How We Stay Open, Safe, and Empowering

If Change.org was a country, it would be the 15th most populous country in the world. It would have a population of almost 90 million citizens, larger than Germany or Egypt. Change.org the country would see people from 200 other countries, with infinitely different views and backgrounds, come together to change the most pressing issues in their lives. And a third of Change.org citizens would inspire the others with stories about how they started or signed winning campaigns that led to real changes they wanted to see.

As a microcosm of the world’s opinions, it would be an interesting place to live, but a very difficult country to govern. For everyone to freely voice their concerns, freedom of speech would have to be enshrined in its constitution. Yet, with a culture of everyone saying what they want, how would you make sure people felt comfortable when disagreeing with each other? And with so much passion about change in people’s hearts, how would you keep everyone safe?

Virtual communities face the same difficult questions, and have many of the same needs for governance, as countries around the world. That’s why we have policies like our Terms of Service, our Privacy Policy, and our updated Community Guidelines which we’re rolling out today.

Having Community Guidelines is not unique to Change.org; these are a common way for open Internet platforms to uphold a “code of conduct” among their users. But our Community Guidelines are unique to our platform because, like nations of the world, each online community is distinctly different. While the industry provides guidance, we can’t simply copy the rules used by others. For example, Facebook’s policy of requiring real names simply wouldn’t work on Change.org – at times, people need to be able to start petitions without fear that they’ll be harmed from the exposure of their identity.

Which begs the question: how do we know which policies are the best fit for people on Change.org?

First, it helps to take a step back and define the values we want the platform to embody. Just like nations might have a motto to define their national identity, like France’s famous “liberté, egalité, fraternité”, we have three guiding principles for our policies: “open, safe and empowering”. Our policies need to be open to support free speech, they need to be safe to protect our users and the wider community, and they need to be empowering to encourage people to speak out about issues that matter to them.

Second, we looked at how those values might compete with each other. How does the platform embolden young people to speak up, while protecting the safety of children online? If the platform elevates one person and they use their pedestal for hate, is it disempowering others? How does the platform encourage people to hold decision-makers accountable, while preventing harassment and bullying? Crafting the right policy for a platform can be a balancing act, and it’s often a series of tough calls.

Third, we used our Community Guidelines to explain the relationship we hope people will have with us and others on Change.org. Policies, whether online or offline, require enforcement. We’re a small company, and we see almost 30,000 petitions started each month, so we rely on our users to report abuse. We also wanted to explain that the most effective way to respond to a disagreeable petition is to start a counter-petition to mobilize others to see your perspective, rather than asking Change.org to censor the original.

In creating these guidelines, we looked at who our community is today, and how we want them to most effectively use Change.org to create change. That’s why we took the opportunity to include “do’s”, as well as “don’ts”. The people who have won their petitions, and catalyzed huge change in the world, have been extremely specific about who could give them what they want. We want other people to learn from them by identifying the person or group with the direct ability to fix their problem, and working with them constructively on and off our platform to come up with solutions together.

Finally, we used our Community Guidelines as an opportunity to be transparent with our users. When we announced our new Terms of Service and Privacy Policy last December, we made sure we explained the most complicated parts of the policies, and shed more light on the details of Change.org’s business model. In our Community Guidelines, instead of just writing a list of prohibited content, we’ve tried to explain the rationale for why we restrict what we do.

With this post we wanted to go one step further and explain the considerations that go behind those decisions. Ultimately, our community makes our platform powerful by sparking tremendous change all over the world, and it’s important to us that you know how we’re working to keep Change.org an open, safe and empowering place.

Before joining Change.org, Sunita worked at Oxfam and UNICEF, supporting advocacy and fundraising efforts to encourage companies and governments to do more to address injustice and inequality.