Facebook's Terms and the Future: Privacy Advocates Weigh In

Facebook says a tiny vote turnout won't stop it from adopting new policies its users helped create. The service revised its governing terms based on user comments in March, then opened the door for a site-wide vote this past week. Less than 1 percent of active users participated -- a far cry from the 30 percent required for the vote to be considered binding -- but Facebook says it'll move forward nonetheless with putting the updated policies in place.

The Facebook Privacy Flap

The issue started back in February when users noticed an unannounced change in Facebook's terms of use. The alterations gave Facebook an "irrevocable, perpetual" license to use any member's "name, likeness, and image" in essentially any way, including within promotions or external advertising -- even if an account had long been deleted.

Within days, Facebook users formed protest groups, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) prepared to file a federal complaint. Once EPIC revealed those intentions via a story on PC World, Facebook execs contacted the group and devised a solution: It would revert to its old terms, listen to user feedback about the policies, and use that input to draft new documents. Then, it would allow users to vote on either the revised terms or the original terms.

Fast-forward to now. The week-long voting window ended Thursday, but with only around 600,000 users voting, the required 30 percent "binding" mark wasn't reached. (About 60 million users would have had to vote for that percentage to be achieved.) Still, within those users who did participate, nearly two-thirds voted in favor of the updated policies -- and Facebook intends to respect that message.

"We'd hoped to have a bigger turnout for this inaugural vote, but it is important to keep in mind that this vote was a first for users just like it was a first for Facebook," says Ted Ullyot, Facebook's general counsel. "We're pleased that users supported the proposed documents and validated our efforts to respond to their concerns."

Looking Forward

EPIC is commending the decision, saying Facebook has taken "an important step in support of user privacy." Facebook "reaffirmed the key privacy principle for Web 2.0 applications," EPIC suggests, by listening to its community and making it clear that its users are in control of their own information. Still, the group believes the work is far from over.

"There will always be privacy issues with Facebook and other popular Web services. The need for a comprehensive privacy framework is clear," says Marc Rotenberg, EPIC's executive director.

As for its next steps, Facebook is waiting on auditors to confirm the vote, but representatives expect to have the new governing documents in place within the coming weeks. Executives may also look at re-evaluating the voting procedure to create a more realistic requirement for a binding vote, given what they learned from this go-round.

"The more than 600,000 users who voted constitute a significant number of people, but at the same time that's a small number compared to our user base of more than 200 million," Ullyot says. "We are hopeful that there will be greater participation in future votes. In the meantime, we're going to consider lowering the 30 percent threshold that the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities establishes for a user vote to be binding."

More coverage and analysis:

• Banned From Facebook? It's All in the Fine Print

• Facebook Opens the Polls for Privacy Policy Vote

• Advocates Applaud Facebook's New Democratic Approach

• Facebook's Privacy Flap: What Really Went Down, and What's Next

• Facebook Privacy Change Sparks Federal Complaint

Connect with JR Raphael on Twitter (@jr_raphael) or via his Web site, jrstart.com.

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