NEW YORK — Facebook is trying its hand at democracy. The fast-growing online hangout, whose more than 175 million worldwide users could form the world's sixth-largest country behind Brazil, said Thursday that those users will play a "meaningful role" in deciding the site's policies and voting on changes.
Facebook is trying to recover from last week's policy-change blunder, which prompted tens of thousands to join online protests. At issue was who controls the information, like photos, posts and messages, that people share with their friends on the site.
As Facebook becomes an integral part of its users' daily lives, a place to muse about everything from relationships to root canals, they understandably worry about who gets access to their private information and whether it could end up in the wrong hands.
On Thursday, founder Mark Zuckerberg sought to reassure users that they own their information, not Facebook. And in a broader step, the company also said its users will get a hand in determining the various policies _ such as privacy, ownership and sharing _ by reviewing, commenting and voting on them before they are put in place.
If more than 7,000 users comment on any proposed change, it would go to a vote. It would be binding to Facebook if more than 30 percent of active users vote. Based on Facebook's current size, that would be nearly 53 million people. By comparison, a group created to protest Facebook's new terms has roughly 139,600 members as of Thursday.
"As people share more information on services like Facebook, a new relationship is created between Internet companies and the people they serve," Zuckerberg said in a statement. "The past week reminded us that users feel a real sense of ownership over Facebook itself, not just the information they share."
Zuckerberg said the purpose of Facebook is to make the world more transparent by giving people the power to share information, and as such Facebook itself should be transparent as well.
It is unusual, but not entirely unprecedented, for companies to let users help shape their governing policies. LiveJournal, a social diary site that's part blog, part social network, let users share their thoughts on a proposed set of user policies last year _ though it didn't go as far as calling for a vote.
After tens of thousands protested, Facebook decided to revert to its previous user policies while it figured out how best to update them.
The latest controversy was not the first time Facebook angered its users, who have come to expect a sense of privacy even as they share things with friends. From its start as a college students-only site five years ago, Facebook has always billed itself as a guarded place that gives its users control over who can access their profiles, posts and even list of friends. But there have been several hiccups along the way.
In late 2007, a tracking tool called "Beacon" caught users off-guard by broadcasting information about their shopping habits and activities at other Web sites. After initially resisting, the company ultimately allowed users to turn Beacon off. A redesign of the site last year also prompted thousands to protest, but in that case Facebook kept its new look.
Palo Alto, Calif.-based Facebook is privately held. Microsoft Corp. bought a 1.6 percent stake in the company in 2007 for $240 million as part of a broader advertising partnership.