What Facebook's democratic gesture might mean

Facebook has decided to open up its decision making on changes in policy but it's not turning over the keys to the boardroom.

Facebook's decision to open up its policy making to user input is a very nice gesture but it's not exactly on par with the American revolution or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Thursday that from now on the company will post proposed changes to its terms of service and other policies for member input. If more than 7,000 people comment, the policy will be put to a vote and the result "will be binding if more than 30 percent of all active registered users vote." Based on Facebook's current 175 million user base , that's nearly 53 million people. What isn't clear is what happens if voter turnout is less than 30 percent which seems pretty likely given that not all Facebook users are as passionate about terms of service as the thousands who protested Facebook's last attempt to change its policies regarding its rights to re-use user data.

Zuckerberg made it very clear, however, that he's not turning over the keys to the boardroom. It affects issues like data ownership and privacy but not the company's products and services. "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," he said in a press conference

That brings up more questions than answers. If, in the opinion of some, a product change threatens user privacy is that considered a change of policy and if so, is it subject to review and a vote?

Of course it's easy to be cynical about what a company does in response to widespread user anger and it's tempting to call this a PR stunt. But I think there is more to it than that. Facebook is a Web 2.0 company and its officials seem to be trying to figure out what it means to run a company where users, not professionals, provide most of the content. In some senses, Facebook is a media company but unlike newspapers, TV networks and even most blogs, its contributors aren't employees or contractors. It's those 175 million members. When I contribute an article to a newspaper or Web site, I understand that I'm giving up some rights to my intellectual property. But when I post something to my Facebook page, I feel that I alone should have control over my intellectual property rights.


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Zuckerberg says he agrees but even in its just proposed Statement of Rights and Responsibilities Facebook is a little fuzzy on this issue. Clause 2.3 now reads, "For content that is covered by intellectual property rights (like photos and videos), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use, copy, publicly perform or display, distribute, modify, translate, and create derivative works of ("use") any content you post on or in connection with Facebook." However, unlike the last proposed data retention policy it also says "This license ends when you delete your content or your account."

That statement is already generating some negative comments on the very page where it's posted now that Facebook is encouraging users to comment on proposed policy changes. But that's the whole idea--the company floats a proposal and lets users weigh-in on what they think. Only a few hours after the new policy was posted, there were more than 400 comments from 287 people. That's a lot of people, but it's not even a measurable fraction of the site's membership It will be interesting to see how many comments are added during the 30 days before the issue can be put to a vote.

In the mean time, I'm going to keep my eye on Facebook just as I'm keeping my eye on President Obama's pledge for more transparency in government. The comparison between the governance of our country and the running of a social-networking site isn't perfect because the issues are different and, with Facebook, the stakes aren't nearly as high. Still, Obama and Zuckerberg deserve both credit and scrutiny.

Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit Internet safety education group that receives financial support from Facebook and some of its competitors.

Podcast: Larry Magid talks about Facebook's new decision making process with Jamie Court, president of ConsumerWatchdog.org

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About the author

Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.

 

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