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Low voter turnout means new Facebook privacy policy wins

Facebook to change user participation process after low turnout. But did company do enough to notify people?

Most voters opposed the proposed changes to Facebook's policies, but because only a fraction of all users voted, the changes will go into effect.
Most voters opposed the proposed changes to Facebook's policies, but because only a fraction of all users voted, the changes will go into effect. Facebook

So few people voted on proposed changes to Facebook's privacy and user rights policies that even though most of the votes were against the changes the company will be adopting the revised policies after all.

Only 342,632 people participated in the vote, which ran for a week and ended this morning, according to a blog post announcing the official results on the Facebook Site Governance page. That's less than 1 percent -- .038 percent to be exact -- of the total 900 million active monthly Facebook users. The results would be binding only if 30 percent of all users, or 270 million, had voted.

The vote was triggered because a critical mass of people had commented on the proposed policies -- seven times the amount needed, in fact. Opposition to the privacy policy revisions was mounted by an Austrian law student who waged a campaign via the "Europe versus Facebook" site to get people to post comments urging a vote. While there were enough people to prompt a vote, not enough people turned out to officially weigh in.

Which raises the question of how many of the 900 million users actually knew there was even a vote. The only way people would have known from logging in is if they had liked the Site Governance page and therefore seen updates from that page; if one of their friends voted and clicked a box to send an update to their profile's news feed; or if they happened to notice a promo for the vote that was mixed in with the ads on the right side of the page. I never saw a promo, but that's because I ignore the small ads and other items on the far right. I suspect most people do.

Four days into the vote the Europe versus Facebook site issued a statement (PDF) calling the vote a "farce" and accusing Facebook of essentially hiding the polling station.

A Facebook representative did not immediately respond to an e-mail or phone message seeking comment this evening on the criticism. Granted, it is rare for a company to let its users vote on policy changes like this. But Facebook could have done more to advertise the vote, like put a more prominent notice on the site or even send users e-mails about it.

And things are likely to get worse before they get better for relations between Facebook and its vocal critics. Because of the low turnout, the company is going to change its process for involving users in the site governance process, according to Elliot Schrage, vice president of communications, public policy, and marketing at Facebook. He did not provide specifics in the blog post today announcing the results, so it's unclear whether they will even have votes on policy changes going forward.

"Given these efforts and the subsequent turnout, we plan to review this process to determine how to maximize our ability to promote user engagement and participation in our site governance process in the future," he wrote. "Since transparent governance and user participation are critical values for us, I'd like to thank everyone who participated in this process by voting and providing feedback on the proposed changes. We value the feedback we have received from you during the voting process and our notice and comment period. We will take it into serious consideration for any future changes we contemplate to these two documents and as we continue to develop our service."

Meanwhile, Schrage also addressed critics of the changes, who worried that the revisions foreshadow fewer user privacy protections and more advertising. "Most of the changes clarify rather than fundamentally change our standards," he wrote. "Many of the changes simply reflect recently launched products or conform language between our various policies. More significantly, the changes incorporate recommendations made by our regulators, including the Irish Data Protection Commissioner's Office."

Facebook has provided detailed explanations of the changes here.