Commenters push Facebook policy changes to public vote

For the third time in Facebook history, the social network will put a vote about how it does business to its members. And if history is any guide, turnout will be low.

Paul Sloan Former Editor
Paul Sloan is editor in chief of CNET News. Before joining CNET, he had been a San Francisco-based correspondent for Fortune magazine, an editor at large for Business 2.0 magazine, and a senior producer for CNN. When his fingers aren't on a keyboard, they're usually on a guitar. Email him here.
Paul Sloan
2 min read

Facebook is about to take its policy changes to an official vote among its users. And if history is any guide, turnout will be low and Facebook will proceed to make the changes it wants. That includes how it collects data from Instagram users, which has privacy advocates protesting and urging CEO Mark Zuckerberg to reverse course.

Facebook last week proposed a series of policy changes that, along with changes to how it handles your data, would abolish the social network's practice of allowing users to vote on policy changes.

That's right. Facebook wants to do away with your right to vote -- a right most members clearly don't realize they have. In April 2009, Facebook instituted its own democracy of sorts through a vote that was put before but largely ignored by Facebook's 200 million users at the time (665,654 votes were cast). But the company now argues that the system no longer makes sense because Facebook has become so large and is a publicly traded company.

That 2009 policy says that site governance changes automatically go to a broader vote once a post about the proposal receives 7,000 "substantive comments," which is easy to achieve now that Facebook has roughly a seventh of the world's population as users. For the people's vote to become binding, however, Facebook requires "more than 30 percent of all active registered users" to participate -- and that is far harder to achieve.

Users have until tomorrow at 9 a.m. PT to comment on the post, so it's not official yet. But it will happen, considering that as of now the post is approaching 19,000 comments, and voting will go on for a week. Facebook's vice president of public policy and marketing, Elliot Schrage, wrote the post, Proposed Updates to our Governing Documents, which is now crammed with thousands of comments asking that Facebook maintain its policy of putting site changes to a user vote.

Since Facebook instituted its current system, only two issues have gone to broader votes. And both failed because not enough people voted. The first time was when Facebook proposed the policy it now wants to undo. The second time was in June, when Facebook put to a vote a change in its privacy policy, but only 342,632 of its roughly 900 million users at the time even voted. That was just 0.038 percent.

For this effort, Facebook did an e-mail blast to all 1 billion plus users. And the company's efforts are receiving a lot of press, especially as opposition mounts. Just yesterday, the executive directors of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy penned a letter (PDF) to Zuckerberg urging him to withdraw changes that they say would impact user privacy and break the company's previous settlement agreement with the Federal Trade Commission. (Facebook declined to comment on the letter).

Even so, the prospect that 300 million people or so will cast a vote on all this seems dim.