SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook Inc. is finding out just how messy democracy can be.
Three years ago it was praised for giving users a voice in major policy changes. Now the giant social network is proposing to end the practice of letting users vote. And that has stirred up a new wave of controversy.
Julius Harper, a digital strategist from Valencia, Calif., said he is “hugely disappointed” that Facebook wants to take away his right to vote and accused Facebook of bowing to pressure from Wall Street.
“Most people on Facebook don’t even know they can vote or even that a vote is going on,” he said. “What is a democracy if you don’t know where the polling place is? Or that a vote is even being held? How can you participate? Ignorance becomes a tool that can be used to disenfranchise people.”
Harper, 29, organized the grass-roots protest in 2009 in which tens of thousands of people noisily objected to controversial changes Facebook made to its terms of service that appeared to give Facebook permanent ownership of users’ status updates, photos and other contributions to the site.
The public uproar spurred Facebook to begin letting users vote on major changes to how it handles their personal information. At the time, the idea was hailed as groundbreaking.
But Harper said Facebook set an impossibly high bar by requiring that 30% of Facebook users participate for a vote to count. Facebook has held two votes and neither met that threshold. Now that Facebook has more than 1 billion users, some 300 million users would have to cast ballots.
Harper said he would like to see Facebook explore alternatives. “The solution is not to get rid of the vote,” he said.
But Facebook says it’s a publicly traded company that has to answer to regulators around the globe. Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s vice president of communications, public policy and marketing, wrote in a blog post last week that Facebook wants a “system that leads to more meaningful feedback and engagement.”
Facebook plans to give users other ways to weigh in on policy changes such as an “Ask the Chief Privacy Officer” question-and-answer forum on its website.
David Kirkpatrick, founder of Techonomy Media and author of “The Facebook Effect,” said critics are not giving Facebook the credit it deserves for its innovative experiment in democracy, even if it ultimately proved “unworkable.”
“I challenge anybody to think of any other company, especially one with a large number of customers, that invited its customers to vote on how to alter the product,” he said.
If enough Facebook users rally to keep their right to vote, Facebook “will have to adjust as it has had to do time and time again,” Kirkpatrick said.
That’s what happened in 2009 when Facebook updated its terms of service and deleted a provision that said users could remove their content at which point Facebook’s rights to that content would expire. Further, it added new language that said Facebook could keep content after a user quit the service.
Harper spotted an ominous post on the Consumerist, a consumer advocacy blog: “Facebook’s new Terms of Service: ‘We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever.' " He created a group on Facebook called People Against the New Terms of Service. A coalition of consumer advocacy groups joined the fight, threatening a lawsuit.
With the rash of negative publicity, Facebook founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg backed down. And he took the unusual step of giving users the right to vote on future policy changes.
“History tells us that systems are most fairly governed when there is an open and transparent dialogue between the people who make decisions and those who are affected by them. We believe history will one day show that this principle holds true for companies as well,” he wrote in a blog post.
More than 600,000 of Facebook’s 200 million users cast their ballots. But for the vote to count, the turnout would have had to have been about 60 million people, or about 100 times what it was.
Facebook’s general counsel, Ted Ullyot, said at the time that Facebook would consider lowering the 30% threshold for future votes. But it never did.
Joe Cheray, 40, who runs a social media company in Topeka, Kan., said Facebook users should still get a say in how Facebook handles their personal information.
“Facebook is creating an increasingly hostile user base in taking their power away from them,” Cheray said.
Shari Lynne Dominick, a blogger from Seattle, said now that Facebook is a publicly traded company, users are no longer its most important constituents.
“Sometimes businesses that start out with honorable intentions get waylaid in the pursuit of finances,” Dominick, 54, said.
Altimeter Group analyst Brian Solis said Facebook has no choice but to roll back initiatives conceived in its more idealistic youth — especially when so few Facebook users took part in the democratic process.
“This is as much on us as Facebook residents to provide concentrated and relentless feedback as it is on them to show that they’re listening and to communicate with the community,” Solis said.