Fur Affinity's silent test of VigLink causes controversy
In the hopes of garnering more revenue for its ever-expanding site, Fur Affinity has turned to VigLink, a tool which helps sites earn commission from online stores. Unfortunately for staff, its use violated the site's own terms of service, leading to cries of foul play once discovered.
Fur Affinity has now apologized for the unannounced roll-out, and updated their ToS to notify users. But what was all the fuss about?
What is VigLink?
VigLink - a service founded by previous Microsoft employee Oliver Roup - rewrites links to stores so as to earn a commission for purchases made at them. Here is a video on how they operate.
Fur Affinity "tested" this 'multi-affiliate' program for five days without disclosing it to their user base, or changing a line in the ToS which said:
Fur Affinity does not engage in active data collection of its users. Your personal information will not be resold or distributed except within the Fur Affinity network (main site, forums).
From the VigLink FAQ page:
Will my users notice? Should I disclose it?
Most users do not notice on their own although we highly recommend you disclose it. VigLink does not change the user experience one bit. No links are inserted or removed on the page, there are no double-underlines or pop-ups, and mousing over a link looks "clean."
The US Federal Trade Commission requires that you disclose use of affiliate links. More information and tools are available.
Even if you are not subject to FTC jurisdiction, we strongly recommend you disclose. Our customers have found that readers are completely understanding if they are informed and can be upset if they are surprised. Informing your users will give those who desire it the opportunity to permanently opt-out. Although VigLink is unobtrusive, it is easily detectable by savvy users.
The answer to the question was almost a play-by-play as to what occurred next; a tech-savvy user found out about the program through the source code and complained on Fur Affinity's forums. As a result, users became upset.
The FTC regulation regarding this issue mentioned above can be found here on §255.5, beginning on page 75. This statute says that if someone is recommending a product for someone else, and receiving some form of payment for that, they must disclose that they are receiving payment.
However, before throwing the book, there's a catch: The FAQ and statute seem to assume a 'one to one' relationship between the secretly-paid advertiser and the consumer. If Fur Affinity tested the software by waiting for someone to naturally make a sincere suggestion, that doesn't seem to be a violation. If Dragoneer made a recommendation without disclaimer, knowing he'd be compensated, then he did violate the statute. (He did link to Wacom in a journal yesterday, but I didn't find Wacom on the affiliate list, so this was presumably a sincere recommendation.)
Dragoneer admitted that the roll-out of the affiliate links was handled improperly:
We should have alerted people to this sooner. I admit that, and it should have gone better. It was overlooked while we were still performing research, and were testing out the functionality to make sure this thing didn't bring down the site or cause further problems. In doing so, we should have announced what was going on, and that it anonymously recorded the data. It didn't happen. A lot was going on this week, and it just didn't happen like it should have.
The ToS has since been updated, and an announcement was made regarding the new revenue service on the main page, saying that proceeds will go toward "coding efforts", "hardware procurement" or "bandwidth costs". Dragoneer also made a personal journal regarding the events, explaining the change and apologizing for not updating the ToS earlier.
Opting out of VigLink
While VigLink does collect statistical information, it does appear that this information is non-personal for those clicking on affiliate links. While IP addresses are tracked to the site, it seems the only information that goes back to Fur Affinity is the number of times an affiliate received purchases by their users.
Even so, users can opt out of being tracked (and it appears that script- and ad-blockers will prevent it from functioning automatically). This will disable VigLink's tracking on any website, not just Fur Affinity. You will need to revisit this site to remain opted-out if you clear your cookies. Dragoneer has also posted directions for an FA-specific opt-out that is not cookie-based.