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In an effort to turn a black eye into an appealing new look, Facebook on Thursday agreed to let its users have a say in the site's rules.
The social networking site changed its terms of service earlier this month without notice. A furor erupted across the Internet when the legalese governing the new contract appeared to grant Facebook the right to do pretty much whatever it wanted with its users' data. The company then backtracked and reversed the changes. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote a blog post to quell the fury, assuring users his company's intentions were good and trying to explain the controversy away while acknowledging that the communication about the changes wasn't handled well.
"We're tried to do this in clear and understandable language and we think we've made a lot of progress on that," said Zuckerberg on a media conference call.
As a measure of how much legal boilerplate and legalese has been trimmed, Facebook VP and general counsel Ted Ullyot observed that the company's rules had been reduced from about 44 pages to about five.
"We try to be as clear as possible, we don't own user data," Zuckerberg emphasized.
Elliot Schrage, Facebook's VP of global communications, marketing, and public policy, conceded that the company had underestimated the sense of ownership that Facebook users feel toward the site.
Facebook puts it thus in its new Principles: "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."
Facebook now appears to be serious about turning that sense of ownership into more than a feeling. By adopting a notice and consent model, where user input and votes matter, Facebook has seized the privacy high ground and, for the time being at least, turned potential foes into putative friends.
Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, for example, called the announcement "an unprecedented action" and said that "no other company has made such a bold move towards transparency and democratization."
That's a significant endorsement because Davies hasn't shied away from criticizing large companies for their privacy practices in the past. His organization's 2007 report on search engine privacy gave low marks to Google, an event that apparently led to whisperings from Google's public relations machine that questioned Privacy International's neutrality and prompted Davies to demand an apology from Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
Schrage helmed Google's communications team at the time, so perhaps that incident provided a template on how not to handle privacy concerns.
Jules Polonetsky, co-chair and director of the Future of Privacy Forum, offers superlatives to match Davies': "This truly breaks new ground by sending a message to the Facebook community that their expectations about how information is used really do matter," he said in a statement. "A company formally handing over a business decision to a user vote is a dramatic step forward for transparency and user control."
Facebook said it will accept user comments on its Principles and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities through two Facebook groups. It also plans to hold virtual Town Hall meetings to discuss the documents for 30 days, through March 29.
Following the Town Hall meetings, Facebook users will be able to vote on the documents. The company said that the vote will be open to Facebook users active as of Feb, 25, 2009, that the vote would be made public, and that the vote will be binding, provided 30% of all active registered users vote.
"We're at an interesting point in the development of the open online world where these issues are being worked out," explained Zuckerberg in a blog post. "It's difficult terrain to navigate and we're going to make some missteps, but as the leading service for sharing information we take these issues and our responsibility to help resolve them very seriously."
It will be a grand experiment in Internet democracy. But not everyone is convinced it's realistic. On the conference call, Gartner analyst Ray Valdes expressed skepticism that the new plain language in the documents governing user rights and responsibilities can meet Facebook's legal needs. Schrage brushed off his concerns, but Facebook does acknowledge that its Principles have limits.
"Achieving these Principles should be constrained only by limitations of law, technology, and evolving social norms about sharing," the company states.
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