The real failure of Facebook’s fake democracy

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To the surprise of no one, Facebook on Tuesday announced that, despite an overwhelming majority of votes against changes to its privacy policy and terms of service, the social network would go ahead with its alterations to the site governance documents. Furthermore, Facebook will no longer allow users to vote on proposed changes to these user agreements – at least, not in the same way that it’s been doing since 2009.

As Facebook points out, the number of users who voted was less than 1 percent of its active user base of around 1 billion. In fact, the total number came in at only 668,882 votes – a significant jump from years past, but still an abysmal turn out. For the vote to have had any effect, 30 percent – or 300 million users – would have had to cast a ballot, according to Facebook’s rules.

Many commentators (including this one) have criticized Facebook for setting an absurdly high threshold for the vote; getting 300 million people to do anything that doesn’t involve eating, talking, breathing, or having sex in a single week is next to impossible. And now that the vote is done (for good), critics are taking shots at Facebook users themselves. Hell, even Facebook is blaming it all on us.

“We made substantial efforts to inform our users and encourage them to vote, both through emails and their news feeds,” wrote Facebook’s Elliot Schrage in Tuesday’s post. “Despite these efforts and widespread media coverage, less than one percent of our user community of more than one billion participated.”

If you take that criticism seriously, an easy conclusion to make is that we are all just a bunch of apathetic fools who gripe and moan when Facebook wants to change anything, but the can’t get off our lazy bums to do anything about it.

But I have another theory: We simply don’t have time to read all these policies. And Facebook likely knew that from the very beginning.

Getting involved with these changes required reading Facebook’s massive legal documents, parsing out all the proposed changes while also looking to policy experts to help us decipher what exactly Facebook wanted to change, then figuring out our own opinions about them. It’s part of my job to read through documents like this, which I do on a weekly basis, and I still had trouble finding the time to get through all the mumbo jumbo Facebook proposed. It’s difficult to imagine 3,000 people – let alone 300 million – having the hours in their day to rifle through it all.

So difficult, in fact, that I cannot for a moment believe that Facebook ever thought enough people would take the time to review their policy changes and vote on them. It wasn’t just that the company set the threshold for voting too high, but the entire concept of making users review policy changes was flawed from the start: Not once in the three years that Facebook allowed users to vote on changes did user turnout come even remotely close to the numbers need to make a difference. Do any of us really think this was an accident?

Of course, Facebook’s fake experiment with democracy is not the real issue here. The actual problem lies with terms of services and privacy policies in general: They are too long, too confusing, and, because of this, almost entirely ignored. If Facebook should change anything, it should not be its voting process or how it collects user feedback; it should be the verbose and abstract nature of the policies themselves.

We deserve to know exactly what data Facebook and every other online service is collecting about us, and exactly how they are using and sharing that information. The current way of doing that – long legal documents – isn’t working. We need a new way, one that doesn’t require users to set aside entire afternoons just to figure out what the heck is going on.

Solving this problem is no easy task, I know. So if Facebook really wants to make a difference, it should not just get feedback on specific policy changes, but on how to change the long-winded, confusing nature of the policies themselves to better serve us, the users.

Have an idea for how to make website terms and policies better? Let us know in the comments.