A Primer on Facebook Privacy Changes: In Which Your Vote Probably Won’t Change Anything

Published on November 28, 2012
by Mike Isaac

By now, you’ve probably heard the hubbub about Facebook’s proposed privacy overhauls.

Perhaps you’ve read lines like, “Privacy is being flipped on its head! Facebook is taking away our right to vote! Rabble rabble rabble!” Frankly, it’s all a jumbled mess, which is typical anytime Facebook privacy issues come up. So let’s take a look at what’s actually happening.

Facebook proposes three big things: Some vaguely worded unknown changes to the Messages product, tweaks to how the site presents notifications and, most visibly, that the site can amend the current process of making privacy policy changes. (There are some other issues buried in the original proposal that involve data-sharing with other Facebook properties, but we’ll skip that for now.)

The last point is the one getting the attention. Currently, any proposed privacy changes are put out to the users at large on Facebook’s “site governance” page. From there, a post needs to surpass a certain number of user comments before being put to a vote on whether changes will be made.

But here’s where the process breaks down. As the bylaw stands, Facebook requires 30 percent of its user base to vote to block any proposed site changes. A little perspective here: That’s 300 million people, or just under the total population of the United States. Getting that many people to do anything just doesn’t happen. It’s hard enough to get a fraction of that number to vote in a presidential election, much less a lightly publicized Facebook vote.

So this is how it’ll play out. As of 9 am PT this morning, site-governance commenting was closed. As has been the case in the past, Facebook will probably put the issue to a vote — the company wouldn’t confirm this to me, but history suggests it’s all but inevitable.

Then we can all weigh in, though our votes probably won’t add up to enough to change anything. Facebook will institute the first of its changes — which include Webcasts and suggestions to chief privacy officer Erin Egan — and from then on take into account what its users want.

Hopefully, though, Facebook will have more to offer than a series of Q&A sessions with Egan. Like the vote, this solution just doesn’t scale well. And when you’re a company dealing with the demands and needs of a billion users, you have to figure out something better than a suggestion box.

Of course, you could defer to VP of comms Elliot Schrage’s point about the current state of Facebook oversight. Quoth the veep:

“When we held our second global site governance vote in June, we indicated that we would review our site governance process in light of the growth of both our community — to over one billion users — and our company — which is now publicly traded and accountable to regulators around the world.”

Read between the lines in that last part. Facebook can make changes that eliminate a dysfunctional direct democracy while still being held accountable to others — namely, the FTC, SEC and a number of other national and international regulators. So, sure, our feedback is important! But Facebook will answer to a higher authority than just its user base.

So feel free to vote when Facebook asks you to, probably within the week. Just know that it’s more symbolic than anything else. We’ll see if Facebook drums up a better method.

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