Facebook Adopts Townhall Format to Allow Users to Comment and Vote on New Statement of Rights and Responsibilities

Reversing its course again for the third time in less than a month, Facebook has proposed another new set of terms and conditions and is adopting a townhall format to allow users to comment and even vote on the new changes.

CEO Mark Zuckerburg explained the new changes at the Facebook Blog as follows:

We sat down to work on documents that could be the foundation of this and we came to an interesting realization—that the conventional business practices around a Terms of Use document are just too restrictive to achieve these goals. We decided we needed to do things differently and so we're going to develop new policies that will govern our system from the ground up in an open and transparent way.

Beginning today, we are giving you a greater opportunity to voice your opinion over how Facebook is governed. We're starting this off by publishing two new documents for your review and comment. The first is the Facebook Principles, which defines your rights and will serve as the guiding framework behind any policy we'll consider—or the reason we won't consider others. The second document is the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, which will replace the existing Terms of Use. With both documents, we tried hard to simplify the language so you have a clear understanding of how Facebook will be run. We've created separate groups for each document so you can read them and provide comments and feedback. You can find the Facebook Principles here and the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities here. Before these new proposals go into effect, you'll also have the ability to vote for or against proposed changes.

I believe these steps are unprecedented in promoting understanding and enabling participation on the web. I hope you will take a look at these documents, read them carefully, and share your thoughts. . . .

History tells us that systems are most fairly governed when there is an open and transparent dialogue between the people who make decisions and those who are affected by them. We believe history will one day show that this principle holds true for companies as well, and we're looking to moving in this direction with you.

So what do the proposed terms and conditions look like?

In my opinion, the terms in the proposed Statement of Rights and Responsibilities are really quite fair and reasonable. Moreover, in contrast to the current governing terms and conditions, the proposed terms are a lot more user-friendly, so the average user should have a lot less difficulty understanding them.

Some of the more noteworthy highlights of the proposed terms and conditions are as follows:

--Facebook is granted a non-exclusive worldwide license to use, copy, publicly perform, display, distribute, modify, translate, and create derivative works of content posted on Facebook, but the license ends when content is deleted from the Facebook website or their account ends. While this license gives Facebook broad rights to user content while it is posted to Facebook, users also have the ability to terminate the license.
--Users now have the ability through the privacy settings to limit how Facebook uses its name and profile photo in connection with commercial or sponsored content.
--For future amendments to terms and conditions, Facebook will hold a vote, provided that more than 7000 users comment on a proposed change. The vote will be binding if more than 30% of registered users as of the date of the notice vote.

In addition to the proposed terms and conditions, Facebook is also proposing the new Facebook Principles, which state as follows:

1. Freedom to Share and Connect

People should have the freedom to share whatever information they want, in any medium and any format, and have the right to connect online with anyone – any person, organization or service – as long as they both consent to the connection.

2. Ownership and Control of Information

People should own their information. They should have the freedom to share it with anyone they want and take it with them anywhere they want, including removing it from the Facebook Service. People should have the freedom to decide with whom they will share their information, and to set privacy controls to protect those choices. Those controls, however, are not capable of limiting how those who have received information may use it, particularly outside the Facebook Service.

3. Free Flow of Information

People should have the freedom to access all of the information made available to them by others. People should also have practical tools that make it easy, quick, and efficient to share and access this information.

4. Fundamental Equality

Every Person – whether individual, advertiser, developer, organization, or other entity – should have representation and access to distribution and information within the Facebook Service, regardless of the Person’s primary activity. There should be a single set of principles, rights, and responsibilities that should apply to all People using the Facebook Service.

5. Social Value

People should have the freedom to build trust and reputation through their identity and connections, and should not have their presence on the Facebook Service removed for reasons other than those described in Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

6. Open Platforms and Standards

People should have programmatic interfaces for sharing and accessing the information available to them. The specifications for these interfaces should be published and made available and accessible to everyone.

7. Fundamental Service

People should be able to use Facebook for free to establish a presence, connect with others, and share information with them. Every Person should be able to use the Facebook Service regardless of his or her level of participation or contribution.

8. Common Welfare

The rights and responsibilities of Facebook and the People that use it should be described in a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, which should not be inconsistent with these Principles.

9. Transparent Process

Facebook should publicly make available information about its purpose, plans, policies, and operations. Facebook should have a town hall process of notice and comment and a system of voting to encourage input and discourse on amendments to these Principles or to the Rights and Responsibilities.

10. One World

The Facebook Service should transcend geographic and national boundaries and be available to everyone in the world.

While there is no doubt that Facebook's moves amount to a bold attempt to manage the public relations crisis it created last month, the question remains: are these policy changes good moves on its part?

From my perspective, I think it is a win-win strategy for Facebook. Let's face it: under the newly proposed terms and conditions, it is going to take a huge public outcry to stop Facebook from making amendments to its terms and conditions as it so chooses, and if the outcry is too large, Facebook really should stop and think from a customer relations standpoint about its actions and policies before moving ahead to enact them. Truthfully, there is really nothing to lose by this strategy and much to gain.

On the other hand, the magic 7000 number triggering the voting clause is quite arbitrary--what if Facebook receives 6999 comments? How are the users going to feel if Facebook moves forward with adopting a controversial term and condition and there are exactly 6999 comments by the deadline? I'm sure you can imagine how that will go over. I foresee more back peddling in such a scenario. As a lawyer, I would advise Facebook to address that issue upfront, so it doesn't end up looking foolish down the road when there is a public outcry over an amendment that has generated less than 7000 comments.

So, all in all, I think Facebook's moves make a lot of sense on all accounts. It never is a bad idea to make your terms and conditions more user-friendly, and it is never a bad idea to listen to your customer base before making a move that may alienate them. The move to make the terms and conditions enacted by vote of the users sound good, but will rarely be enacted, so I think that they are unlikely to be a burden on Facebook's business interests going forward.

Interestingly enough, not everyone out there in the blogosphere agrees with me. Fast Company's Chris Dannen wrote an interesting blog posting on thie issue, stating as follows:

The executives at Facebook may be under a grand delusion: they seem to think that Facebook is a nation. And they're attempting to build it a government.

This is, of course, a tremendously stupid idea. . . . Facebook's high-minded reaction will surely dwarf any of its past gaffes--and unlike those earlier ones, this one has the potential to truly damage usership. . . .What it really is: a deeply flawed 21st century political experiment. Prepare to sit back and watch it burn.

While I agree with Chris that this is an unconventional way to operate and it made me smile as an attorney to even read the newly drafted terms, I disagree that Facebook's "social experiment" is such a bad idea. Again, it will take a tremendous outcry from Facebook to reverse course and open the new terms up for a vote, and isn't this basically the same thing that Facebook has been forced to do anyway? Yes, I absolutely foresee some problems down the road with the arbitrary 7000 number, but I suppose that Facebook will just have to address those issues down the road as they arise. Where is the real harm here with Facebook's acknowledgment its customer base? It's not as if Facebook has just paralyzed itself from moving forward. Perhaps Facebook is just starting a new trend in the social networking world. I look forward to seeing what happens next.

Related blog postings:

Facebook Licensing Controversy Prompts Public to take Closer Look at Social Networking Site Terms and Conditions

Facebook Reverses Decision and Announces Temporary Return to Prior Terms and Conditions

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