Facebook’s Attempt at Open Governance

After reverting to its old terms of service in the face of increasing criticism, Facebook has followed up on its promise to give users “a lot of input in crafting” the next version of the social networking giant’s TOS.

Today, Facebook published (well, it created groups that users must join in order to view the material) two documents for public review: a set of Facebook Principles, intended to define user rights and to “serve as the guiding framework behind any policy we’ll consider”, and a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, intended to replace the existing Terms of Use. Each document has discussion threads that are becoming filled with user comments, suggestions, and rants.

A few comments of my own follow.

:: Facebook Principles ::

The Facebook Principles cover the following topics: Freedom to Share and Connect; Ownership and Control of Information; Free Flow of Information; Fundamental Equality; Social Value; Open Platforms and Standards; Fundamental Service; Common Welfare; Transparent Process; One World.

Most of these are the typical “information wants to be shared” and “people should be free to connect with others” kind of rhetoric we have come to expect from Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. The Ownership and Control of Information tries to clear up the recent TOS debacle:

2. Ownership and Control of Information

People should own their information. They should have the freedom to share it with anyone they want and take it with them anywhere they want, including removing it from the Facebook Service. People should have the freedom to decide with whom they will share their information, and to set privacy controls to protect those choices. Those controls, however, are not capable of limiting how those who have received information may use it, particularly outside the Facebook Service.

And the Transparent Process sets out new principles of transparency for how the company operates:

9. Transparent Process

Facebook should publicly make available information about its purpose, plans, policies, and operations. Facebook should have a town hall process of notice and comment and a system of voting to encourage input and discourse on amendments to these Principles or to the Rights and Responsibilities.

While it could be interesting to see how far Facebook is willing to take this new principle of transparency (are they really going to make their operations transparent?), there’s nothing all that shocking or groundbreaking in these principles. Nice of them to outline them, but nothing really to write home about.

:: Statement of Rights and Responsibilities ::

The Statement of Rights and Responsibilities covers 16 topics: Privacy; Sharing your Content and Information; Safety; Registration and Account Security; Protecting Other People’s Rights; Mobile; Payments; Share Links; Special Provisions Applicable to Developers/Operators of Applications and Websites; About Advertisements on Facebook; Special Provisions Applicable to Advertisers; Amendments; Termination; Disputes; Definitions; Other.

Again, few surprises here, but one item did catch my eye in the About Advertisements on Facebook section:

10.3 You understand that we may not always identify paid services and communications as such.

This, of course, isn’t a right, but rather a non-right. Facebook is asking its users to agree that we have no right to know if a particular service or communication has been paid for. This seems in direct conflict with the principle of transparency outlined above.

:: On the Attempt at Open Governance ::

Facebook wants to make the adoption of these documents “open and transparent”, and discussion forums exist to collect feedback from users. For the Principles, a 30-day open comment period is in place, after which the comments will be reviewed by Facebook and possibly integrated into the next version of the Principles. Facebook will also provide responses to some of the most frequent comments.

The Statement of Rights & Responsibilities has a similar 30-day open comment period. The Statement also outlines a process for making amendments to the document, which has been designed to provide the opportunity for user involvement:

12. Amendments

12.1 We can change this Statement so long as we provide you notice through Facebook (unless you opt-out of such notice) and an opportunity to comment.
12.2 For changes to sections 7, 8, 9, and 11 (sections relating to payments, application developers, website operators, and advertisers), we will give you a minimum of three days notice. For all other changes we will give you a minimum of seven days notice.
12.3 If more than 7,000 users comment on the proposed change, we will also give you the opportunity to participate in a vote in which you will be provided alternatives. The vote shall be binding on us if more than 30% of all active registered users as of the date of the notice vote.
12.4 We can make changes for legal or administrative reasons upon notice without opportunity to comment.

How Facebook arrived at these numbers remains a mystery, but if 7,000 users comment on a change, then the proposed amendment will be put up to a vote for all users to participate. If over 30% of the user base votes, it will be binding on Facebook. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, how it might be gamed, and whether any significant changes to the nature of Facebook will result from this policy.

Note that Facebook has reserved the right to make changes for “legal or administrative reasons” without providing users the ability to comment or participate. Facebook also notes that this process won’t apply to decisions about product and feature changes, which, as far as I’m concerned, makes much of the attempt at “open governance” merely window dressing. Sure, it’s nice to get users involved and give them a voice, but it seems clear that we won’t have a seat at the table when large-scale decisions are made.


  1. About the last paragraph in your posting — when I read Facebook’s recent statement, I was a little perplexed by the fact that the two examples of product/feature changes seem very different. One (the change to the interface design/layout) seems fair enough to me, but the second one (News Feed) belongs in a different category. It’s precisely the kind of change that (as you’ve amply documented here) should be subject to advance comment!

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