A Facebook democracy?

Facebook announced a new approach to how the company would create future policies that impact user privacy.

During a press conference on Thursday Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg said the move was in direct response to a user backlash earlier this month when Facebook changed its terms of service claiming ownership of user content. It later reverted to an earlier terms of service.

Today Facebook introduced what it calls Facebook Principals described by the company as, ” a set of values that will guide the development of the service, and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities that make clear Facebook’s and users’ commitments related to the service.”

Core to Facebook Principals would be notifying the Facebook community to any changes in policy the site was about to make. It would then allow a period of time for Facebook users to comment. Zuckerberg says if comments or interest in the change reached a certain threshold then the change would be voted on by the community.

Zuckerberg also said a new Privacy Policy was in the works that would have to adhere to the new Facebook Principals. “Over the coming weeks, users will have the opportunity to review, comment and vote,” Zuckerberg said.

Acknowledging what Zuckerberg called past “mistakes” made by Facebook he said of the most recent flap regarding a change to its terms of service: “We do not own user data, they [users] own it. We never intended to give that impression and feel really bad that we did.”

“Companies like ours need to develop new models of governance,” Zuckerberg added. “Rather than simply reissue a new Terms of Use, the changes we’re announcing today are designed to open up Facebook so that users can participate meaningfully in our policies and our future.”

Facebook made clear it would make independent decisions about timing and the rollout of products. However when it does rollout new features and services, Facebook says, it will do so in a manner consistent with the site’s Principals and in compliance with its Statement of Rights.

For a more in-depth look at Facebook’s new user participation processes here is information provided today from the company:

Transparency and User Input

Facebook committed to holding virtual Town Halls following the announcement of the new Principles and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities for 30 days, with the comment period scheduled to close at 12:01 am PDT on March 29. During this time, users have an opportunity to comment on the proposed policy. This also addresses specific concerns raised by users on the Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities Group.

Users are invited to comment on the Principles, and on the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, by joining the following new groups specifically created for such comments; see more about Principles here; and to join the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities should join the group here.

After the comment period ends, Facebook will review and consider submissions. Facebook will then republish the Principles and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, incorporating any changes it has made. The company will also provide users a summary of the most common and significant comments received, including its response to those comments where appropriate.

If these documents are approved, then all future policy changes would be subject to notice and comment periods of varying lengths depending upon the nature of the change. Following the comment period, Facebook would publish a final policy proposal that reflects the comments received. Direct Voting Following the first Town Halls, The Facebook Principles and the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities will be the first set of policies subject to a vote, which may include other alternatives.

The vote will be open to all Facebook users active as of February 25, 2009. The results of the vote will be made public and will be binding if more than 30 per cent of all active registered users vote.

If users approve the draft Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, then all future policy changes would be eligible for a vote by users, provided the level of intensity of user interest would justify it. User interest would be determined by the number of users who comment on any proposed change during the comment period.

User Council Facebook also announced its intention to establish a user council to participate more closely in the development and discussion of policies and practices.

As a start, the company indicated that it would invite the authors of the most insightful and constructive comments on the draft documents to serve as founding members of the group.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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