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'Facebookistan''s Experiment With 'Democracy' Ends With A Whimper

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, December 10 2012

Facebook's brief dalliance with the idea of a user-driven community establishing its own rules of self-governance ended Monday when voting over a proposed set of changes to the service's terms of service ended without the required percentage of votes needed to preserve the system.

More than half a million Facebook account holders voted to keep the existing system of self-governance and data-usage policies, but that didn't even begin to meet the 300 million or 30 percent threshold needed. Facebook boasts more than a billion account holders around the globe. While most companies don't poll users on changes to their normally dry legal terms of service, some have compared Facebook to a country unto itself because of its size and extent of involvement in individuals' lives, and have gone so far as to suggest that it needs its own constitution.

Facebook had announced just prior to Thanksgiving that it wanted to end the process that allowed its users to vote on changes to the way the site's governed. The reason, the company said in a post online, was that the policy was resulting in a lot of low-quality feedback. The company wants to instead hold online townhalls to engage in conversations with its users about its policies. Facebook also announced that it wanted to share user information with company affiliates like Instagram, and loosen the rules regarding the ability of third parties to contact account holders via Facebook's messaging system.

Those proposed changes sparked an outcry online among users and privacy advocates, some of whom note that the proposed change violates the terms of Facebook's 2011 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission. The settlement came as a result of Facebook trying to unilaterally change the default privacy setting of account holders to 'public,' rather than letting users keep their default settings.

In a recent appearance on a local radio show in San Francisco, Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC,) charged that the current attempt to change the site's data usage policies is in effect a violation of that 2011 settlement. Though Facebook has established a voting system and a site governance page, it hasn't made an attempt to notify account holders of the voting process by placing notices, or sending e-mails out to its account holders about the process. The settlement requires account holders to affirmatively consent to any changes made to the policies surrounding their personal data, he said. An e-mail to a Facebook spokesman about this was not returned at the timing of this posting.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C. non-profit focused on online consumer protection and privacy issues, said that the proposed site changes are a typical Facebook maneuver of not being candid with the site's users. Both he and Rotenberg authored a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on November 27th urging him to reconsider the proposed changes.

"It's not because of the numbers, it's not because they have a billion members," he said. "They have the capability of closely tracking and targeting a billion people at any one time -- that's what Facebook does for advertisers -- they certainly can hold a plebiscite."

"It's that Facebook is engaged in a dramatic expansion of its data collection and targeting activities," he charged.

Asked whether the two groups intend to file a complaint with the FTC in the wake of the last round of voting, Chester responded that they're not ready to do that yet, though they think that the 88% of the voters voting not to make a change to site governance "sends a message."

Rotenberg suggested in an e-mail note that Facebook could change the governance process by either reducing the number of votes required for a binding vote, or requiring Facebook to obtain 30 percent of votes from account holders before making changes.