If you're a Facebook user then you should have received an email from the social media giant in the last 24 hours.
It's the type of email most users are likely to dismiss with a click of the Delete button in their Inbox.
However, you should pay closer attention to it because within it, and specifically the content it links to, are some important changes that Facebook are proposing to deploy after a 7 day period of open comment.
The week of users being able to submit comments to Facebook is a change in itself - because until now users have been able to cast a vote on proposed changes. That's right - you had a vote.
Unfortunately, so few people used the voting process that Facebook has ditched it. They claim this is because the numbers of people voting to oppose change wasn't giving them the quality of response they wanted, so they'd prefer to receive written comments instead of a mere 'vote'.
Social media bloggers appear to have a mixed reaction to this. Some consider it a loss of democracy, whereas others (and we would put ourselves in this bracket) point out that the impact of the vote was incredibly questionable to say the least.
However, the major changes that most Facebook users will see come in the general use of the social media network.
Facebook are looking to amend their policies in respect of Data Use and their Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR). All users of Facebook sign up to these documents when registering.
Data Use Policy changes
Large sections of the text added to the Data Use Policy centres on providing users with more information. In many respects it merely reinforces aspects of data use that Facebook can already utilise - it just sheds new light on the impact of posting on Facebook and emphasises that when you've hidden, for example, things from your Timeline it doesn't mean they can't necessarily be found.
However, it also points out that just because you don't share information on yourself it doesn't stop your friends doing so - and by tagging you in posts you should be aware this has implications on your privacy. Again, there is nothing new about this and all Facebook are doing is stressing it. They even point out the ability to prevent this happening by approving/disapproving tagging of yourself (via your Privacy settings).
They then go on to point out that certain Apps you use on Facebook may have legal requirements to retain information on you. That's an interesting point to consider in itself. Nothing new again, but the reminder of what you might be letting someone hold on you for a period of time is a good one.
The section on Personalised Ads makes something we've known for a long time patently clear - that your Interests are factored in to the advertisements you will see. Basically, ad's aren't just delivered based on the information you provided on registration, they're also configurable in such a way that if you, say, like "Music" you may be more likely to see advertisements for music related services or products.
Where the Data Use Policy becomes very interesting is the change to "Subscriber" permissions to your content. The example Facebook give is as follows:
"For example, if you RSVP to an event hosted by a local restaurant, that restaurant may want to make sure your firends see it so they can come too.
If they do sponsor a story, that story will appear in the same place ads usually do or in your News Feed under the heading "Sponsored" or something similar. Only people that could originally see the story can see the sponsored story, and no personal information about you (or your friends) is shared with the sponsor."
The implications of this aren't necessarily great, but it does emphasise that if you start to engage with third parties or advertisers on Facebook that you're going to be potentially exposing your Friends to them to a greater extent.
The document then describes what is a significant change. In a nutshell, if your Facebook account is closed down due to an infringement of their terms, Facebook will retain your data for a year.
They say it is to prevent further violation of terms but it's a major change that covers them in the event they may be asked to provide information on you or your content by police or other authorities after they've closed an account.
Next, they detail a change on Facebook Invitations. At present, when you invite a friend to join Facebook they receive an email. Facebook now describes the fact that they'll send reminders to this friend if they don't join.
They'll be given the opportunity to opt out, but bear in mind that it does mean that when you invite somebody they're not just going to receive a single invitation from Facebook if they don't respond initially.
It's not a huge change, but Facebook are being particularly clear on saying they will be sending more than one email.
The policy changes then move on to something that will be of most interest to users - Affiliate use of data. Up until now Facebook has never tried to hide the fact they share your information with advertisers. From hereon, if the proposed changes go ahead, they're telling you they will also share your data with "Affiliate" companies that form part of the Facebook group now or in the future.
Similarly, Facebook will receive information from the Affiliates you give information to. They'll exchange information between each other.
Facebook are very good at using the words "improve your experience" when mentioning items of this nature, but let's not lose focus on the main aim here - it is data mining and you're giving them permission to do so and share it. It'll then be used, in one way or another, to try to interest you in other products and services.
Is there anything wrong with this? No. You just need to be aware of it and consider it when you're posting any content, approving applications or sharing information with Facebook.
Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (SRR)
Facebook's SRR has always detailed their general terms of service. The changes they're proposing to it are as follows:
Section 4.4 contains a major change. They directly reference the use of personal accounts for commercial purposes. That is, "you will not use your personal timeline primarily for commercial gain". Previously, this section did not include the word "primarily".
In our view, they're preparing to cut down on the large volume of users that have set up personal accounts for the promotion of small businesses WITHOUT setting up a formal brand Page.
They even go on to say "..and will use a Facebook Page for such purposes."
They're now explicitly telling you that if you want to use Facebook for commercial marketing purposes, you need to get around to setting a Page up for it - don't continue to use personal accounts.
We fully expect to see a plethora of personal accounts closed down for a violation of terms because of this. Facebook have always said you shouldn't use personal accounts for commercial gain, but they've never previously stated that you should use a Facebook Page in their SRR.
So, if you are one of the hundreds of thousands of people still promoting your business through your personal Facebook page, and doing so more than anything else on that page, you need to get a brand/company page set up to avoid potential closure in the future.
Coupled with this change, but mentioned much later in the document under Section 12, they have added a line that says "if you run a Promotion or Offer from your Page" that you agree to their Page Terms.
In other words - be well aware of the restrictions that apply even if you are running a formal business page on Facebook. You need to read their Page Terms carefully (and we suspect this is particularly in relation to competitions).
The next section in the document is the removal of voting rights as we mentioned at the start of this article. It appears to something a lot of social media commentators are particularly upset by, but it shouldn't come as a surprise from a publically owned company. Their governance and use of data is now going to be down to their shareholders and we can't see what the major surprise with that is.
We'd have liked to see voting rights stay in place, but with only 3% of all Facebook accounts using the voting system the last time it was made available - its removal won't be noticed by the masses.
The addition of the Affiliate data sharing section is of interest, if only because it is further evidence of a need for Facebook to continue mining data in order to realise the revenues it needs. What its implications will be won't be known for some time yet, so we'll monitor the experience changes it brings about online.
The notification of using Pages for business or commercial gain is very specific in wording and the fact they mention the use of formal Pages instead should be the last warning anybody needs - but you can be assured there'll still be people reacting with disgust when their personal accounts are closed for a violation of terms.
Everything else (other than voting rights that we've already covered) is an expansion of terms and protection for Facebook in reality.
The simple fact remains that if your privacy settings are properly configured then you've got a good amount of control over your data and the advertising you're exposed to.
We have no doubt there'll still be a lot of fuss and complaint about these changes, but we're surprised they're not more widespread and don't infer a lot more control of data for Facebook to utilise. They're still providing a lot of opt-out control for users that we felt might be lessened over time.