Will Facebook’s New Constitution Really Be Crafted by Users?

Facebook has been in quite the pickle recently, hasn’t it?  In trying to achieve transparency, it let users know about what was a technically small change in the legalese of the Terms of Service, and the uproar from privacy groups and FaceBook users was huge.  

Now we’re at a very interesting juncture in the future of the largest social networking site.  Facebook has reverted to its old Terms of Service and laid out drafts of what can most be likened to a constitution and a bill of rights.  One part is “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” and the other is “Facebook Principles.”  Both are available for viewing on “Town Halls,” which are groups set up for users to comment on the proposed changes.

The part that is particularly interesting, aside from the fact that Facebook is almost directly paralleling the two most important legal documents in America, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is that the comments made in the Town Halls will essentially be considered “votes” for or against the changes, which, according to CNN, will be evaluated at the end of March, and will determine the direction the documents take.  So Facebook users have the unique opportunity to vote, or more accurately, weigh in on the direction Facebook changes.

Part two of the peculiarity of this decision is that Facebook is making a concerted effort to reformat the Terms of Service to eliminate legalese: in effect, make everything clear to users who don’t have law degrees.  That’s another attempt to gain transparency, and for that, I applaud Facebook.  Specifically I commend the attempt because, by eliminating legalese, Facebook is, to some degree, opening itself up to legal loopholes.  The legal system isn’t abandoning legalese just because Facebook does, and the new documents are vulnerable because they are legally vague.  But I still maintain that it is an olive branch of good faith to the user community that will do some good.

The degree to which user comments will actually affect the changes to both documents is yet to be seen.  Only a small fraction of the Facebook user community actually joined the Town Halls, numbered in the thousands, and from what I read, the feedback was far from reflective and constructive.  

There was a really good reason why Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison and a few select others were the only ones responsible for drafting the Constitution, and why the ratification was done largely in secret.  If we in America had to redraft a Constitution today, I doubt it would happen.  Imagine if every person were allowed to share their opinion, and their opinion had to be weighed!  Perhaps the whole situation will work itself out as it tends to in American politics: the few who are genuinely interested will weigh in, their opinions will be represented, and everyone else who didn’t care enough to contribute will bemoan the changes if the media tells them they should be upset.  

CNN notes that Facebook will be creating a sort of “user council,” which will participate in the decisions made by Facebook in the future.  Sounds a bit like Congress, doesn’t it?  No word yet as to who will be selected for the proposed council.  I’m hoping that the council will be much like the Senate is now….comprised of many members, none of which can directly control the future of Facebook.  I think it would be a mistake to make the council up of JUST leading internet personalities, such as leaders of privacy groups.  There should be an equal distribution of every day users to experts…if not a majority of Facebook versions of “Joe the Plumber.”  

Personally, I like the idea of copying the format of the American government.  Hopefully Facebook won’t get bloated with bureaucracy  and be split between council members looking to propagate their own agendas like our beloved Congress, but in theory, it could work.  The jury is still out as to whether the “votes” being cast will actually be weighed in the direction of the new documents.  Props to Facebook for taking a leap of faith in being transparent to its community.

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