It’s a shibboleth that the Internet serves as a great fount of democratic engagement and free-flowing information. It’s a lovely theory but lousy in practice, as we can see right now on Facebook.
If you go to Facebook, you can vote on its proposed statement of users’ rights and responsibilities and data use policy. On the surface, those users who hate Timeline or aspects of Facebook’s data harvesting can have their say, and perhaps influence company policy.
But the inmates are just that; at Facebook, nobody’s going to get to run the asylum except the people at the top. The vote was triggered because of an ongoing fight between Facebook and an Austrian law student named Max Schrems, who was stunned to find that Facebook had more than 1,200 pages of data about him, including everything he’d ever deleted and posts about him by other people.
Schrems took his complaint to Facebook’s European home, Ireland, making a series of complaints to Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner. As the UK technology publication the Register noted, “This led to an audit by the authorities and in response Facebook made alterations to both its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and Data Use Policy and submitted them for public comment.”
Irish regulators did not prompt the Facebook policy vote. That happened because Schrems, through the site Europe V. Facebook, convinced nearly 40,000 people (close to 30,000 of them in Germany) to post comments on Facebook’s governance page. Any issue that gets more than 7,000 comments is automatically put up for a vote by Facebook’s users. If more than 30 percent of registered users vote, their decision becomes binding on Facebook. Otherwise, it’s considered an advisory vote.
Kudos to Schrems. Here’s the thing: he won his skirmish, but it doesn’t matter. Facebook claims it’s giving this vote a big push. Facebook spokesperson Chris Kraeuter emailed Latitude News that:
To promote the vote, Facebook has served nearly a billion impressions to users, including mobile–only users, and will continue to do so. Once someone votes they can choose to tell their friends they did so in their friends’ News Feeds. As well, all fans of the Site Governance Page received an update in their News Feed about the vote.
How many people have responded since the poll went live on June 1st?
About 150,000 at this writing.
If that’s the impact a Facebook promotional campaign has, no wonder its stock has dropped almost 30 percent since it went public May 18th.
Obviously, Facebook isn’t really trying to get people to vote. Serving “nearly a billion” impressions to users probably means that everybody on Facebook got a notice in their news feed at some point. If I got one, it made no impression on me.
The vote closes June 8th. Barring the viral campaign to end all viral campaigns, Facebook’s big policy change vote will net an absurdly small fraction of the 270.3 million Facebook users needed to force Facebook into a binding commitment.
The Register said Schrems really wants to see Facebook “make all data collection and advertising opt-in rather than collection by default.”
You can bet there will not be a Facebook vote on that. If you really care about your data (that is, your personal information) in any form, Schrems is not your best advocate. A large organization like the EU would have to force more widespread changes on the social network.
It might happen. As this smart New York Times synopsis of a recent talk by Danah Boyd notes, “regulation is coming. You may not like it, you may close your eyes and hold your nose, but it is coming.”