By John D. Sutter, CNN
(CNN) — Unless Facebook users fight back, the days of the social network’s experiment with democracy may soon come to an end.
The company on Wednesday proposed to take away its users’ right to vote on major issues concerning the governance of its 1 billion-member online network.
The reaction online has been less than welcoming.
“Facebook now argues that it is too big for democracy, much like the Chinese government might,” writes Michael Phillips on the site BuzzFeed. “Call this new regime Facebook with Authoritarian Characteristics.”
Since 2009, in what Facebook calls an experiment with digital voting rights, Facebook has allowed users to vote on major changes to the way it manages user data and privacy, if the online community expressed enough interest. If 7,000 people commented on a particular proposal, that triggered a vote. And if 30% of the site’s active users — which would be 300 million people at this point — voted against the change, Facebook would abandon it.
Now the company says it wants to ditch that system, replacing it with new ways for users to submit questions to Facebook’s privacy team. The company lists two primary reasons for the shift away from digital democracy: Facebook has become extremely large, with more than a billion users; and it’s a publicly traded company now, which means it is “accountable to regulators around the world.”
“Democracy can be difficult, especially for a multibillion dollar public company,” writes Somini Sengupta for the New York Times’ Bits Blog.
Some technology writers are calling for users to revolt.
“Because it hasn’t revoked that right yet, there is still time for you to mount a campaign to retain it, in theory,” writes Will Oremus for Slate. “But Facebook knows it’s highly unlikely that you will. It turns out that, for all of the shrill cries that fly around the Internet every time (CEO Mark) Zuckerberg and company make a tweak, most people just don’t care enough to take action. At least, not on the types of changes that Facebook allowed them to vote on.”
Phillips, the BuzzFeed writer, says this is a watershed moment for the Internet.
“By repealing Facebook Suffrage, Facebook abandons a fundamental norm — that its users are citizens in a community, and not simply datapoints on an advertising algorithm. The vote may be quixotic, but if Facebook remains the indispensable social network, you’ll want to be able to tell your grandchildren you fought for Facebook freedom. Who knows how Facebook will develop without your input.”
In clinical language released the day before the United States celebrates Thanksgiving, a time when people here are unlikely to take much notice, Facebook says it wants to “end the voting component of the process.”
“We deeply value the feedback we receive from you during our comment period,” the site says a press release. “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.”
The company adds: “We will continue to post significant changes to our Data Use Policy and SRR (Statement of Rights and Responsibilities) and provide a seven-day period for review and comment. As always, we will carefully consider your feedback before adopting any changes.”
As TechCrunch notes, Facebook is creating other ways for users to submit feedback to the site.
“As a replacement for the vote, Facebook is proposing to continue offering the seven-day comment period on proposed changes to its governing documents. It will also offer two new ways for users to voice their governance concerns,” Josh Constine writes. “There’s ‘Ask the Chief Privacy Officer,’ a new feature on the official Facebook Privacy Pages that will let users submit questions to Erin Egan, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer. Additionally, Egan would hold regular live-streamed webcasts where users can ask questions. If the proposal is allowed, these new features will be substituted for the vote.”
So there you have it. Webcasts, yes. Voting, no.
Read more about the changes and let Facebook know what you think of its apparent move away from digital democracy by visiting the Facebook Site Governance page. Facebook says it will consider user feedback submitted until noon ET on November 28.