Advocates Applaud Facebook's New Democratic Approach

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Following a week-long lashing, Facebook is receiving plenty of praise today as word spreads about the social network's newly announced stance on privacy. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed plans for a democratic-style "open governance" system during a news conference Thursday. The system will allow Facebook users the opportunity to comment and ultimately vote on the site's future policies surrounding data management and the handling of personal information.

“As people share more information on services like Facebook, a new relationship is created between Internet companies and the people they serve," Zuckerberg said in a prepared statement. “The past week reminded us that users feel a real sense of ownership over Facebook itself, not just the information they share."

Public Participation

The first test of the revamped approach comes with two documents designed to outline Facebook's values and commitments. Both documents -- entitled "The Facebook Principles" and "Statement of Rights and Responsibilities" -- can be read and discussed in their respective user groups as of today. The groups will be open for public comment for 30 days, after which time Facebook will revise the documents and place the amended versions up for a public vote. As long as more than 30 percent of all registered Facebook users participate, the results of the vote will be considered "binding."

A similar process will be held with the company's revised privacy policy once that document is finished and ready for public viewing.

Reassuring Reaction

The privacy advocates who initially prepared a federal complaint against Facebook are now applauding the service's shift in strategy.

"It's not often that companies respond quickly, and Facebook has," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). "We support the effort to establish a 'principles' and also a 'statement of rights and responsibilities.' We look forward to the opportunity for users to participate in those discussions."

The next question, Rotenberg says, is what it will take to achieve the lofty goals Facebook has accepted.

"I think that the privacy concerns are going to be an ongoing question with Facebook, and the key concern will continue to be that Facebook users really need to own and control their information," he says. "I was pleased that Mark Zuckerberg said that today, and he's said it before -- but making that work is going to be a challenge."

If that challenge can be met, EPIC believes the next big hurdle will be convincing other companies to follow suit -- companies such as Google, for example, which Rotenberg says has been far less "responsive" to its users' privacy concerns. Still, today's step is being seen as a promising sign of progress that could reach further than any single network's virtual walls.

"Facebook has become probably the largest online community in the world," Rotenberg says. "What Facebook does, I think, has a big impact on what others do."

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