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Facebook users have a week to vote on privacy policy changes

Executives say user feedback and vote process for policy changes were flawed, so Facebook is looking into changing it.

Facebook is opening up to a vote its proposed changes on two policy documents.
Facebook is opening up to a vote its proposed changes on two policy documents.

Beginning today, Facebook users will have one week to vote on whether the company should adopt proposed changes to its privacy and user rights policies.

Facebook allows people to vote on revised policies if a revised policy gets more than 7,000 comments, which both its proposed Data Use policy and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities documents have in recent months.

To be binding, more than 30 percent of Facebook's 900 million-strong base of active monthly users (people who have either logged in or taken some action on the site in the last month) will need to cast votes. They will have the option of voting in favor of adopting the two new policy documents or in favor of keeping the existing policies. Voting will be closed at 8:59 a.m. PT on June 8 and users will be notified about it on the Web site. An independent auditor will examine the vote tabulation.

This is the second vote Facebook has put to its users. The first was in 2009 when it changed its Terms of Service and revised them after a public backlash.

While the proposed revisions don't represent a huge change to how Facebook does its business, critics complained that they foreshadow fewer user privacy protections and more advertising. Many of the revisions deal with semantics, such as changing the wording of "profile" to "timeline" and "Privacy Policy" to "Data Use Policy," as well as explaining the consequences of existing policies, including that comments made on friends' posts will be public if the friend sets the post to public and not private. Probably the most significant aspects in the revisions are statements that user data from Facebook may be used to serve ads on other sites and that data will be retained "for as long as necessary to provide services to users and others." Explanations of the changes are detailed here.

The vote is being conducted here.

User feedback from all the comments on the policies was incorporated into the final documents as much as possible, according to Erin Egan, chief privacy officer of policy at Facebook. "We did incorporate feedback when it was responsive," she told CNET. "Too many comments were just too broad."

While nearly 48,000 comments were posted on the Data Use policy proposal and more than 51,000 comments on the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities proposal, many of the comments were general statements opposing Facebook's overall privacy practices and did not address the specific proposed changes, she said.

As a result, the user feedback and revision practice was less effective than it could have been so executives are considering changing the process, said Barry Schnitt, director of corporate communications and public policy at Facebook.

For example, 99 percent of the Data Use revisions comments were a simple "I oppose the changes and want a vote," or something similar, and linked to a "www.our-policy.org" Web site that one European user created, Schnitt said. The "Europe versus Facebook" behind the site was started by a law student at Vienna University, Max Shrems. His message went viral but it wasn't exactly helpful to the process, Schnitt said, declining to elaborate on what changes might be made to address that issue.

"We plan to review this process in the coming months, particularly in light of the current notice, comment and vote process, to determine whether it appropriately reflects the growth of our community and business and to ensure it still serves its original purpose," Elliot Schrage, vice president of communications, public policy and marketing, writes in a blog post today announcing the vote.

The vote comes as the company is dealing with another process that didn't go so well -- its IPO. Since it went public, Facebook's stock has declined, it's been named in at least one shareholder lawsuit, and executives face allegations of limited disclosures. The site also had unexplained outage yesterday.

Updated 10 a.m. PTwith link to blog post and vote URL, more background on the "Europe versus Facebook" movement that compelled the vote, and more details on changes in the proposed policies and mention of outage.