Facebook and Democracy

As Amanda noted in her post, “Don’t Be Fooled,” thousands of Facebook users have been copy-and-pasting a viral message that supposedly protects one against Facebook’s new privacy guidelines.

Six of my friends have re-posted the message. Out of the thirty collective comments on their posts at the time of writing, four (13%) were along the lines of “I’m posting this just in case” or “better safe than sorry,” eleven (37%) effectively said “this post does nothing to protect you,” and fourteen (47%) were of an unrelated nature. Just one comment (3%) mentioned the Facebook Site Governance change that spurred the viral posts in the first place, stating “you can vote to stop it” — which isn’t completely accurate, anyway. The six posts collectively had twelve likes.

Snopes, as expected, has debunked the viral post in its entirety. Of note is the remark that Facebook users cannot, under any circumstance, unilaterally alter the contract they entered with the site when creating an account. Even if the viral post contained legally correct language, it does no more to protect users’ media and content than current copyright law already does. And it is far from legally relevant, misquoting the Berne Convention and inappropriately referencing the Uniform Commercial Code Section 1-308.

Facebook has done little to dispel the myth that they are making a change regarding ownership of users’ information. On their page, “Facebook and Privacy” (which has barely a million “likes”), the site attempted to debunk the viral message with a post of its own. At the time of writing, it has 330 likes and 466 shares… a paltry amount for the social networking giant. The post was duplicated at the little-known “Fact Check” section of Facebook’s Newsroom. At a time when misinformation has been circulating rampantly, and users’ opinions of the site are decidedly suspicious (if uninformed), I am dismayed to see general inaction on Facebook’s part.

To be fair, though, if I was Mark Zuckerberg, I wouldn’t want to publicize the actual changes pending for Facebook’s governing documents. Among a couple modifications up in the air is the removal of users’ ability to vote on changes. Under the current rules, a major change will have a one-week commenting period. If 7000 comments are posted, and a vote on the changes draws over 30% of Facebook’s users, the vote will be binding. In recent experience, the 7000-comment threshold has been too easy to meet, and the 30% threshold has been far too difficult (and was unrealistic from the start, requiring 270 million votes in one case). Facebook wants to replace this system with one that is dubiously effective, favoring high-quality, personal feedback over quantity of comments and votes. The commenting period on this change is open, and, as expected, the 7000-comment threshold has already been met. A vote will take place, and barring the participation of a whopping 30% of the site’s users, Facebook will have its way and voting will be abolished.

Don’t be fooled. Facebook isn’t a democracy now, and it won’t be after the change. Not only has Zuckerberg limited the influence of investors by reserving 96.3% of voting power to the Class B shares he and other insiders own, but he has failed to actively solicit the opinions of users in regards to general site developments. The prominent, site-wide surveys that are often a welcome nuisance elsewhere don’t exist on Facebook. Many websites constantly press users for feedback, but the largest social network has barely solicited me for input. At the very least, as TechCrunch suggests, voting should remain an emergency option, perhaps using a smaller, specially trained “deliberative panel.” Overall, Facebook needs to acknowledge the opinions of its users in the future and demonstrate that it responds to large-scale user input.

UPDATE (11/27): check out Prof. Ed Felten’s CITP blog post regarding the viral copyright statement.

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