While Americans gorged on turkey and yams this Thanksgiving, Facebook spent its holiday dishing out emails regarding the social behemoth's latest policy revisions. According to a November 21 email submitted at 11:41PM, Facebook proposed forgoing users' opportunities to vote on suggested policy changes.
“I think that hurts consumers.You should have as much choice as possible in how your data is used and I think that was a good thing that [Facebook] offered and I don't understand why they would change it like this,” says John Simpson, consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog.
The proposed end-to-voting policy, posted on the Proposed Updates to our Governing Documents page, reads, "In the past, your substantive feedback has led to changes to the proposals we made. However, we found that the voting mechanism, which is triggered by a specific number of comments, actually resulted in a system that incentivized the quantity of comments over their quality. Therefore, we're proposing to end the voting component of the process in favor of a system that leads to more meaningful feedback and engagement."
According to Amendment 14, Section 3 of Facebook's current Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR) page, last updated June 8, 2012, “If more than 7,000 users post a substantive comment on a particular 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.”
Facebook pledges to post “significant changes” to the social network's Data Use Policy and SRR and to provide a seven-day window for users to analyze and provide feedback according to the Facebook Proposed Updates to our Governing Documents page. Additionally, Facebook intends to provide a new feature that allows users to submit privacy questions to the organization's chief privacy officer of policy, Erin Egan. Egan will also be hosting periodic webcasts to address users' concerns, according to the Proposed Updates to our Governing Documents page.
“I think that's largely window dressing and PR efforts,” says Simpson.
In addition to abandoning the vote, Facebook also proposed the ability to share information with affiliates.
“We may share information we receive with businesses that are legally part of the same group of companies that Facebook is part of, or that become part of that group (often these companies are called affiliates),” reads Facebook's Proposed Data Use Policy. “Likewise, our affiliates may share information with us, as well. We and our affiliates may use shared information to help provide, understand, and improve our services and their own services.”
In fact, Simpson finds this consolidation and sharing of data to be more alarming than Facebook's voting desertion.
“I think they're after the almighty buck and they're going try and gather as much information and data and compile it and consolidate it as they possibly can,” says Simpson. “This whole idea of sharing data across platforms and affiliates that they hadn't been sharing before, I think that's problematic.”
Simpson is also doubtful that the timing of the email announcement was coincidental. “I don't that was a coincidence. I think that was a deliberate sort of thing to try and run this as low under the radar screen as possible,” he says. “That's a classic way of putting out news that you don't want people to pay much attention to.”
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) accepted Facebook's settlement back in August on the terms that the social network would notify its users and receive their informed consent before distributing user's data outside of the privacy settings. Laura Berger, FTC senior attorney in the Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, told Direct Marketing News that infractions could result in a $16,000 fine per violation.
Simpson speculates that Facebook could be in hot water in terms of infringing on the order. “I think they could run afoul to the FTC's consent order,” says Simpson.
Facebook's announcement has stirred a lot of social chatter amongst its users. Europe versus Facebook, a privacy advocate group, has encouraged Facebook users to post “I oppose the changes and want a vote about the demands on www.our-policy.org” on Facebook's Proposed Updates to our Governing Documents page to generate 7,000 comments by November 28–the last day users can post comments on the Updates to our Governing Documents page. Facebook users have also been posting copyrights onto their profiles in attempts to prevent Facebook from using their personal information for commercial purposes.
“I think [Facebook] may have stepped in it in a big way on this one,” says Simpson.