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User vote on Facebook privacy policies hasn't stemmed criticism

Cameron Scott | June 7, 2012
Facebook is conducting a massive user referendum this week, asking its 900 million-plus users to approve or reject changes to its privacy policy that it first proposed on May 13.

Facebook is conducting a massive user referendum this week, asking its 900 million-plus users to approve or reject changes to its privacy policy that it first proposed on May 13.

Facebook says the result of the vote will be binding if at least 30 percent of active users participate, and "advisory" if that threshold isn't met. But rather than earning praise for turning to user-friendly bylaws for its so-called data use policy, the company has set off a new round of criticism about its alleged disdain for user privacy.

The unusual vote on proposed changes to Facebook's privacy policy stems from events that have unfolded in Europe. European law requirescorporations to disclose, upon request, any information they hold about individuals. Last year, 24-year-old Austrian law student Max Schrems petitioned Facebook to share with him all the information the company had about him. The dossier he received became the basis of a number of legal complaints he filed with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner's Office, which has jurisdiction over Facebook Ireland, the company's headquarters for operations outside North America.

According to Schrems, the dossier revealed that Facebook was violating European law.

The Irish office responded by auditing Facebook Ireland. Under pressure from the commissioner, Facebook agreed to make changes to its data use policy.

When Facebook announced the proposed changes last month, it said that if it received more than 7,000 substantive comments on them, it would hold a referendum. More than 40,000 comments came in, thanks largely to a campaign by the nonprofit that Schrems runs, Europe v Facebook. The nonprofit has amassed a significant following on social media, including more than 5,200 "likes" on Facebook itself, but the biggest influx of signatures came after Schrems appeared on a popular German television show.

Although the vote could be seen as a win for privacy advocates, Schrems described it as a sham.

Schrems said that in its handling of the vote, Facebook effectively "hid the polling center." The voting, he explained, is not prominently featured on the site. The company also demanded that huge numbers of users comment on its proposed changes in order to trigger a vote, but was then critical of the mass-organizing tactics that Europe v Facebook used to turn out the comments, he said.

Facebook defended its efforts to elicit user feedback.

"To promote the vote, Facebook has served nearly a billion impressions to users, including mobile-only users, and will continue to do so. Once someone votes they can choose to tell their friends they did so in their friends' News Feeds," a representative wrote in an email.

U.S.-based privacy advocate David Jacobs, the consumer protection counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), was also dismissive of the referendum.

 

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