Facebook made one of the most important announcements in the young company's history today. It has proposed a set of foundational documents, including the first official statement of Facebook Principles. The proposal is made to Facebook's users, who will now have 30 days to read, comment and perhaps vote on the documents.
Looking just below the surface of this big news, though, there are a number of things going on that make absolutely no sense to us. Facebook's management appears to have lost its grip on reality. The population of Facebook dwarfs that of scores of countries in the physical world; these foundational documents are of immense importance and raise big red flags.
We were on a short call today with Mark Zuckerberg, Elliot Schrage and others to discuss the announcement. Schrage's name is at the top of the new Facebook Principles document but we had to search for him on LinkedIn to find that his title is VP of Communications and Public Policy at Facebook. We have requested permission to view his Facebook profile. That's how Facebook works. Having to do that made us pretty uncomfortable given Schrage's role in this declaration of transparency.
We're excited about the prospect of increased openness and transparency at Facebook. Facebook is immensely important as a sociological phenomenon. We have a lot of questions about the document. Unfortunately today's press call ended after only 5 questions were asked. Imagine a government body presenting its founding documents at a press conference and taking only 5 questions!
Here are the big problems we've seen so far with how things are going down. The contradiction between goals to change the world and promises to obey local laws is the most important.
Facebook is Delusional About its Relationship With Users
Today's announcement came in large part from the controversy earlier this month about the Facebook Terms of Service. The company cut its TOS from 15 pages to 5 pages, it said today, and it made some mistakes when it did so. Users alleged that Facebook's new Terms claimed ownership over their photos, videos and other content posted to the site. Facebook quickly backtracked and said again today that users, not Facebook, own the content on the site. (Though we can't export it elsewhere yet.)
What's delusional about the company's position? Multiple company officials on the call today said that the controversy showed how much of a sense of ownership users have over Facebook and that they wanted a sense of participation in its governing. (You complain about us because you love us!) We'd argue that it is pretty clear people have a sense of ownership instead over their content and want Facebook to keep its hands off. Ownership of content, not the lack of input on policy, was what people were upset about.
Facebook appears to forget that it's just one of many ways people use the internet. It's wildly popular today, but just as people have used other social networks in the past - they have other options for social networks to use in the future. It reminded us of the obnoxious post Zuckerberg put up announcing the Facebook Connect service, instructing users who visited other sites without Facebook Connect to contact those sites and "tell them you want to Connect." We grumbled under our breath at the time that connecting is a fundamental part of the human experience and not a Facebook specific word. The smarminess was nauseating.
Let's keep everyone's place in this situation straight - Facebook is fortunate enough to have won millions of users, but it's for the connection with each other and self expression that they come and stay - not because of any loyalty to Facebook.
Did You Say Data Portability??
Part of the new Facebook Principles document reads as follows:
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.
That flies in the face of years of stonewalling on the part of Facebook around the issue of Data Portability, the ability by users to move their content in and out of Facebook (not delete it from Facebook, export it someplace else). Facebook has made a lot of good points about overlapping privacy concerns, something we've hoped they would come up with innovative solutions for. Now they say we have a fundamental right to move our data around? Surely they don't mean that, not like many users mean it.
As Mark Jaquith said this afternoon on Twitter, "wake me up when FB TOS doesn't forbid exporting your profile. Until then, I don't control my data in any real sense."
Voting May Not Be a Good Idea
Facebook said today that policy changes in the future will be voted on if they stir up enough comments to warrant it. There is no clear public standard for what will be voted on, no details about how the voting will work, etc. Perhaps more important, voting about changes to Facebook may not always be a good idea.
Facebook is a trailblazer, the company is changing the world with technologies like the newsfeed, Facebook Connect, Beacon, etc. Many of those changes were wildly unpopular when they were first made. Product changes will not be put up for a vote, but surely the most dramatic product changes have policy implications. The creation of the Facebook Newsfeed saw huge, vocal protests for weeks. If any part of that change had been put up for a vote it would never have passed. And that would have been a terrible loss because the Newsfeed is very important. Sometimes the technologists at Facebook know what's best; crying Uncle and putting important decisions up for a vote could in some cases be a very bad idea.
You Can't Always Play Nice and Change the World Too
This final issue is the most important one. One of the questions asked during the press phone call today concerned privacy laws. How would Facebook deal with different privacy laws in different locations? The company said they would follow whatever laws were in place where a user lived. On the face of it that might not sound so bad, but in practice a promise to always follow the law is in direct contradiction with the company's goals of changing the world.
The proposed Facebook Principles document begins with these words:
We are building Facebook to make the world more open and transparent, which we believe will create greater understanding and connection. Facebook promotes openness and transparency by giving individuals greater power to share and connect, and certain principles guide Facebook in pursuing these goals. Achieving these principles should be constrained only by limitations of law, technology, and evolving social norms.
Excuse me? How can a commitment to change the world towards openness thus mean anything when openness is against the law in many places around the world? When social norms often favor authoritarian control? As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said "Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted."
Presumably if King had lived at the time of Facebook and his local laws required the company to hand over the Friends Lists of black subversives, Facebook would comply.
We're committed to change towards openness but we'll follow local laws. As The Committee to Protect Bloggers said today, "That's what Google, Yahoo, Cisco & every other company that has helped imprisoned bloggers has said."
Facebook's grand gestures towards voting, participation, transparency and the like are empty words for millions of people who know that when push comes to shove the company has promised it will co-operate with authoritarian governments in controlling the citizens of countries like China, Iran and elsewhere.
IRAN: A Nation Of Bloggers from ayrakus on Vimeo.
Nice Try, Facebook
Mark Zuckerberg is a young man at the helm of a huge company, touching hundreds of millions of lives all over the world, at a time of dramatic social upheaval caused in large part by the kind of technology he is helping create. That's no small job. We hope he can pull it off.