Facebook’s grassroots earn policy voice

Facebook’s grassroots earn policy voice

Earlier this month, Facebook experienced a backlash when it changed its privacy policy. The grassroots uprising can be seen on blogs such as The Consumerist, which dissected and criticized the new policies. Although Facebook had always reserved an “irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license” to use any content from its users, the new policy removed a key provision:

You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.

A sizable portion of the Facebook community took this to mean that users would be completely unable to remove their photos or personal information from Facebook, and thus any content could be kept and used by Facebook indefinitely. The grassroots campaign quickly gained momentum, with a mass of blog posts and Facebook protest groups. In response, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rolled back the terms of service to the previous version, “which is what most people asked for”.

However, in Facebook’s defense, the attempt at change was meant to prevent users from ripping apart content that other users have come to depend upon. Wired sums up this question aptly:

Should social networks let you take your photos once you have shared them? At that point, doesn't the community you shared with have rights too?

When the debate is framed in these terms, we realize that this challenge is nothing new. The tension between individual and community rights is as old as humankind, and every system of rules must grapple with this conflict. Entire political philosophies focus on finding an appropriate balance, and human history reflects remarkable adaptation. Which is why Facebook’s next move should come as no surprise: they opened their policy changes up to a vote. In fact, it is easy to draw comparisons between Facebook’s policies and a constitution, or a bill of rights. Zuckerberg referred to these policies as “governing documents”, and emphasized that they would delineate user rights and responsibilities.

Naturally, this is great news for users and consumers. As for web-based businesses, they should not focus on the negative publicity from this incident, but realize that their community model can become a competitive advantage. Virtual communities such as Facebook will experience virtual immigration and emigration based on governance. As a general rule, the business that finds the right balance between producing a stable and exciting community while protecting the rights of individual users will be the most successful. This will obviously mean that businesses need to deal with rights of ownership, privacy, and control over information. But it may be interesting to see if other businesses emphasize procedural rights, such as the right to an open and transparent process of change, let alone the right to participate in making those changes.