Facebook users will no longer be allowed to vote on proposed policy changes at the company because their comments weren't good enough. The move prompted data protection regulators in Europe to seek urgent clarification from the company.
Until now, the company promised that any of its proposed policy changes that attracted 7,000 "substantive" comments would be put to a vote.
While some comments have led the company to develop alternatives to some proposed policy changes, "The voting mechanism ... actually resulted in a system that incentivized the quantity of comments over their quality," the company said Wednesday
"We're proposing to end the voting component of the process in favor of a system that leads to more meaningful feedback and engagement," Facebook said in a post detailing the proposed changes published on Wednesday.
Facebook's past policy changes have attracted close scrutiny from the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) in Ireland, where Facebook's European Union headquarters is situated, and the recent change is no exception.
"We will be seeking urgent further clarification from Facebook Ireland and if we consider that the proposed changes require a specific consent from E.U. users we will require Facebook to do this," DPC spokeswoman Catriona Holohan said via email.
Two months ago, the DPC completed a second audit of Facebook's previous round of policy changes, concluding that the social network had complied with most of its recommendations. In some areas, Facebook went even further than it had been asked, for example deleting all European facial recognition data. But now, Facebook is changing its policies again.
In the new draft of its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR), Facebook plans to cancel the rule calling for a vote on proposed changes on which more than 7,000 users post a substantive comment. At the moment, Facebook considers the outcome of such votes binding if more than 30 percent of all active registered users vote.
What the new system will involve, however, remained unclear. Facebook did say though that it planned to continue to post significant changes to the SRR and to Facebook's Data Use Policy. The social network will also continue to provide a seven-day period for review and comment of any proposed policy changes.
A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment on why the latest changes were made, and could offer little guidance on how Facebook users could provide the quality that the company had found lacking in comments on previous policy changes. Two suggestions she had were to stay on topic and to avoid repeating comments made by others. "Sometimes the text copy/pasted is not linked to the proposal," she said.
Europe vs. Facebook, a group pushing the company to respect privacy laws, criticized the plans by adding a new demand to its site our-policy.org: "We want Facebook to further allow users to comment and vote on any new changes."
Europe vs. Facebook hopes that 7,000 people will vote on its new demand while the voting procedure is still in force. It called on Facebook users to paste the comment "I oppose the changes and want a vote about the demands on www.our-policy.org" on Facebook's site governance page. The group though has little faith the measure will turn out a result. The voting system was tested this summer when users got to vote in favor of the old or new policy, Europe vs. Facebook said on its website.
At that time, "Facebook was hiding the vote extremely well," the organisation said, adding that only about 342,000 users voted on the proposed changes, a turnout of only 0.038 percent of Facebook users. "This way Facebook got away with the new policy despite 87 percent voting against it," the group wrote, calling the way Facebook allegedly hid the vote "Chinese."
Besides amending the voting mechanism, Facebook also plans to alter the Data Use Policy, giving third parties access to user information. Facebook added a clause to the draft policy that states: "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). 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."
What information Facebook wants to share exactly was not mentioned in the draft.
Facebook also announced that it would roll out new ways of responding to questions and comments about Facebook in which Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan will answer privacy questions. She will also host regular webcasts to address questions about privacy, safety and security, Facebook said.
Facebook users have a chance to review the proposed changes and comment on them before 9 a.m. Pacific Time on Nov. 28. When the comment period has ended, Egan will respond to the comments in a webcast.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org