The Astra theme is well respected and has more than a million active installs. The team is very talented and contributes to the WordPress project. On Friday August 7th the Astra theme was suspended from the WordPress theme directory for 5 weeks. A review found affiliate IDs were added to up-sale links. These were partner plugins and this was done through an arrangement with those plugins authors. The Theme Review Team at WordPress.org judged this to be against guidelines which do not allow affiliate links. Once the theme was suspended users would get no results when searching for it and exisiting links would return a not-found message. Astra posted an unequivocal apology and the theme was reinstated on August 10th.
A well known marketer created this program to promote his plugins. He is widely viewed as something of a marketing genius, well beyond the WordPress sphere of influence. The program works like this: themes install the lite version of a contact form plugin, for example, as part of their on-boarding or pre-designed content. On that plugin’s admin screen there is an up-sell link to the pro version. If the user decides to buy the pro version then there is a mechanism (WordPress hook) so the theme developer gets an affiliate commission. On the surface, it may seem like a clever win all around. Most every site needs a contact form and the user gets one automatically installed, styled, and configured. By having the lite version of the contact form installed the plugin author gets free advertising, more active installs, potential customers use and test his product, and there is the potential for an up-sell. The theme provides a convenience to the user, and through the arrangement with the plugin author, has the opportunity to get an affiliate commission. It all looks good, until you consider the WordPress.org guidelines, and possibly the fact that it took place without the user’s knowledge.
Now, consider the wildly different reactions of members of the the WordPress community:
- Some were upset that affiliate links were added without user knowledge
- Some thought that installing the partner plugin and adding the affiliate ID to the up-sell link without affiliate disclosure may violate FTC rules
- Some thought the response by the Theme Review Team was too harsh
- Some noted that other companies were doing something similar but were not punished
- Some commented that there aren’t standard processes and punishments in place for handling this by the WordPress team
- Some found the community response lacking for not calling out the offender more clearly
- Some commented on the possible politics of this
- Some suggested that an Astra competitor played a role
- Some felt that we weren’t supporting a community member better (the theme author) during a difficult time
- Some felt there wasn’t an issue at all
- And many other variations along the way
Doesn’t that sound like a classic case of blind people describing an elephant?
Consider the arrangement to install the form plugin with demo-content. Did the themes get favorable reviews and promotions on the marketer’s websites as a form of recompense? There was a YouTube video of the marketer saying they did, but it has been removed. When a theme installs demo or pre-designed content on a user’s site, does it need to disclose that it might get an affiliate commission if the user later purchases the plugin? Note that the plugin install and adding of the affiliate id are decoupled and don’t happen at the same time. The theme author only gets a commission if the user decides they are interested, clicks the up-sell link, and purchases. In many ways this is similar to the user themselves trying a freemium plugin from the WordPress directory. Perhaps only the up-sell link needs an affiliate notice? What about hosting providers that pre-install themes or plugins that have an up-sell — do they disclose that there is compensation for making these available? It is not always easy to understand the rules or the law. Even legal experts disagree about aspects of the GPL and any online discussion turns into a pile of spaghetti.
Consider that the guidelines of the Theme Review Team and the Plugin Review Team are different. Part of the difference is that themes are geared to showing content on the front-end of the site and plugins might relate to both front and back end behavior and displays. However, the rules do differ and the response to infractions also differ. I think this may partially be a result of different circumstances and experiences of the two teams. Getting a theme noticed by users on WordPress.org website has been shown to greatly increase sales of the premium versions. The Theme Review Team has had to constantly deal with theme authors trying to game the system. Exposure is also beneficial to plugin authors, but the Plugin Review Team seems to take the approach that new accounts are banned for breaking the rules, because rule breakers, when banned, just create new accounts to try again. Authors of existing plugins, however, are first asked to remove the offending code.
Consider that most of the members of these teams are volunteers who believe in the WordPress project and want what is best for WordPress and its community members. Often when there is an issue these volunteers are bombarded from both sides, accused of being unfair, of being motivated by politics, of applying rules unevenly, of not being tough enough, of letting theme and plugin authors with a lot of installs steamroll them, of not considering the users, of not considering how this might impact the theme and plugin authors financially, of letting WordPress.org be overrun by commercial interests, or not being friendly to those trying to feed their families, and so on. You get the idea. Consider also that there is little top-down guidance and that these teams are generally told to be self organized. Consider that these teams are understaffed and have large backlogs. Would you like to volunteer? Could you keep your cool under the stress of such an onslaught? Given those circumstances and challenges, we are all grateful of these volunteers … until it impacts us or someone we know. Right?
David Waumsley, in his usual wisdom, asked if there were published policies and procedures in place for handling issues and punishments. Those would protect and provide guidance for volunteer staff and help to ensure that punishments are consistent and fair. One would hope that when issues arise, these would be put in place for next time.
There is general, but not universal, agreement that adding the affiliate IDs to the up-sell links was against the guidelines and should not be allowed on WordPress.org. I agree with that. There is less agreement about everything else. The overall scheme with the form plugin makes me uncomfortable and I don’t like it. It seems that the majority of people also at least wonder about it. There was no consensus about the appropriateness of the suspension.
Astra included the programming hooks in their theme, while the other themes included the programming hooks in their companion plugins, which are all hosted on WordPress.org. The theme rules are more strict, or more strictly enforced, so Astra was suspended, but so far the plugins haven’t been suspended. Some are quietly removing the affiliate-related code hoping to avoid notice. I’m not advocating suspending others involved in the scheme, but at the same time, that doesn’t seem fair to me. That is part of the problem with this situation, it is difficult to be fair all around.
There were suggestions that politics or an Astra competitor were involved. As far as I know, that is unfounded. However, Astra was given a 5 week suspension, which was presented as a done deal, but was changed to 2-3 days. How did that change come about? We may never know.
The review teams may not have the ability or authority to put policies and procedures in place. Assistance from the top may be needed. This seems like an example where some governance structure for the WordPress project would benefit everyone. My opinion is that the WordPress Foundation should be funded and it should hire staff for WordPress.org. Also, it should have a membership and governing structure so people and companies pay dues and members of the board are elected by the membership. Drupal did this in a way where the Drupal founder still has the last say, but there is a lot that the Drupal Organization handles.
The person with sight has full knowledge of what the elephant looks like, but the blind person only knows the part of the elephant they are touching. Perhaps in situations like this we are all blind and all we have to guide us are our values.
Note: WebTNG is an Astra affiliate. Opinions are my own.