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Facebook's Response to Terms of Service Flap Offers a Governance Lesson

Facebook shows agility in confronting tough transparency and openness issues.

"Launch and learn," the watchwords of Web 2.0, sound a lot like "crash and burn."

Facebook, the social networking site that boasts 175 million users, threaded that needle in February -- not through technology, but governance. Facebook's unilateral change to its terms of service created uproar about who owns and controls user-generated content.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg blogged about the dustup: "History tells us that systems are most fairly governed when there is an open and transparent dialog between the people who make decisions and those who are affected by them." He then replaced the existing terms of service with Facebook principles and a statement of rights and responsibilities, the latter to be reviewed and voted on by users.

Facebook confronted issues that have long bedeviled governments: transparency and openness. Whose information is it? How long should it be retained? How and where should we discuss these issues? (In "Town Halls," says Facebook, a forum created by and for government.) What language do we use to talk about this stuff? (Plain and simple.)

If government can teach Facebook the complexity of these issues -- and it can -- the site showed agility and determination under pressure by dusting itself off after a big public mistake. The Facebook experience provides reminders about good governance:

  • Speed-to-message: Once Facebook realized the problem, it regrouped to figure out a plan B and launched it within a week -- perhaps still too long in a 24/7 environment where people can mutiny with a mouse click, but much more responsive than the 30 to 90 days public agencies often afford themselves for policy review.
  • A principled approach: There may not be specific policy guidance to anticipate every future development. When in doubt, refer to the principles.
  • The rules are for everybody: The new principles advocate one "set of principles, rights and responsibilities that should apply to all ... whether individual, advertiser, developer, organization or other entity." It's a high bar, but it provides at least an initial hedge against favoritism or special deals, which are the bane of effective governance.
  • Upfront about the non-negotiables: The service provider is explicitly not part of "everybody." Facebook reserves the right to stir the pot occasionally, stating it "is still in the business of introducing new and therefore potentially disruptive technologies," Zuckerberg wrote. "We need to continue to make independent decisions about products in order to push technology forward." Importantly those "will not be subject to the notice and comment or voting requirement," he wrote. On balance, it's a reasonable (and necessary) stance for a provider to take if its mandate is imagining the future, and then building it.
The current case gives an important example of when the two in Web 2.0 stands for second chance. What have we learned from this about-face? Being fast is good. Being right is better. Listening and developing policy iteratively may prove to be -- in the end -- the best. To Facebook's credit, it regrouped quickly with a surprising second chance -- one in which it remembers that conversation and community is based on two-way communication. When you're Web 2.0, you have to act Web 2.0.

Editor's Note: This column originally appeared as About-Face(book) in the May print edition of Government Technology magazine.


Paul W. Taylor is the Executive Editor at E.Republic and of its flagship titles - Government Technology and Governing.