Facebook will kill democracy

Proposed changes to Facebook’s terms of service, which are open for comment until 9 AM PST on November 28, 2012, will remove the only democratic safeguard in Facebook’s governance system. The rule being removed can itself be used to stop the change, but voter apathy makes that very unlikely.

As things currently stand, Facebook’s terms of service provide that:

14.3. 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.

It is that last bit about such a vote being binding that is important. Facebook makes no reference to the removal of the compulsory vote mechanism in its statement about the change.  Instead the publicly listed company spun the change as reforms aimed to ensure “quality” of comments over “quantity”.  That’s a little meaningless when the aim is to get to 7,000 comments to trigger a vote. This is Facebook’s spin (and let me know what you think of it in a comment):

We deeply value the feedback we receive from you during our comment period but have found that the voting mechanism created a system that incentivized quantity of comments over the quality of them. So, we are proposing to end the voting component in order to promote a more meaningful environment for feedback.

Under the new rules Facebook users will only have “an opportunity to comment on changes to this Statement”. Does Facebook not know that free speech already gives people that right? There are also other places people can comment that are not under Facebook’s control. Without a commitment to a democratic process, the right to “comment”, without the democratic right to vote for change, is pretty meaningless.

Facebook users could prevent this change if 7,000 users comment demanding this part of the change be scrapped. That will trigger the mechanism for a vote. Unfortunately, the chance of getting a voter turnout of 30% or more, even just of active users, is remote.

It’s unclear what percent of Facebook users understand the democratic principle behind voting and its importance, but we can start by excluding most of the Facebook users in China. Democracy is not very well understoof there. The latest data fromFreedom House indicates that only 87 countries in the world are considered free, 60 are partially free, and 48 are classed as not free. The people in some of these countries understand democracy, others don’t.

Another problem is that Facebook does not have a minimum age for voting, so active users would include people as young as 13. Across 25 countries I examined, almost 36 million Facebook users were aged 13 to 15, the number increases to 87.5 million if we include everyone under the age of 18 (and remember this is just 25 countries). The failure of young people to appreciate the issue and get involved is itself perhaps enough to sink any proposed vote.

Facebook claims 1 billion active users a month. That means a proposal would need 300,000,000 to vote in favour of it. As some will inevitably vote against democracy, even just as a joke, that means voter “turnout” would need to be even higher.

Making matters worse, Facebook proposes this drastic change with just 7 days notice and in middle of turmoil in the Middle East. This will significantly reduce the media coverage of such a major undemocratic change to a platform that today affects so many around the world. There is no time line specified for how long a vote must remain open, if one is called, or how much effort must be invested by Facebook to notify people of the vote.

We might not expect Facebook to be really democractic (unlike Wikipedia for example, which is), but as users what few rights we had are being stripped away. No pretence is being made of Facebook being a community. In this relationship, we don’t own Facebook, Facebook owns us and is asserting its dominance.

The truth, however, is that this will in the long term be bad for Facebook. Social media is based on community, and everything Facebook seems to do these days appears to be at the expense of the community. Facebook is mining its social capital and its commercial good will. There will be a tipping point, and at when that point is reached, Facebook will lose its most valuable asset… us, the Facebook users. It’s almost as if long term value, and indeed viability, is intentionally being destroyed in order to push for short term gains. If those doing this pushing feel strengthening corporate control at the expense of users is a good thing, they simply don’t udnerstand social media.

Tell Facebook what you think at the official consultation page. A commend demanding that rule 14.3 not be removed will help force a vote.

Andre Oboler is a social media expert. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from Lancaster University (UK) and is currently studying towards a law degree at Monash University (Australia). In the interests of democracy, this article may be preproduced in full provided a link is provided to the original at Jerusalem Post.

Originally published as: Andre Oboler, ‘Facebook will kill democracy‘, Jerusalem Post Blogs, 22 November 2012