Facebook’s grassroots earn policy voice

Earlier this month, Facebook experienced a backlash when it changed its privacy policy. The grassroots uprising can be seen on blogs such as The Consumerist, which dissected and criticized the new policies. Although Facebook had always reserved an “irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license” to use any content from its users, the new policy removed a key provision:

You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.

A sizable portion of the Facebook community took this to mean that users would be completely unable to remove their photos or personal information from Facebook, and thus any content could be kept and used by Facebook indefinitely. The grassroots campaign quickly gained momentum, with a mass of blog posts and Facebook protest groups. In response, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rolled back the terms of service to the previous version, “which is what most people asked for”.

However, in Facebook’s defense, the attempt at change was meant to prevent users from ripping apart content that other users have come to depend upon. Wired sums up this question aptly:

Should social networks let you take your photos once you have shared them? At that point, doesn’t the community you shared with have rights too?

When the debate is framed in these terms, we realize that this challenge is nothing new. The tension between individual and community rights is as old as humankind, and every system of rules must grapple with this conflict. Entire political philosophies focus on finding an appropriate balance, and human history reflects remarkable adaptation. Which is why Facebook’s next move should come as no surprise: they opened their policy changes up to a vote. In fact, it is easy to draw comparisons between Facebook’s policies and a constitution, or a bill of rights. Zuckerberg referred to these policies as “governing documents”, and emphasized that they would delineate user rights and responsibilities.

Naturally, this is great news for users and consumers. As for web-based businesses, they should not focus on the negative publicity from this incident, but realize that their community model can become a competitive advantage. Virtual communities such as Facebook will experience virtual immigration and emigration based on governance. As a general rule, the business that finds the right balance between producing a stable and exciting community while protecting the rights of individual users will be the most successful. This will obviously mean that businesses need to deal with rights of ownership, privacy, and control over information. But it may be interesting to see if other businesses emphasize procedural rights, such as the right to an open and transparent process of change, let alone the right to participate in making those changes.

  1. Daniel, this is an interesting idea. Over the last couple of months Facebook has been repeatedly compared to a country. Most recently Mark Zuckerberg, in his response on Feb 17 to the backlash of the changed TOS, said that “If [Facebook] were a country, it would be the sixth most populated country in the world.” http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=54746167130

    I wonder how far this metaphor can be extended and what role the procedures developed through the law can play in anticipating issues the Facebook community may face?

    Yesterday, Thursday Feb 26, two new documents and groups were created by Facebook. http://www.facebook.com/press/releases.php?p=85587
    The groups were established to provide comment on the following documents:
    1) Principles
    2) Statement of Rights and Responsibilities

    Once the comments have been received and recommendations considered, the documents will be revised by Facebook then published and put to a vote to the Facebook community. All members from the community are allowed to vote directly on the documents.

    If we thinking generally about law and the structures it imposes in these situation to ensure fairness, accountability, and ultimately acceptance by society, then a couple of questions come to mind:

    First, will a simple majority (eg. 50%) will be sufficient to adopt the documents? Given that these documents are similar to a constitution and bill of rights, would it not make more sense to have a super majority (2/3) requirement? Facebook seems silent on this issue.

    Second, what kind of amending formula will be required if changes to either of these documents are made and who can initiate these changes besides Facebook?

    Lastly, what relationships are governed by Principles and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and how will they be monitored and enforced? Similar to the constitution of a country or a charter of rights and freedoms, do the rights granted apply only vertically so that it governs the relationship between Facebook and their users, or do they apply horizontally as well and govern the relationship between users of Facebook? For example, s. 5 of the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=67758697570&topic=7569
    says: “We respect other people’s rights, and expect you to do the same.”

    A horizontal application seems to open up additional issues on enforcement and fairness. If Facebook does not abide by their own terms, then they face the loss of customers, but what about the fairness of decisions and resolving disputes between Facebook parties other than Facebook? Section 5.4 says: “If we removed your content for infringing someone else’s copyright, and you believe we removed it by mistake, we will provide you with an opportunity to appeal.”

    Despite all of this, Facebook is still a corporation headquartered in the US with a duty to Shareholders to maximize profits. Zuckerberg made it clear that the new governance applied only to fundamental issues of privacy and data ownership, and not the Facebook product itself: “There will be hundreds and thousands of product changes going forward, and that’s not what we’re talking about. This is about the rules and framework.” It would seem that there is the real potential for the Principles and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to conflict with new business models to generate revenue and the legal duty to shareholders.

  2. While Facebook’s move to allow users to vote on policy changes is admirable in the sense that it is a democratic type of governance, I cannot help but wonder what future reactions will be when the next vote comes around. Specifically, will there be concerns that the voting procedures are not sound?

    First of all, if any Facebook user can vote on a policy change, then it is not impossible for users – those who are adamant about a certain position – to create multiple accounts with the intention to use those accounts to vote. While this is likely prohibited through Facebook’s terms of use, such activity is difficult to track and illegitimate votes might be able to slip through the cracks.

    Secondly, it is not so far fetched to imagine that there would be complaints as to the age requirement of users who might be allowed to vote. Would the age of 15 years be too young? Would the teenager be able to comprehend the implications of voting in one way or another?

    Thirdly, should Facebook be required to make users aware that there is an issue that they can vote on? How should this be done? Through email? Facebook meesage? Giant notification on Facebook homepage?

  3. Adrienne has a good point: “that there would be complaints as to the age requirement of who might be allowed to vote”.

    Although, in countries, there is an age requirement, it seems a little inappropriate for Facebook. Many users of Facebook would fall under an age requirement as many users are young.

    It will be interesting to see how Facebook, fulfilling the role of a small country OR as a social networking site will respond to this base of ‘under-age voters/users’ and how they will be able to harmonize these two conflicting identities.

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