Is Facebook Really Going to Let Users Vote To Keep Their Voting Rights?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 27 2012 3:44 PM

Is Facebook Really Going to Let Users Vote To Keep Their Voting Rights?

Facebook privacy protests
Activists from the Palo Alto group Raging Grannies stage a demonstration outside of the Facebook headquarters in June 2010.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Last week, Facebook emailed all one billion of its users to let them know it was planning some changes to how the site works. Foremost among the changes: The company would no longer allow users to vote on these types of changes in the future. As I wrote at the time, the move appeared to herald an end to the company’s unusual three-year experiment with democracy.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

But wait—those were proposed changes, right? According to Facebook’s existing policies, users should still have the opportunity to vote on the changes before they go into effect, provided the company receives at least 7,000 comments on them by the end of the comment period. Well, the comment period ends at 9 a.m. Wednesday, and the changes have drawn well over the minimum threshold of comments—almost 19,000 at last count. So: time to vote, right?

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Right, say CNN and TechCrunch, among others. But it’s interesting that Facebook so far seems to have declined to confirm on the record that it will in fact allow users to vote on whether they get to keep their voting rights. Nowhere did it mention that possibility in the email it sent to users last week. (That email, by the way, went out on the night before a holiday weekend, an old PR trick for burying unsavory news.) And I was unable to get a definitive answer from a Facebook spokesperson last Wednesday. Here’s how the company put it in the announcement it posted on the site itself:

You have a chance to review and comment on these changes before we adopt them. Please leave any comments by 9:00 AM PST on November 28, 2012. Once the comment period is over, we will be hosting a Facebook Live where Erin Egan, our Chief Privacy Officer of Policy, will respond to your comments live.

OK, so she’ll respond to the comments—and then we’ll vote? Or what? As I explained last week, Facebook’s rationale for taking away the voting mechanism is perfectly understandable. And I assume the company will indeed abide by its existing policies and allow a vote on the change, secure in the knowledge that it’s extremely unlikely turnout will be high enough to overturn its proposals. (The voting deck is heavily stacked in favor of the company’s changes, requiring some 300 million “no” votes to veto them.)

Still, it feels a little underhanded that Facebook has so far neglected to mention or publicly confirm that users still have one last chance to retain their voting rights on the site. And if it tries to slip the vote through without taking some reasonable measures to let its users know about the opportunity, it will only lend support to what some critics have maintained all along: that the voting mechanism was a disingenuous PR gimmick rather than a genuine effort to give the site’s users a voice in how their personal information is used.

I’ve asked Facebook for clarification again today and will update as soon as they respond.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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