Pseudo-democracy, Facebook style

JAMES MANNING
Last updated 15:23 07/12/2012

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OPINION: Democracy hasn't lasted long on Facebook.

The technology giant, which began offering readers a say on changes to the site in 2009, is now trying to drop its own commitment to democracy, ironically through another one of its flawed votes.

Users may have received an email from Facebook in the last few days notifying them of proposed policy changes. These include how Facebook collects and uses your private information, the companies and "affiliates" with which they share it, and who can view and contact you on the site.

The email asks you to vote on the changes, but what it doesn't tell you is that there is essentially no chance of that vote being heard. For the vote to be counted as legitimate, 30 per cent of users must take part. Facebook has more than 1 billion users worldwide. That means an incredibly unlikely target of 300 million people have until Monday to make their voices heard against this latest grab for personal information.

Facebook's pseudo-democratic process has occurred twice before on the site, and neither time even came close to the 30 per cent target. Users first voted on the terms of service in 2009, but a meagre 665,654 votes were cast out of its 200 million users at the time - 0.3 per cent. In June this year, we were asked to vote on Facebook's privacy policy, but just this time only 342,632 out of its then 900 million users voted - 0.04 per cent. Without the targets reached, the vote is ruled void and Facebook moves ahead with the planned changes.

This week's vote will also decide the future of similar voting opportunities. Facebook has proposed instead an "Ask The Chief Privacy Officer" feature, where users can submit questions to the CPO, Erin Egan. Egan would also host regular webcasts to "address your comments and questions about privacy, safety and security". But if a simple, yet flawed, voting system has failed, what hope does a free for all Q&A session have of resolving users' issues?

In addition to ending site governance votes, the proposals include sharing more data with Facebook's affiliates, such as the photo-sharing app and website Instagram, which it acquired in September for $US715 million. Essentially, Facebook would be able to use your location data from Instagram to further target its advertising on its site. The reverse also applies, so Instagram could use Facebook's data on your likes and interests to target its advertising.

Of course one could argue that it's not Facebook's fault if people aren't motivated to take up the company's offer to vote.

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But Facebook has been less than forthright in promoting the vote on its site.

Voting only began on Monday, with some users still being notified that there is even a vote going on four days into the process. The company could argue the proposed changes have been up (although buried) on the website since November 22. But when was the last time you were bored and decided to kill time with a quick flick through Facebook's governing documents?

"We encourage you to review and vote on the proposed versions of our governance documents," reads the email. And yet when you click through to the page where you are supposed to vote, the link to the actual vote is again buried in the fifth paragraph of spin in which Facebook tells us it is "grateful" for our thoughts, and that everything it is proposing is "standard in the industry".

When you do actually get to the voting page, you are able to "share" the fact that you have voted with your friends. Great - spread the word, right? Wrong. Upon closer inspection, if you try and share the fact that you voted (with a link to the voting page), it will only be posted as a private post. This means that only you - and not your friends - can see it. To really share your vote, you have to manually edit the post to allow your friends to see it.

Moreover, blast emails to millions of people on a distribution list have very low open rates. Facebook knows this, and are counting on it to make sure this vote does not succeed. They could easily activate a larger section of the community through prominent placement on the Facebook site itself. When the social network hosted a live web chat on Tuesday to answer questions from users, one user asked: "Is there a vote going on?"

Facebook is trying to kill this vote in order to kill the democratic system for good.

The amount of data that we already trust Facebook to hoard on our behalves boggles the mind - and yet they still want more.

A separate update to the Facebook mobile app this week asked users if they wanted to grant the site access to automatically upload every photo taken on your smartphone. Every. Single. Photo.

Although the photos are not automatically made public, they do become hosted by Facebook and therefore licensed to them under the user agreement. Whether you are into taking lewd photos of hanky panky in the boudoir or hundreds of innocuous photos of your pet tabby - do you really want that data going to Facebook?

Taking away our right to vote takes away our opportunity to have a say on updates like this. Although the current voting model is flawed, this is because Facebook has never given it the chance to flourish. For it to work, Facebook needs to publicise the vote more widely, such as a banner on top of the website. They would also need to either leave the vote open for longer than a week or lower the threshold from 30 per cent - or both. This would be better than no voting system at all, which is what is proposed.

Given this is unlikely to change, at least by Monday, all you can do now is vote - and spread the word while you're at it.

Also, take five minutes to visit the privacy settings on Facebook and make sure that only your friends can see what you put online - it's truly astounding how many people do not do this. If you have children on the network, you are not going to be able to control it for them, so take the time to make them understand how important their privacy is - now more than ever - in the digital age.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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