Facebook Proposes Minor Changes to Its Governing Documents

Facebook has just posted a proposed set of changes to its governing documents for Facebook users to comment on. The changes focus on restricting the transfer of user data when application developers merge or are acquired, making application privacy policies more easily accessible, and allowing users to control how their names and pictures are used commercially.

Most of the points have appeared in various Facebook policy documents already, especially its developer policies, or are intended to reflect past upgrades to existing products. Overall, the change today show that the company is trying to communicate a clear and uniform set of rules, rather push a major shift versus what it has already been doing.

Additional points addressed in the changes include notifying advertisers that ads won’t always reach their intended targets, allowing Facebook to require third-party developers to delete user data if it’s misused, requiring users to comply with all applicable laws, and bringing social plugins under the definition of Facebook. Governing documents would also now be available in many different languages, but the English version would control if there are inconsistencies.

We’ll examine them in more detail below. Note that the comment period is open from now until 5:00 PM PDT on September 23, 2010, and the changes will go to a vote if they receive more than 7,000 comments.

Facebook developed the “notice and comment” system for changing its governing documents in February of 2009, and held its first vote in April of 2009. Changes are announced, immediately beginning a 7 day comment period. If more than 7,000 comments are received, the changes go to a vote where users may be proposed alternative changes in addition to option to vote up or down. If more than 30% of Facebook’s monthly active users support the changes, they become binding, and if less than 30% support the changes become “advisory” (i.e. non-binding). Voting takes place through the Wildfire voting and app and results are independently audited by accountancy firm Ernst & Young.

To date there have only been 134 comments with just over six days left in the comment period.

The following are the proposed changes to the governing documents (in bold), and our commentary of what they respond to and how they’ll affect Facebook (in brackets):

This agreement was written in English (US). To the extent any translated version of this agreement conflicts with the English version, the English version controls.

[This prevents inaccurate translation from altering the documents.]

9. Special Provisions Applicable to Developers/Operators of Applications and Websites
If you are a developer or operator of a Platform application or website, the following additional terms apply to you:

2. You will have a privacy policy that tells users what user data you are going to use and how you will use, display, share, or transfer that data and you will include your privacy policy URL in the Developer Application.

[This ensures applications have a privacy policy in place upon launch. Facebook has required similar sorts of disclosures before, but the wording here requires more specific compliance.]

7. You will not sell user data.  If you are acquired by or merge with a third party, you can continue to use user data within your application, but you cannot transfer user data  outside of your application.

[Facebook has similar wording in its policies already, notably via a May update to its developer policies, although this more clearly restricts how acquiring companies use data that they gain from purchased companies.]

8. We can require you to delete user data if you use it in a way that we determine is inconsistent with users’ expectations.