Facebook Offer to Let Users Vote on Policies Sparked by Activist

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Facebook is giving its nearly 1 billion users a chance to vote on whether they prefer some of the social network's old policies or proposed new ones, but that doesn't mean the company is open to transforming its product in major ways, especially if the changes would cost it money.

At first glance, news of the vote colors Facebook benevolent considering how often it has been slammed for infringing upon users' privacy. But in reality, the reason behind the vote is much more simple: Facebook's regulations require the company to hold a vote whenever more than 7000 users comment on a proposed change.

TechCrunch calls Facebook's proposed changes to its data use policy and statement of rights and responsibilities "relatively benign" and reports that if more than 30 percent of Facebook's active users vote for the changes they'll go into effect; if they vote against them, the changes will be tossed out.

Max Schrems, the Austrian founder of Europe Vs. Facebook, is responsible for an onslaught of comments that have flooded Facebook's Site Governance page -- about 40,000 in one week, he says.

Schrems, a law student at the University of Vienna, has a contentious history with Facebook. Last year, he retrieved 1222 pages worth of his personal information from the social network and took issue with the fact that among them he found wall posts, messages, e-mail addresses, and friend names that he had previously deleted from his account.

While it's interesting that a 24-year-old and a few of his friends that make up the Europe Vs. Facebook group was able to force the hand of the social network closing in on 1 billion users, it's unlikely that any good will come from the vote -- it only lets people choose between the old privacy policy and the proposed new one. Besides, the changes Schrems wants to see Facebook make really entail transforming the company's product and the way it makes money -- and that's never going to happen.

The privacy group was partly responsible for an audit of Facebook by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner who made recommendations that influenced Facebook's policy changes. "It's odd then that Europe vs. Facebook is now standing in the way of improved privacy protection it lobbied for," reports TechCrunch.

Indeed, even though the vote was a result of Europe Vs. Facebook lobbying its network to spam Facebook, it does put the group in a hard place.

"The old version was clearly illegal under European law and the new version is making things even worse," states a June 1 press release [PDF] issued by Europe Vs. Facebook. "Right now we would suggest to rather vote for the old policy, since this would force Facebook to take another attempt to comply with the Irish regulators."

In the past Schrems has said that it's likely no government or corporation has ever managed to gather such a huge amount of personal and often highly sensitive data like Facebook is able to do.

According to the Europe Vs. Facebook website, much of the personal data Schrems discovered the social network was keeping on him wasn’t generated by himself, but by his friends or by Facebook. "Facebook is e.g. tracking your hardware, keeping deleted friends or calculate your last location. That is information you never see on facebook.com," says a FAQ page (PDF) on the group’s site.

Check out the voting page and suggested policy changes for yourself. They include Facebook's proposition that it may use your data to serve you ads outside of Facebook.com while you're on other websites, use cookies to improve Facebook and retain your data as long as necessary.

You can view and vote until June 8 at 9 a.m. PDT.

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