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In Facebook Nation, Privacy Activists Trigger a Vote On Policy

BY Nick Judd | Friday, June 1 2012

Facebook's American stance on privacy clashes with European expectations. Image: Paul Butler

With its 900 million active monthly users, Facebook is — for good or ill — a platform for discussing how our world is governed.

But how do you discuss governing the platform itself?

Way back in the long-long ago, before Facebook was a publicly traded company, the site established a governance policy that it said created room for its users to become part of the in-crowd that establishes its rules and norms. That hasn't stopped the regular reoccurrence of freakouts over design changes, revolts against adjustments to the terms of service, and the departure of this or that prominent writer or tech-head. After all, the governance mechanism — under which the company pledges to open up for broader user debate any proposed policy changes to accrue over 7,000 comments — had only been used once before.

Until today, that is, when a group of users led by Austrian Facebook birddogger Max Schrems accrued nearly 48,000 comments on proposed changes to the social network's data use policy. As a result, the policy is up for a vote by all Facebook users, presenting a rare test of the social network's ability to balance its status as a publicly traded company with its unique place in the digital public square.

If 30 percent of users join in the governance vote — which is an up-or-down vote on Facebook's proposed slate of changes and comes after the public comment period on the policy — the results will be binding, Facebook says. Otherwise, they will be advisory.

Schrems and company are advocating that the social network take a far more user-centric approach to data management, one that requires users to give their specific permission for Facebook to apply data-gathering features to their accounts and to have greater access to the information the company is collecting about them. For instance, Schrems' group Europe v Facebook is calling on Facebook to implement an "opt-in" system as opposed to an "opt-out" one for all data use and all features, such as face recognition; to publish a list of all data categories stored about a user, instead of naming examples; and to give users full access to personal data "in a raw format within 40 days upon request."

Currently, Facebook allows users the option to download just a fraction of all the data it has about them. Schrems would know; since Facebook's European headquarters is in Ireland, he made use of Ireland's strict data laws to obtain a complete database. Here's how Forbes privacy blogger Kashmir Hill described the contents:

Schrems, who has been on Facebook since 2008, had a file that was over 1,200 pages long, including everyone he had ever friended and de-friended, every event he had ever been invited to (and how he responded), a history of every “poke” he had ever received, a record of who else signed onto Facebook on the same computers as him, email addresses that he hadn’t provided for himself (but that must have been culled from his friends’ contact lists) and all of his past messages and chats, including some with the notation “deleted.”

The company is unenthused about the vote, telling TechCrunch that the changes it had proposed were uncontroversial.

Max Schrems, Facebook Chief Privacy Officer for Policy Erin Egan is quoted as saying, "is interested in us changing our product, but these revisions are about our policy."

TechCrunch also frames the vote as the result of blind cut-and-pasting by users — in short accusing Schrems of hijacking what's meant to be a quasi-democratic process. Facebook officials say they may now consider making changes to its governance policy, raising the threshold necessary to trigger a vote.

Schrems says that absent widespread public outcry — which he doesn't seem to be expecting — the 30 percent threshold won't be reached. But visitors to his site spent on average two minutes perusing it, he told techPresident — so even if people cut-and-pasted his suggested comments into Facebook to trigger the vote, they weren't doing so blindly.

"We think the basic problem is, that social media has become a standard form of communication for our generation," Schrems told techPresident in an email. "At the same time we have a wordwide monopoly by Facebook, because it is running a closed platform."

And even though Facebook is large and sophisticated enough a society to be a country all its own, it's still run by a corporation subject to national laws — and Facebook's international reach brings it under the jurisdiction of laws it's seemed to struggle with before, as previous activism by the Austrian law student and activist triggered an audit of its practices.

"We just sat together and wanted to see what happens if someone does something about all this misconduct by Facebook," he told techPresident in an email. "So we are not really fanatics, we rather just wanted to have this cooperation to respect the European laws."

With Miranda Neubauer
This post has been updated.