4:37pm

Thu November 29, 2012
All Tech Considered

Yet Another Shift In Facebook Policies Raises Privacy Concerns

Facebook has a long history of upsetting its users by suddenly announcing a change to its privacy settings. In 2009, as a way to quiet the critics, Facebook set up a system for its customers to vote on changes. If enough of them were unhappy, the company would back down. Now, Facebook wants to get rid of the voting.

This is how Facebook Vice President Elliot Schrage put it in a posting on the company's website: "The voting mechanism ... actually resulted in a system that incentivized the quantity of comments over their quality."

Instead of having a vote, Schrage said, the company will evaluate comments and suggestions from users.

Business Versus Government

Ridiculous, says consumer advocate Marc Rotenberg.

"It's kind of like not liking how people vote in the ballot box and putting in place a suggestion box," he says.

Rotenberg directs the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and he doesn't want Facebook to get rid of voting.

"Everyone is asking the question these days: How are we going to manage these very large new global platforms that people are participating in? And the ability for people to have some say over what the policies are of the companies that are managing the platforms we think is essential," Rotenberg says.

Companies may be the operative word. Facebook is a business, not a government. It is not required to let its customers vote on anything.

And really, the voting system didn't do much anyway, says Justin Brookman with the Center for Democracy and Technology, which gets some financial support from Facebook. Brookman says the last time Facebook held a vote, less than 1 percent of its users participated. But the vote only counts if 30 percent take part.

"The fact of the matter is you're never going to get 30 percent of users to vote, 'Yeah, let's go back to this previous policy. We think section 2a is stronger in this version even though section 4b might be an improvement.' It's just never gonna happen," Brookman says.

User Confusion

Facebook announcements can be confusing. So, follow this: Along with the end of voting, Facebook wants to alter the settings of its messaging service. And it wants to merge its servers with those of Instagram, the social photo company it purchased earlier this year for $1 billion.

To clarify, there are links to pages and pages of fine-print legal documents with red highlights where the changes are. Users like Chris Silva had a hard time following it.

"There's too many complex issues that need to be figured out and actually I just don't have enough time to go through everything to try and understand it all," Silva says.

Here's another twist in Facebook rules: If a proposed policy change triggers enough comments — and this one did — there is an automatic vote.

"I'd much rather have it be as some kind of vote than as a comment on the bottom of some page," Silva says.

He understands that Facebook is a business, not a government, but he sees it as different from other companies. He says at this point, it's like owning a cellphone. You have to be on Facebook.

"I know as a businessperson, everybody feels obliged to have a Facebook account. Ultimately it's a choice. But I really don't think that it is as much of a choice as it used to be," Silva says.

More than half the U.S. population has a Facebook page.

Last year, Facebook reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission in which it promised to give users clear notice of changes to its privacy policies and get their consent.

When Silva thinks about all the information Facebook has about him, his wife and his daughters, he thinks the company has to be regulated.

"I'm most nervous because it's so personal. I mean, there needs to be some laws about the safety and security and how the information is sold. And I don't know how safe any of it is," he says.

Silva says at least he'd like the right to vote on what Facebook does with all that information.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.