Facebook opens vote on policy changes, addresses privacy concerns

The site's proposed policy changes are officially open for a vote. Think it's a farce? The company's calling in an independent auditor.

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
4 min read

Nation Facebook has officially opened its polls. So from now until noon on December 10, Facebook's billion-plus members will be able to vote on a number of proposed policy changes as to how Facebook governs its site. These include how Facebook handles your data, and a plan to abolish the social network's practice of allowing users to vote on policy changes in the first place.

The proposed changes, rolled out just over a week ago, have led to plenty of criticism from privacy advocates, who urged CEO Mark Zuckerberg to reverse course on the whole thing.

And as a result of feedback and after consulting with regulators, Facebook is changing the language to parts of the policy proposals, particularly the sections about what Facebook wants to do with data it collects from Instagram and what it shares with its affiliates. Facebook's vice president of public policy and marketing, Elliot Schrage, highlighted the key points in a post. He wrote:

  • Ownership of your content. A number of the comments suggested that we were changing ownership of your content on Facebook. We're not. This is not true and has never been the case. Anyone who uses Facebook owns and controls the content and information they post, as stated in our SRR. They control how that content and information is shared. That is our policy, and it always has been. We're not proposing to change this key aspect of how Facebook works.
  • Privacy controls. In our latest set of updates, we proposed to add language reminding you of the difference between privacy settings (which let you decide who can see what you post anywhere on Facebook) and timeline visibility preferences (which impact how things show up on your timeline but don't impact other parts of Facebook, like news feed, relationship pages, or search results). Some people asked if this means we're removing controls you currently have over who can see the things you post. We are not. We simply added this language to further explain how these privacy settings and timeline preferences work. In response to your feedback, however, we're adding additional language to remind you that you can delete things you post or change the audience at any time.
  • Advertising policies. We've always been clear that we are able to provide free services by showing you ads that are relevant to your interests, and we use your posts - including pages you like - to help show these ads. We proposed new language to make it clearer that those likes and posts include topics like religion or political views. This language does not mean that we are changing our Advertising Guidelines, which prohibit advertisers from running ads that assert or imply sensitive personal characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. We've added additional language, including a link to our guidelines, to this proposal to make that clearer.

This vote comes after 20,108 people commented in English on Schrage's original post about the proposed changes. In total, Facebook received about 89,000 comments during the seven-day period that ended Wednesday.

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, faced with a range of regulatory issues. 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 with more than a billion users.

For the people's vote to become binding, however, Facebook requires "more than 30 percent of all active registered users" to participate. Facebook is doing its part to push people to the polls. The company says it's sending out an e-mail blast to all its members, and it's releasing an app -- built by a third party, and developed on the Facebook platform -- specifically for voting. Concerned it's all a sham? Facebook says its bringing in an independent auditor to ensure an accurate vote count.

Inside Scoop: Facebook policy changes being put to a vote
Watch this: Inside Scoop: Facebook policy changes being put to a vote

It's hard to imagine the Facebook public affecting the outcome of this. 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. And the vote now under way would require a turnout of about 300 million people.

That means this is all but certain to be the last vote that Facebook puts to its users. While some people told Facebook they were "concerned that by ending the vote mechanism" they were "losing control of the ability to shape policies that govern Facebook," according to Schrage's post, the company is sticking with its plan to kill the voting system (unless, that is, 300 million people tell it otherwise.)

You can read all the details about the changes here, and place your vote here.