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The Republic(?) of Facebook is Having an Election?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, February 27 2009

I just got off the phone with Chris Kelly, Chief Privacy Officer and Head of Global Public Policy at Facebook, and Adam Conner, its Washington DC Associate for Privacy and Public Policy, (and one-time techPresident blogger), talking about the company's move to involve its users in shaping a statement of "Facebook Principles" and accompanying statement of "Rights and Responsibilities." So far, Facebook has set up two "town hall" pages, for discussion of each draft document. It has promised to listen to user comments, to give folks advance notice of possible changes in the drafts, and "if more than 7,000 users comment on the proposed change, we will also give you the opportunity to participate in a vote in which you will be provided alternatives. The vote shall be binding on us if more than 30% of all active registered users ... vote." All of this is a result of a user-rebellion that was touched off a few weeks ago over some changes in Facebook's terms of service pertaining to ownership of content--and interestingly enough, two of the de-facto leaders of that rebellion, Julius Harper of Los Angeles and Anne Kathrine Yojana Petterøe of Oslo, Norway, are being included by the company in this process, though their exact role is still unclear. (See also Nancy Scola's earlier post on this here.)

Kelly started off the conversation by saying, "We’ve tried to embrace the idea of user democracy in the debate over the terms of service and going forward. We’ve very excited. I don’t know of a business that has ever done this. We’re embracing some uncertainty but believe this will empower users." When I asked him to clarify what he meant by the phrase "user democracy," he demurred, noting that it wasn't an official company term, but added, "the focus is for users have more say in the service." Well, if democracy means "having more say," then it's fine to refer to this as some kind of "user democracy."

But what kind? We don't really know yet. We barely know what Facebook is--a public space, a private space, or a semi-public/private space where we have some constitutional rights? I tried to get at these issues with a few questions. First I asked Kelly and Conner what the company meant by referring to "town hall" forums. Usually these either have a speaker who takes direct questions from a live audience, or (if you're in New England) debate over resolutions that get voted on by the attendees.

Kelly admitted that things were still very much in flux. "The groups are up and allowing people to discuss in real time, but there will be some more organized events, or focal points, as part of this process to focus that conversation and there will be more on that soon. We’re working on the particulars now." Either way, he noted, "The outpouring of interest and posting and commentary will inform the process no matter what."

You Have the Right to Vote, Kind Of
Where did the idea of opening Facebook up to some kind of possibly binding vote by its users come from, I asked? Kelly replied, "There have been an number of internal discussions on how we might effectively enfranchise users, and at the same time get to legally binding terms of service. Mark [Zuckerberg] was dedicated to the idea that users would have real power."

As for the 7,000 user threshold for triggering a voting process, Conner told me, "We wanted a threshold. It was an estimate of what would constitute a sufficient level of interest." Kelly added, "There’s obviously worry of capture by a particular interest group, or that someone might try to stack the group."

So far, the two "town hall" sites have already generated thousands of user sign-ups, so it looks like perhaps in thirty days, the Republic of Facebook will be having an election, I asked? Kelly laughed and answered, "I would be very surprised if there isn’t voting coming out of this process." Very interesting indeed.

You Have the Right to Organize, Kind Of
We then drilled into two areas of particular concern here: rights to organize using Facebook, and the process for redress when a user has their account disable. First I asked Kelly and Conner about Adam Green's campaign to loosen up the site's restrictions on group email. Judging from their response, it doesn't look like this issue is going to be addressed during this process, and possibly not for a while if ever. Kelly said:

"Anybody should be able to use our tools to organize on any subject at any time, to petition us for redress of grievances, whatever they made be. Individual product changes [like changing the email limits] are not subject to this set of discussions. The product areas that Adam is criticizes are structured that way to protect the integrity of the site. The fact of the matter is that there are tons of people who want to spam our service. So we’ve set limits to protect the overall service. We’re happy to hear from users who want to use the service in positive ways. The sooner we can find a way to protect the integrity of the site while allowing broader user, we will continue to look at changing those limits.

We’ve found that those barriers are reasonably effective against spam, and that’s a critical operational factor. We don’t want the lines of communication clogged, so that the important stuff gets to people. While I have every confidence that Adam and MoveOn would be utterly responsible in a limitless environment, we have to have rules to protect users from the bad actors."

Conner also questioned Green's premise, that Facebook's technical strictures somehow choke off activism. "We’ve seen tons of examples of effective organizing under the existing system, such as was featured in the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit."

You Have the Right of Habeas Corpus, Kind Of
We then turned to a different issue, what some have called digital habeas corpus. What rights of recourse does an individual have if Facebook disables his or her account? According to paragraph 13 of their proposed Rights and Responsibilities statement, "if you violate the letter or spirit of this statement…we can stop providing all or part of FB to you. We will generally try to notify you, but have no obligation to do so.” I pressed Kelly on this seemingly arbitrary power. He responded, "We do have an appellate system within Facebook. Write to if you feel their account has been disabled in error. There are quite a number of frivolous appeals, but we do regularly restore accounts thru that process."

But that very process is completely opaque, I argued, and often people experience it as completely arbitrary, citing the case of Derek Blackadder, the labor activist who lost his account for a period because he was friending people too fast. Kelly answered, "For the person affected, it’s fairly transparent. Obviously as in any human system there will be error from time to time. There should be rules and they should be enforced. Errors should be fixed. The core terms of service shouldn’t be the place for every detail." But shouldn't people know they have some kind of way of appealing a mistake? Kelly agreed this was something that perhaps belonged in the terms of service. We shall see.

This is a developing story and we'll continue to follow it closely.