Facebook Promotes its “Virtual” Currency–and its data tracking–via Cancer Charity

When big advertising and media companies want to introduce a new or expanded form of marketing, they generally found some non-profit cause.  Who can complain about the techniques used–say for mobile ads, data collection, online games–when the funds are earmarked for a worthy charity?  It’s a time honored tactic, done by the Ad Council, initiatives such as Pepsi Refresh and now Facebook.  AllFacebook reports that “Stand Up to Cancer” is asking supporters to donate using “Facebook Credits.”  It explains that:

Facebook has been making great progress in its goal of making Credits the main or exclusive virtual currency on the site, with Zynga the latest social game company to agree to an exclusive deal. Facebook makes a 30% cut when users spend Credits on virtual goods in social games such as Farmville or Mob Wars… Facebook does gain in other ways from the collaboration, besides feeling good about helping cancer research. The fundraising event will help promote Facebook Credits as a payment system, both on the site through user activity and potentially also through the hour-long celebrity fundraising telethon on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and some cable channels …

On the Facebook “Stand Up to Cancer” page, one can learn that “Facebook Credits are the safe and easy way to make payments on Facebook. You can buy Facebook Credits using PayPal, your credit card, or mobile phone. Please keep in mind if your donation includes Facebook Credits that you received for free, the value of your donation will be reduced by those free credits. Also, your donation may not be tax deductible, so please consult a tax professional. For this event, Facebook is waiving its processing fees and 100% of your donations go to Stand Up To Cancer.”

Facebook has ambitious plans for its Credit initiative: it “wants Credits to be the universal currency in social games on its platform.”  The social network is using Credits with a Target stores partnership.  Earlier this month, Facebook took “a step closer to establishing Credits as the exclusive payment system for virtual goods on the social networking site, wrapping up a deal with the biggest social game company, Zynga…Facebook gets a 30% cut from the game developer for all transactions via Credits.” Virtual goods, as its called, is already a major business–estimated with $1 billion sales this year.

But there are questions around Facebook Credits and other virtual currencies–on privacy, consumer protection rules, and digital marketing.  Charities and others should be more cautious when endorsing such schemes.  The FTC, EU and other regulators need to place digital currencies on a real–not virtual–policy radar.

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.