn’t going to threaten to delist your company from its search index. Likewise, Facebook needs to keep its distance from the content its users are sharing. No, it won’t be getting rid of its terms any time soon, which forbid content that is “hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” But there’s a difference between blocking content as a matter of principle and doing it to deter companies from suing you. This is setting a disturbing precedent.

I reached out to Facebook to ask if there was any reason beyond the trademark claim that drove its decision to block Lamebook — maybe there’s something else going on here that would make their decision seem slightly less Orwellian. I also asked if Facebook has previously blocked content to other sites it had a legal dispute with.

A Facebook spokesman said he was unable to answer those questions. He did, however, give me the following statement, which is similar to what Facebook has said before about the issue:

We’re disappointed that after months of working with Lamebook they turned to litigation. We believe their website is an improper attempt to trade off of Facebook’s popularity and fame and we will continue to protect our brand and trademark. As I told Robin earlier, our terms prohibit posting of material or other activities on Facebook that infringe the rights of others. We reserve the right to pull down any content we believe is infringing. That includes linking to material we believe to be infringing. We also specifically prohibit use of any Facebook or confusingly similar marks (See SRR Sec. 5.1, 5.2 & 5.6

Update: It looks like Lamebook links are working again as of around 6:00 PM PST. I’ve asked Facebook if they’ve changed their decision or if this is simply a bug.