Facebook has reportedly removed a unique feature from its site used by pharmaceutical companies to block all user comments from being posted to the Facebook pages owned by the companies. According to a report from the Washington Post, that policy changed yesterday. Some drug companies are shutting down their Pages, the vehicle they use to publish updates out into the news feeds of their fans, rather than allow public commenting on those Pages.

The Post quotes company representatives saying they need to figure out how to effectively monitor their pages before those pages can return. It quotes experts saying the companies likely don't want to deal with the headache of monitoring all the crazy complaints that could be posted 24 hours a day. I think something different is at issue. I think the companies already know that the web is filled with complaints about their products and they just don't want those complaints to appear on an officially sanctioned page. Why were they ever allowed to silence comments in the first place?

From Christian Torres's report in the Post:

"Facebook would not say what specifically prompted its change of heart. Andrew Noyes, manager of public policy communications for Facebook, said in an e-mail, 'We think these changes will help encourage an authentic dialogue on pages.'

"Facebook will allow companies to continue to block Wall comments on specific prescription product pages, but those are a minority of pharmaceutical company pages. Most of the open pages would be focused on companies themselves or on disease or patient-specific communities, which then have ties to the companies' prescription products."

The fact is, though, that there has been a whole lot of public discourse all over the web for years about pharmaceutical drugs. I once consulted a consultant to a consultancy that monitored online reports of adverse drug reactions for a pharmaceutical client, specifically for a diet pill that caused anal leakage. They were spread out across forum sites all around the internet. We used the heck out of Dapper and Yahoo Pipes to scrape, filter and organize what we found. The existing approaches were arduous but widespread. ("Welcome to Big Pharma," my client's client said to me ominously when we met, making it clear that any moral distance was in my own mind alone.)

So I don't believe that Big Pharma wanted to block public comment from its various company Facebook Pages because it didn't want a public forum for complaints, or because it wanted to be lazy about monitoring social media mentions (what big brand doesn't do that already?) but because Facebook Pages are an officially sanctioned communication channel. And crazy complainers ought to be kept from clean, well-lit official places if that's an option.

Gizmodo's Sam Biddle says about the policy, "It's silly to provide patients with a tool, and at the same time neuter that tool. They might as well just take the pages down entirely." I think that misses the raw self-interest, though.

If you can use social media as a broadcast tool, without having to pay the cost of being seen publicly responding (or not) to criticism, what corporation wouldn't jump at that opportunity?

This is why I love Twitter's ad product Sponsored Search Terms; it's the opposite of this old Facebook policy. It says "Dear Brands, we dare you to pay to appear atop a stream of freely posted public comments about you." It's awesome; it's brave. Facebook's allowing Pharma companies to use its service to broadcast messages but block public comment is the opposite of that.

The only real question is: why did Facebook allow it? At least the policy has changed now. What other strange favors is Facebook doing for the rich and creepy? We've asked the company for comment and will update this post with any we receive.