Facebook site governance: how can 1bn users have their say in how their data is used?

22 Nov 2012

Proposed changes to Facebook’s site governance policy suggest ending the site’s current voting process in favour of a system of feedback through regular engagement sessions on the site between users and Facebook’s chief privacy officer of policy – but is that an effective way to let 1bn members have their say in how the social network should be run? If not, what else is there?

Facebook’s first site governance vote took place in 2009 when the site had 200m users and was a small private company. In June of this year, a second site governance vote was held on proposed changes to the site’s Data Use Policy and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR). While many of these changes involved clarifying the language in these documents for better understanding and improved legal compliance, changes to Facebook’s data retention provisions were also included, allowing members’ information collected by advertisers to be stored for longer than 180 days.

Voting opened on 1 June for one week only and, at the time, it was said that the success of this vote would be reviewed to determine if the process still worked for the growing community.

When the vote concluded on 8 June, only 342,632 of Facebook’s then 900m members voted, equating to a turn-out of 0.04pc. While 87pc of those that voted opted not to change the policies, this went unheard as a 30pc turn-out is required for the voters’ decision to be binding.

A flawed system

While this situation makes it clear that the system is flawed – particularly considering that the number of Facebook members has now breached 1bn, requiring a voter turn-out of 300m for the users’ decision to be carried – Facebook is now proposing to scrap the voting process altogether, which is sure to be met with some opposition such as that from europe-v-facebook.org.

At the very least, Facebook is trying harder to get the word out on the site governance changes this time around, having sent all of its 1bn users an email alert and posted the announcement in nine languages on the Facebook Site Governance page.

Now, let’s humour them for a second and assume that at least 300m of Facebook’s active users will actually read this email rather than just passing over it as yet another notification email, or that they are one of the 2.4m that have liked the Facebook Site Governance page and saw the announcement in their news feed: will they read the documentation? Probably not. Reading privacy policies and T&Cs is simply something that the majority of users don’t do.

Proposed changes

For those that are interested, though, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine has reproduced the documents – with the proposed changes marked up – on Scribd. Having read through them, the majority of the changes are merely updates to the context of the documents, making them clearer and modifying the content to address new services on the network.

The most significant change, though, is the decision to scrap the voting process. This is the original wording under ‘Opportunity to comment and vote’ from Facebook’s Data Use Policy:

“Unless we make a change for legal or administrative reasons, or to correct an inaccurate statement, we will give you seven (7) days to provide us with comments on the changes. If we receive more than 7,000 comments concerning a particular change, we will put the change up for a vote. The vote will be binding on us if more than 30pc of all active registered users as of the date of the notice vote.”

The proposed change will rename this section ‘Opportunity to comment’ and will contain the following wording:

“Unless we make a change for legal or administrative reasons, or to correct an inaccurate statement, we will give you seven (7) days to provide us with comments on the changes. After the comment period, if we adopt any changes, we will provide notice (for example, on the Facebook Site Governance Page or in this policy) of the effective date. ”

Similar changes have been proposed to the SRR.

New ways to voice concerns

While some users may be aghast that they will no longer have a say in how the social network they use so often is run, the likelihood of enough users playing an active part in this process for it to represent the average user is extremely unlikely.

For those users that like to stay abreast of Facebook’s policies and want to be actively involved in site governance, though, the social network is prepared to open up new avenues for them to voice their concerns. These include a new feature on the Facebook and Privacy Page called ‘Ask the Chief Privacy Officer’ where users can submit questions to Facebook’s CPO of policy Erin Egan, and regular Facebook Live webcasts hosted by Egan to address users’ comments and queries.

To me, these sound like more effective ways for privacy-conscious users to reach out to Facebook about issues other than being a wimpy 0.04pc voice in a vote that is going to be ignored.

Important reading

While, for the most part, the rest of the proposed policy changes are easily understood and accepted (perhaps intentionally so, in order to push through the decision to drop the voting system), there is one addition that stuck out. Among the clear language explaining new tools for managing Facebook Messages, tips on managing the timeline and reminders on what information may be visible to people elsewhere on Facebook – all of which is very useful to users and important reading – there’s a new section called ‘Affiliates’ in the Data Use Policy that may prompt concerns over what Facebook plans to do with shared data now it’s buying up outside services like Instagram.

The added section states:

“We may share information we receive with businesses that are legally part of the same group of companies that Facebook is part of, or that become part of that group (often these companies are called affiliates). Likewise, our affiliates may share information with us as well. We and our affiliates may use shared information to help provide, understand, and improve our services and their own services.”

If data sharing policies like this concern you, or if you want to ensure that a user vote remains part of Facebook’s site governance policy, you have until 5pm GMT on 28 November to give your feedback on the proposed changes. Substantive, relevant and specific comments will be considered when evaluating the proposal and, if it goes to a vote, it might just be the last one.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.