Older and bigger, Facebook rethinks a youthful flirtation with user democracy

June 1, 2012

With about 900 million people, Facebook is larger than all but two countries in the world. But the nation of Facebook’s experiment with direct democracy may be coming to an end after only a few years.

On Friday, Facebook said it will “review” a process that allows users of the online social network to vote for or against changes to its privacy and site governance policies.

The user feedback process was implemented at a time when Facebook a much smaller, privately-held company and may no longer be well-suited to the company’s current situation, Facebook explained  in a blog post.

Facebook is now subject to audits and oversight by various agencies including the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the Irish Data Protection Commission.

That’s created “a new layer of accountability” when it comes to Facebook’s practices and policies.  More problematically, it means that giving users a direct say in how the website is run could create conflicts.

Facebook’s latest planned privacy changes for instance, were drafted in response to feedback from Ireland’s privacy agency. But according to Facebook’s policy, if 30 percent of its active users vote against the change, Facebook will be bound to follow the will of the people.

“Our users might tell us no, and it leaves us  in a tight spot,” said Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer Eran Egan in an interview with Reuters.

The vote on Facebook’s latest privacy changes, which begins on Friday and will last one week, marks only the second time that Facebook has opened the ballot polls since the system was introduced in 2009 – when Facebook had about 200 million users.

At the time, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg hailed the process as an “unprecedented” step in “enabling participation on the web,” though some viewed the announcement with a more jaundiced eye.

“Everything is on the table,” said Egan, regarding the review. Facebook could adjust some of the mechanisms in the current system, such as the relatively low-threshold of 7,000 user comments which automatically triggers a vote on any proposed change; Or it could do away with the voting process entirely.

“The existing structure today as it’s set up may not be the right one in light of the growth of our users,” said Egan.

Whatever happens, Facebook says it remains committed to its principles of transparency and accountability – but when it comes to suffrage, there are no guarantees for citizens of Facebook’s virtual world.

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