Why it’s a good thing that Facebook has given up on democracy

There’s been a lot of sturm und drang recently about the changes that Facebook (s fb) is making to its privacy and governance policies — in particular, the fact that the giant social network has decided to end the practice of allowing users to vote on the changes that it makes. This has been criticized by some as an attack on digital democracy and therefore an affront to right-thinking people everywhere, but it might actually turn out to be a good thing: if nothing else, it will hopefully reinforce the idea that Facebook is not (and has never been) anything even close to a democracy. And the sooner users get accustomed to that idea, the better off they will be.

In case you were wondering, according to the company the final vote in its latest poll — which asked users to vote on whether they wanted to retain the right to vote — saw less than 700,000 people participate. That might seem like a lot for an online vote, but it is still less than one-tenth of one percent of the social network’s 1-billion-person user base, and a far cry from the response that Facebook requires in order to make a vote count.

The reality is your vote never mattered anyway

As an overview at Wired points out, Facebook has been allowing users to vote on large-scale changes to the site for three years now, ever since a user backlash in 2009 to some changes that the network made to its privacy and data-retention policies. In response to this outcry — and likely also in response to increasing criticism from regulators in the United States and elsewhere, about Facebook’s cavalier approach to privacy — the site introduced a provision that would allow for a user vote on any changes that got more than 7,000 comments.

Stormtrooper Facebook

And how many times has this provision been triggered? Just three times in more than three and a half years (including the latest vote). And none of these votes have ever come close to affecting the way the site manages itself, because Facebook’s rules required that a successful vote attract at least 30 percent of the site’s users — and that amounts to about 300 million people. By way of comparison, that’s about three times as many people as voted in the recent U.S. federal election.

As critics like the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center For Digital Democracy have pointed out, there are a host of problems with the way Facebook has approached the voting process over the past few years: for example, some argue that the site didn’t do enough to make users aware of the need to vote — by posting prominent messages in their streams appealing to them to exercise their democratic rights — and that it didn’t structure the votes in such a way that made it easy to participate (Facebook maintains that it made “substantial efforts” to get users to vote).

That said, however, is the removal of the right to vote a crushing blow for online democracy? Hardly, because there isn’t any democratic right inherent in using Facebook, and there never has been — and you could argue that encouraging people to believe they have democratic rights when they actually don’t is the kind of approach that totalitarian states use, and is probably more dangerous in the long term than admitting that your vote doesn’t matter.

[tweet https://twitter.com/omarg/status/278260750525550593]

It’s not just you — shareholders don’t count either

For its part, Facebook says that it remains committed to “a meaningful dialogue with our community” and will implement other methods of doing this, like an Ask the Chief Privacy Officer feature, as well as regular video updates. Said VP of communications Elliot Schrage:

“We understand that many of you feel strongly about maintaining the participatory nature of our site governance process. We do too. We believe that having a meaningful dialogue with our community through our notice and comment process is core to that effort moving forward. We also plan to explore and implement new, innovative and effective ways to enhance this process in order to maximize user engagement.”

If it makes you as a Facebook user feel any better, it’s not just your vote that doesn’t count: as a result of the way that co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg controls the board of directors of the company through voting proxies and a number of other perfectly legal methods, the votes of the majority of Facebook shareholders don’t really count either. The social network has what’s called a dual-voting share structure — meaning some shares have 10 times as many votes attached to them as the regular class — and Zuckerberg controls a majority of the super-voting shares (other tech companies such as Google also use this structure). And since he also controls the board, his word is effectively law.

We can all debate the question of whether this makes the Facebook founder more like the president of North Korea than the head of a democratic nation, and whether this kind of approach to running a company is a good thing (as some supporters of founder-CEOS would argue). But the reality is that the way Facebook handles its privacy or data-retention policies — or any other aspect of site governance — is ultimately decided by one man, not a user vote. You could argue that a smart consumer-oriented service will take into account what users want, but Zuckerberg has always been more than happy to subjugate those desires to his vision of what a social network should be.

That leaves Facebook users with a couple of options: one is to put up with the changes and/or post meaningless public statements about what they want the site to do with their data, and the other is to renounce their membership and find a different way of keeping in touch with their family and friends. But Facebook is no doubt counting on the fact that the second option is almost unthinkable for many.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock/Gunnar Pippel and Flickr user Balakov