Daily Archives: 2009-04-17

The Curtain Opens on Facebook's Democracy Theatre

Last month we penned a highly-critical report of Facebook’s proposed terms of service and much-hyped “public review” process. We categorised them as “democracy theatre”, a publicity stunt intended to provide the appearance of community input without committing to real change. We included our report in Facebook’s official forum, and it was backed by the Open Rights Group as their official expert response as requested by Facebook. Last night, Facebook published their revised terms of service and unveiled their voting process, and our scepticism about the process has been confirmed. We’ve issued a press release summarising our opposition to the new terms.

Taking a look at the diff output from the revised terms, it’s clear that as we anticipated, no meaningful changes were made. All of the changes are superficial, in fact Section 2 is now slightly less clear and a few more shady definitions have been pushed to the back of the document. Facebook received hundreds of comments in addition to our report during the public review process, but their main response was a patronising FAQ document which dismissed user’s concerns as being merely misunderstandings of Facebook’s goodwill. Yet, Facebook still described their new terms as “reflecting comments from users and experts received during the 30-day comment period. ” We would challenge Facebook to point to a single revision which reflected a specific comment received.

The voting process is also problematic, as we predicted it would be. The new terms were announced and instantly put to a 7-day vote, hardly enough time to have a serious debate on the revised terms. Depending on your profile settings it can be quite hard to even find the voting interface. For some profiles it is prominently shown on one’s home page, for others it is hidden and can’t even be found through search. The voting interface was outsourced to a third-party developer called Wildfire Promotion Builder and has been frequently crashing in the first 12 hours of voting, despite a relatively low turnout (50,000 votes so far). This is particularly damning since the required quorum is 60 million votes over 7 days, meaning Facebook was unprepared technically to handle 1% of the required voting traffic.

The poorly done voting interface summarises the situation well. This process was never about democracy or openness, but about damage control from a major PR disaster. Truly opening the site up to user control is an interesting option and might be in Facebook’s long-term interest. They are also certainly within their rights as well to run their site as a dictatorship using the older, corporate-drafted terms of service. But it’s tough to swallow Facebook’s arrogant insistence that it’s engaging users, when it’s really doing no such thing.

Update, 24/04/2009: The vote ended yesterday. About 600,000 users voted, 0.3% of all users on the site and less than 1% of the required 30%. Over 25% of voters opposed the new terms of service, many of which can be interpreted as voting in protest. For Facebook, it was still a win, as they experienced mostly good press and have now had their new terms ratified.