Facebook, a social networking site launched in February 2004, released a new transparency policy yesterday that includes multiple document resources, as well as a video explaining new and old practices. As we marvel at the responsive, comprehensive steps the social networking site is taking to increase transparency, the government’s inability to mimic those initiatives is glaring.
The impetus for the improvement at Facebook is threefold. Facebook Europe is headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, and is regulated by the Office of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner. Last year, the IDPC audited Facebook’s data privacy practices; the results are available publicly. As part of the audit, the IDPC asked that Facebook clarify and expand upon their data use practices by Spring 2012. Executives also emphasized that because Facebook is using so many new products, including Timeline, the site requires more disclosure to better inform over 900 million active users. Most importantly, users demanded more transparency.
All transparency initiative documents are made available on Facebook, including a red line of the data use policy, transparency terms, and the “cookies” hub. These databases include comprehensive section-by-section analysis of the changes and improvements. Most importantly, Facebook is seeking comments from users and are attempting to reply to and incorporate many users’ suggestions.
Why Facebook is winning
The 2010 U.S. Census reported the population of the United States at 313.5 million people, approximately 600 million less than members than Facebook, yet Americans are still clamoring for more transparency in government and Facebook users worldwide seem satisfied.
In the eight years since the launch of Facebook, the site has expanded to include extensive site upgrades, accommodated skyrocketing numbers of new users, incorporated new features including voice and video calling, and is arguably worth $100 billion.
Granted, the U.S. federal government works with a much larger budget and must have a physical, as well as virtual presence, but state governments make an excellent comparison to Facebook as far as budget, even though Facebook users grossly outnumber the population of every state in the nation. So why does Facebook excel in transparency when the states do not?
Both entities deal with external regulatory agencies, internal regulation, and customer satisfaction, yet Facebook seems much more responsive and proactive. Facebook has international compliance agencies regulating content; federal, state, and local governments have“sunshine legislation” providing that government-related documents and activities are made completely open to the public and the press. Regulation alone is insufficient, just as regulation alone is not enough to compel Facebook to change their practices. At the heart of the problem is accountability.
Accountability: Demanding change
While Facebook eagerly changes to meet the demands of their customers to ensure continued use of the social networking site, oppositely, the government knows that no matter what, citizens must use their services because there is no market alternative. To this end, it is crucial for Americans to become activists, encouraging and pushing government to better accommodate the need for transparency, because they are not going to do it alone.
Since we don’t have the option to opt out, we must opt-in headstrong. It is the responsibility of Americans to encourage the government to purposefully and anticipatorily cause the release of information rather than simply responding to requests for information. Encouraging proactive disclosure will ensure that people possess all the knowledge and information necessary to hold their governments accountable. In doing so, maybe our governments will one day be as responsive as the Facebook we know and love.