Column: Facebook over-haul you didn’t hear about

By Spencer Shen

The Daily Princetonian, Princeton U. via UWIRE

Facebook is yet again undergoing an overhaul, except this time it’s not just a switch to Timeline. The proposed changes have to do with its privacy policy and terms of service, so they are much more important than any sort of superficial layout change, even if you can’t necessarily see them. Many of these are written in legalese and are very subtle — for example, user data can now be shared with Facebook’s many affiliates, which include other social media. However, the most important one is that there will no longer be a governance vote system if the changes take effect. It takes a majority vote among at least 30 percent of all users to prevent the changes from taking effect. If less than 30 percent of Facebook’s users vote, the changes will be put into effect anyway. By the time this article goes to print, the vote will have already happened, as it occurs on Dec. 10, but judging by the current numbers, the 30-percent threshold won’t be reached, though the “against” side is ahead by an extremely large margin. Only about 600,000 people have voted, but about 540,000 of those were votes against the changes. It seems that the popular opinion is clearly against abolishing the governance voting system, yet that’s what will happen anyway.

The current governance voting system was established in 2009 to allow users to essentially have veto power over Facebook’s attempts to revise its privacy policy or terms of service, though the company designed it to be very inaccessible from the start. For a vote to even be triggered, there have to be at least 7,000 comments on the post describing the relevant changes on the Site Governance page. Even then, the 30-percent requirement — about 230 million users — needed to veto the changes is a very high number to overcome, and changes that are vetoed could probably be quietly enacted later anyway. The entire idea of the governance voting system seems like a prolonged public-relations stunt to make Facebook appear receptive to user feedback when, in reality, the company has little interest in its users other than making money off their personal information. There is a reason that Facebook is free — in fact, it really isn’t free because someone somewhere is paying for the access to your personal information so they can set up ads that specifically target you and your particular interests. The new proposed changes would allow Facebook to share your data with its “affiliates” — Instagram and Spotify are probably two of the more well-known ones. Facebook will be moving to a question-submission system, with occasional webcasts, but that seems even less accessible than the voting system — it would be like deciding an election based solely on questions asked by viewers during debates.

None of this would be important if Facebook weren’t such a widely used product, but it has become nearly obligatory to have an account these days. Here at Princeton, most of the student events that I hear about — performances, parties, study breaks — all appear as invites to Facebook events before I see a poster on a lamp post or a bulletin board, certainly before I hear about them by word of mouth. Facebook has so many users that it would be the world’s third or fourth most populous country. Yes, nobody is being forced to join Facebook, but the social pressure to join Facebook is unavoidable and overwhelming for most college students, to the point that letting other people know you don’t have a Facebook account is a faux pas of sorts. One of my friends here has never owned a cell phone, yet he has a Facebook account that he regularly uses.

Facebook is now basically a requirement to have a social life of any kind, especially in college or high school, and it has a user base in the hundreds of millions. The company can start making drastic, fundamental changes to its business model, knowing that not enough people will probably even notice, let alone be able to do something about it. A few weeks ago, that ridiculous paragraph declaring privacy rights began to appear in my Facebook news feed in many of my friends’ statuses. It worries me that people actually think this will have an effect — using Facebook is still a personal choice, and the check box next to “I agree to the terms of service” means you’ve signed away some of your rights to privacy. I am not saying Facebook is evil or that nobody should use Facebook, but I do think we need to be more informed about what goes on behind closed doors. Facebook is still a business, and it exists to sell a product. When that product is our personal information, we should be even more wary of how that business is conducted.

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