«

»

Facebook wants to scrap its absurd user voting system – and about time too.

facebook logo image

By Simon Davies

Earlier today Facebook sent an email to its 900 million users under the bland header “Updates to Data Use Policy and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities”. There are some worrying elements in this announcement, not the least of which is the trashing of barriers to data flows within the organisation. More on that later.

What intrigues me about the move is that Facebook might be on the side of the angels for a change – even if the company’s motives are suspect

However the aspect that most surprised me is the proposal to abolish the Facebook Vote. Currently if the company wishes to alter its terms and conditions the members have a right to vote on the proposal. The vote of the members – however the result turns out – is binding on the company.

What intrigues me about the move is that Facebook might be on the side of the angels for a change – even if the company’s motives are suspect.

Let’s look at the facts. The membership vote is a confidence trick. It was a confidence trick when it was proposed in 2009 and it turned from a confidence trick to a swindle three months later when its guts were removed. Ever since then the scheme has mutated into a sad illusion held aloft by symbolic democracy.

Don’t get me wrong. The user vote was in theory a great idea – and particularly so for a privately owned startup. The move resonated well with a Californian institution called “Citizen’s Initiated Referenda” where ordinary people get to propose measures that – if supported by the majority – are binding on government. The blindingly obvious difference of course is that Facebook users don’t get to initiate anything – only respond to an official proposal.

But the voting system was never supposed to actually work. Anyone who runs a social networking site knows motivating users to take part in democracy falls flat on its face. Facebook knew it too, but just to be on the safe side it changed the rules so not even the intervention of God would work in the users’ favour. The company had originally said that if 25 per cent of users voted in favour of a change in its terms and conditions the result would be binding. Within two months that threshold rose to 30 per cent.

The membership vote is a confidence trick. It was a confidence trick when it was proposed in 2009 and it turned from a confidence trick to a swindle three months later

Why the company even bothered irritating people with this change is beyond me. It was a pointless amendment because the vote was never going to reach anywhere near the threshold. In a heated all-night exchange in April 2009 with Facebook HQ before the company announced this change I argued that they’d never attract more than half a percent of the active user population.

I was way off the mark. Earlier this year 340,000 people – only one thirtieth of one percent of active users – took part in the vote on changes to the T&Cs (“active” is defined as a user who logs on at least once a month).

Some people in the company privately asserted that the low turnout indicated trust in the company and that users don’t much care about such issues as privacy and intellectual property rights. However Facebook as an entity is smarter than that. It known that the vote was an alien idea for a social medium that thrives on coolness. The real opinion-makers in the user-base expect the company do the right thing. The rest just want Facebook to get on with its job

Ditching this absurd voting system is a step in the right direction, but Facebook is scraping the bottom of the barrel by asserting there’s a danger that votes can be triggered by copy and pasted comments drummed up by privacy activists. Welcome to democracy Facebook: that’s a tactic both sides of an argument can play – and it happens to be a pillar of modern consumer activism.

Where there is a slither of potential for this move to reap good results is the company’s pledge to move from quantity to quality of responses.

Even with these fatal drawbacks is there anything to be said in favour of keeping the voting system? Tech Crunch makes the observation:

“If there was a global catastrophe, corporate takeover of Facebook, or some other incident that impacted all 1 billion users, the vote could be necessary. It could let users authorize the use of Facebook data for international security or disaster relief, or block the ability of new owners of the company from selling away people’s personally identifiable data — something Facebook does not do currently.”

No, I don’t buy these arguments. In the event of such a disaster governments already have the power to pull personal data from any organisation. And if new owners tried selling off personal data they’d run aground in the sixty countries that have privacy laws.

Where there is a sliver of potential for this move to reap good results is the company’s pledge to move from quantity to quality of responses. Facebook wants to use a consultation period, an “Ask The Chief Privacy Officer” facility (yes, they finally hired a CPO), and live-streamed events to get the specific opinions of users on proposed changes and Facebook’s current policy.

Well – on the subject of process and governance – the devil will be in the detail. How precisely does the company intend harnessing all this substantial input? I recall during a visit to Facebook HQ three years ago the legal teams telling me that – intra-company – privacy suggestions for privacy improvements “sort of just organically happen”. Is this the approach being considered, or will Facebook institute a more structured and accountable process?

I will report back to you when I learn more from the company.