Facebook’s Critics Sound Off

Facebook privacy protest

Facebook users protesting changes to its content ownership policies may have pushed the company to reverse its stance and solicit ideas for improvement from its community, but participation in the new, more democratic Facebook remains but an echo of that earlier outcry.

That doesn’t mean that critics don’t have plenty to say about what they’d change, however, with users participating in Facebook’s newly created feedback groups calling for more stringent controls, among other changes.

The comments come in response to the vocal backlash Facebook users mounted against a change in data-retention policies. Following the backlash, the social networking giant took the unprecedented step of inviting feedback on its policies last week.

But compared to the 130,000 users who joined a Facebook group in opposition to the site’s Terms of Service changes, the two new groups Facebook set up to encourage comments and suggestions pale in comparison.

As of this writing, the Rights and Responsibilities group, which gets at the nuts and bolts of the site’s usage policies, numbered 9,380 members. The group inviting comment on Facebook’s new broad-brush operating principles, counted 9,967 members.

Facebook claims more than 175 million active users worldwide.

The site’s move to become more open in its policies and to encourage user participation stemmed from a flap last month, when a small but significant change Facebook made to its Terms of Service agreement prompted a widespread outcry among its members.

The new wording asserted that Facebook retained control over users’ data even after they had deleted their profile.

Last week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to defuse that bomb, announcing greater efforts to include users in the policymaking process and telling reporters, “We try to be as clear as possible that we don’t own user data.”

Users weigh in

The latest mix of comments from Facebook’s policy groups runs a predictable gamut, with some users calling for more stringent controls while others questioned the wisdom of the crowd-sourcing approach altogether.

Facebook user Blake Davis wrote: “Facebook is a private company and shouldn’t have to solicit opinions of its users. Facebook is [an] oligarchy, not a democracy, and should be treated as such. Having people ‘vote’ on terms can only lead to havoc.”

[cob:Special_Report]Several users suggested that Facebook should amend its first principle, which declares, “People should have the freedom to share whatever information they want,” to add a provision for a complaint process to combat abuse.

“Although Facebook is a place of freedom, comments about ANYONE that are that disgusting should not be allowed anywhere in print,” user Jenn Job wrote.

Supporters of a complaint procedure look no further than the case of Jade Goody. Goody is a 27-year-old former star of the British reality TV show “Big Brother,” who is now in the late stages of terminal cervical cancer.

Goody has taken to Facebook in a big way, with several groups forming around her and her own page numbering nearly 300,000 fans.

While most of the response on Facebook has been positive, Goody’s public battle with cancer has also brought out a mean-spirited set of trollish contrarians, perhaps most visible in the group named, “F— Off And Die Quietly Jade Goody.”

The group lists one upcoming event: “Jade Goody Died.”

Facebook’s rights and responsibilities statement does include provisions against “hateful” content, though defining that term remains in the hands of the company without a formal mechanism for a complaint process.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for this story.

Some users also raised objections to the section governing the content and information Facebook users post.

Page 2: Focus on Facebook’s terms

Facebook privacy protest

Facebook asserts a non-exclusive worldwide license to “use, copy, publicly perform or display, distribute, modify, translate and create derivative works” from videos, photos and other content, subject to users’ privacy and application settings.

In a clear reversal of the controversial change to its usage agreement, the current document states, “This license ends when you delete your content or your account.”

Still, Facebook user Kelly Colvin commented, “I want to be able to be in control of my own photos and not be afraid that Facebook owns privileges to use them as they please. This would surely come back to haunt [Facebook] as the information began to be sold or used without permission of the original posters/owners.”

Coming to a vote

Facebook is giving its community until March 29 to continue commenting on the policies before setting the final versions. After Facebook reviews the comments and publishes the revised versions of the policies, the new documents will be subject to a vote by the community.

If at least 30 percent of users vote, the results will be made public and binding, Facebook said. Going by the figure of 175 million active users, that would mean that 52.5 million people would have to vote to give the process teeth.

Clearly, that would entail a groundswell of cyber-civic action orders of magnitude beyond what the commenting process has seen thus far.

Meanwhile, the liberal public policy advocacy group MoveOn.org is getting into the discussion as well. A new Web site from the groupproposes an eleventh operating principle for Facebook to encourage its as a tool for marshaling community organization.

MoveOn’s new site calls for Facebook to strike a rule blocking people from sending messages to an entire group if it numbers more than 1,000 members, as well as other “barriers to organizing.”

“Facebook has the potential to revolutionize how citizens engage in democracy and organize around issues together,” Adam Green, a spokesman for MoveOn, wrote on the site. “But too many barriers to online organizing have remained on Facebook for too long, and this new era of users’ rights is the time to break these barriers down.”

MoveOn was the group that led the charge in 2007 against Facebook’s Beacon advertising program, which sparked a privacy firestorm by automatically importing users’ off-site activities — like e-commerce purchases — to their profiles. Facebook ultimately modified the program to quell the revolt.

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