Why I am a Facebook fan again

I lost my faith in Facebook not too long ago when news broke about its extremely onerous terms of use (which it subsequently reversed after a public uproar). I cautioned businesses not to use Facebook because of the risk of having their content appropriated and used in ways they may not have contemplated previously. Not only did Facebook revert to its previous terms of use (which are mildly better than the objectionable set), it announced an innovative approach to the next general legal infrastructure for the service. Mark Zuckerberg posted an update to the Facebook blog which included the following:

Our main goal at Facebook is to help make the world more open and transparent. We believe that if we want to lead the world in this direction, then we must set an example by running our service in this way.

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.

This post reinforced what I was hearing from people who have been working with Facebook to help open Facebook up a little more and help it achieve its stated intention of being more transparent. It also reinforced a view that people like John McCrea (from Plaxo) expressed to me in a conversation about the terms of use controversy on Facebook, namely that the legal framework the terms of use created did not reflect Facebook’s ethos. I soon found similar perspectives along these lines elsewhere and began to think a little differently about Facebook.

In keeping with my original criticisms of Facebook’s terms of use I turned to what Facebook was doing to address criticisms about its governance structure. As Zuckerberg’s post pointed out, Facebook initiated what it calls a “town hall” process of presenting a new framework in the form of its Facebook Principles and its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to its users and inviting users to give feedback on this new framework.

This model is pretty innovative for a Web service’s legal framework and it is analogous to a constitutional framework used by many nation states. That probably shouldn’t be surprising considering that Facebook’s 200+ million users would make Facebook roughly the 6th biggest country if it was a country. The usual model for developing a site’s terms of service is to brief an attorney or legal person (preferably) to draw up the terms of use and implement them. If you have the right lawyer you will have a terms of use that more accurately reflect your company’s ethos. If not, you will have the usual legal terms that users have learned to ignore.

Facebook has taken the whole process a couple steps further and have not only invited users’ feedback and opinions on the proposed framework (each group has in excess of 10 500 users who have taken an interest in the process) during the course of March 2009 but it is addressing a concern that came up during a discussion I had with Susan Cartier Liebel when the controversy arose. At the time the typical response to the controversy, particularly when Zuckerberg initially responded by saying that Facebook respected users’ ownership rights over their content (this argument was a response to claims that Facebook was seeking to take ownership of users’ content – this was a misunderstanding of the terms of use and missed an important point), was that Facebook didn’t mean what the terms said and so the terms shouldn’t be that important. Unfortunately the terms are the only terms that matter if there is a dispute so that argument had to fail. Anyway, the proposed new framework addresses that issue.

FB Principles screenshot.png

Facebook’s proposed new governance framework will introduce not only an improved set of terms in the form of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities but it also introduces an interpretive aid when the Statement itself is vague or apparently out of touch with Facebook’s declared intentions. By establishing the Facebook Principles as “the foundation for how we define the rights and responsibilities of Facebook and its community”, we begin to see a governance framework that is analogous to a constitution that guides the interpretation and development of a body of laws that govern a nation.

While the proposed framework is hardly perfect, it represents a significant improvement on the retracted terms as well as the current terms of use. I recently wrote about a brief comparison between various terms of use including Google’s (which I regard as a good starting point) and the proposed framework was much better in many respects.

So where this left me was with a sense that Facebook isn’t quite as evil as I believed it to be (at least the people behind the scenes are working to be more open and transparent). There is still room for improvement in how Facebook operates and what its governance structure enables. We are yet to see its current terms replaced with a version of the proposed framework (the two groups closed for comments on 29 March and the Facebook team is reviewing the comments posted with a view to coming up with a modified set which takes users’ feedback into account. I do believe that we will see an improved governance framework soon enough and that is good news for individual and business users alike.

As for me, I have been using Facebook a lot more lately and I believe that my Facebook page can serve as a great way for Facebook users and fans of what I do and write about to engage with me and with each other about these and other issues in addition to the opportunities my site offers for interaction. Hopefully Facebook has learned its lessons and is on the better path. It has made its mistakes in the past and we will probably see a few more but my hope is that it responds quickly and decisively to users’ feedback and creates a more open and transparent platform for all its users.

Do you have any thoughts about this process? Have your opinions about Facebook changed after its disastrous terms of use? If they have, how did they change?

Update: There is a new post on the Facebook blog. Facebook is going to present different versions of the proposed terms of use and will give users an opportunity to vote on which version they prefer. This is both unprecedented and very exciting:

On April 16, we’ll be posting revised versions of the documents based on the feedback we’ve received. We’ll also be sharing a written response to the main concerns people have expressed. This will explain in clear language why we did — or did not — make certain changes. This is similar to how U.S. federal agencies create regulations.

At the same time, we’ll be asking people to vote on the new revised documents. Voting will begin on April 16 and end on April 23. It will be done through an application developed on Facebook Platform by Wildfire, and the vote tabulation will be audited by Ernst & Young to ensure that the results are accurate.

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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