Facebook accused of breaking ‘rights’ promise

News 2 Apr, 2009

Cambridge researchers have slammed Facebook’s latest attempt to create a governance scheme.

Facebook has allegedly failed in its attempts at democracy, according to a new report by researchers at the University of Cambridge.

The computer science researchers dubbed the attempt by Facebook to placate its users following a terms and conditions row in February as “democracy theatre”.

In February, Facebook introduced new terms of service, which among other changes included a line saying the social networking site owned any content uploaded by its users, even if they closed their accounts.

Following user uproar, the site promised to change the terms and create a new 'Statement of Rights and Responsibilities' to protect users.

Last month, the site posted its new statement as well as a set of principles “which reflect the philosophy and values we aspire to”, according to Simon Axten, an associate on the public policy team, writing on Facebook’s blog.

But these new documents don't meet the promises made by Facebook when it was trying to calm down its users, the Cambridge report claims, which even alleges that some provisions may not even be legal.

“We mostly agree with Facebook's proposed principles and the goal of an open, transparent, user-driven process for governing a social network. However, the currently drafted statement fails to fulfill these goals, and we feel that well-stated but empty promises are even worse for users than the obfuscated Terms of Use currently in place.”

It added: “They fail to meet not only our own wishes for how a social network like Facebook might be governed, but Facebook's self-professed goal to ‘lead the world’ in openness and equality.”

The report added that the social networking site may have meant well, but stumbled when “confronted with a litany of legal and business complications”.

One of the researchers, Joseph Bonneau, said the outrage over the changed terms showed how much Facebook’s users care about the site. He added that the attempts at clarity are a major step forward – but it’s not enough.

“It seems the goal is not to actually turn governance over to users, but to use the appearance of democracy and user involvement to ward off future criticism,” wrote Bonneau in his blog. “Our term [democracy theatre] may be new, but this trick is not, it has been used by autocratic regimes around the world for decades.”

The group of researchers also slammed the social networking site for continuing to use confusing legal language in its terms, suggesting it follow Creative Commons and publish both legal and “human-readable” versions.

The report also called for Facebook to act as an intermediary between users and application developers, and to intervene when asked by Facebookers. It also said Facebook should seek more balance in its terms, and rather than give itself carte blanche over users' content, it should give itself limits to how such content can be used.

Facebook had not responded to our request for comment at the time of publication.