Has Change.org compromised its values for ad revenue?

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By Raza /  31 Oct 2012 , 11:41

Change.org has changed. And chances are that you might have missed it.

The social action platform, which is credited with hosting many online campaigns to bring about change, is facing criticism for replacing its ‘values based’ advertising policy for an ‘open’ approach in which advertisements are accepted based on the content of the ad, not the group doing the advertising, says a company document meant for internal circulation, but which got leaked before the company could go public with its re-branding strategy.

In effect, the company has allowed for advertisements from various quarters including corporate houses and political parties.

Screenshot from Change.org

What this means is that even anti-abortion, pro-gun, union-busting advertising and ads by political parties will be allowed on the site, marking a remarkable change in the overall outlook of the company.

Before the policy shift, according to the document, the company’s advertising policy was values based. It accepted clients case by case, one at a time, based on their alignment with its values as a company.

The new advertising policy is akin to those of many leading platforms, open by default to any group that wants to advertise with them. “We are open to organizations that represent all points of view, including those with which we personally (and strongly) disagree,’ reads the document.

As per the company’s original strategy, it was not to allow campaigns by political parties as, “there were a number of risks involved in allowing political ads, in particular around our brand and user experience.”

The decision to allow political ads, is based on the feedback from the team including staff from outside the US, reads the document. “One of the primary ways people get involved in civic participation is through politics and elections, and we don’t want to close door to political actors engaging in change.org- something which they can do through many channels, and which has the potential to increase their responsiveness to citizens overall.”

Kamayani Bali Mahabal, an online campaigner based in Mumbai, who has initiated many petitions on change.org, says that the company’s advertising policy shift demonstrates the potential perils of for-profit companies founded on progressive values, and shows the power of money. “With this new Change.org openness, now anyone is eligible to advertise with you for profit. So, after I sign a petition for gay rights, women’s rights and all of the other human rights issues, I might find a link to a sponsored petition that I was not expecting. For example, stop the criminalization of traditional marriage; give legal recognition to khap panchayats,” says Mahabal, in her change.org petitiontitled ‘Ben Rattray: Come out clean, referring to the company’s CEO.

Though the new advertising guidelines can now be seen on the company’s site, the leaked document reveals that the company had no plans to proactively reach out to users and press about its advertising guidelines. It reads, “We have no plans to proactively tell users about the new design or our new mission, vision, or advertising guidelines.”

According to Anivar Aravind, Bangalore based online campaigner, and founder of binayaksen.net, an online campaign launched for the release of Dr Binayak Sen, change.org’s credibility will take a beating as users like him have now lost faith in the company. “Change.org is selling the credibility and trust acquired through the efforts of individual petitioners. It is a serious issue when those very petitioners not informed in advance about the company’s policy changes”, he said.

But the company is not worried.

Fortunately, says Avijit Michael, country director, India, change.org, only a small number of people have expressed concerns. “I think the continuing impact of Change.org, and the positive changes it helps our users to bring about in their communities, will help people to make their own decisions about whether and how to use the platform. That’s why we’re open — so that our users can make their own decisions”, he said.

“We have more than 20 million users from a wide diversity of backgrounds and cultures, and the overwhelming majority of them already believe that we’re an open platform. But our policy is already posted for all to read, and we’ll be letting users know about our site updates in email postscripts,” he says about the strategy to inform users about the shift in policy.


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