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Facebook offers users a greater voice

The social networking site pledges to put decisions to an online vote and reaffirms users' rights to their personal data.

February 27, 2009|Alana Semuels

The Facebook nation is turning into a democracy.

Facebook Inc. on Thursday invited its 175 million members to help govern the social network by reviewing, discussing and voting on the website's rules.

"This is really about us trusting our users," Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a conference call with reporters to discuss the changes.

The Palo Alto company released draft versions of two new documents: the Facebook Principles, which it calls "a set of values that will guide the development of the service," and the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, which emphasizes that users own their content on the site and that Facebook cannot use it after they quit the service.

The latter, if finalized, will replace the site's terms of service dictating how Facebook can be used.

Facebook was embroiled in a controversy last week after changes to its guidelines implied that the company retained the rights to users' personal data, including photographs, even after they closed their accounts.

"We do not own user data," Zuckerberg said. "They own their own data. We never really intended to give a different impression, and we feel bad that we did."

Other popular Internet services also are weighing how much control to give users over policies and procedures.

As part of a shuffling of Yahoo Inc.'s management structure, CEO Carol Bartz said Thursday that she was creating a customer advocacy group because she "realized we could do a better job of listening to and supporting you." Last week, Wikipedia introduced a Community Voice project, which it called "the first in a new set of features which help build consensus and collect 'popular opinion.' "

It's unclear what portion of Facebook's users want to help govern the site. Though they can begin voting now on the draft Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, the rules are not binding unless 30% of all users cast a vote one way or another.

Future policy changes will be eligible for a vote of users, the company said, "provided the level of intensity of user interest would justify it."

Getting the required participation may be tricky. In most social media communities, about 90% of participants are just there to observe, not contribute, said Peter Kim, a media consultant with Dachis Corp.

"From a competitive standpoint, it's great that they're listening to the community," Kim said. "There's just a fine line struck -- social computing doesn't need to turn into socialism."

Still, Julius Harper, one of the administrators of the 139,000-member People Against the New Terms of Service group on Facebook, said Thursday's changes were a big step in restoring users' trust. "Now people know if they want to voice their concerns, there is a forum for that," he said.

The company has learned through this controversy -- as well as those over its Beacon advertising technology and its "news-feed" activity-tracking service -- that users are very interested in being involved in crafting policies, said Elliot Schrage, Facebook's vice president of communications and public policy.

"Part of the big lesson here is that we really underestimated the sense of ownership Facebook users feel over the site," he said.

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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