Can we trust Facebook with a supreme court?

Posted 18.09.19

With the recent announcement that Facebook has finalised the charter for its content oversight board, a body established to oversee Facebook’s content decisions, much in the same way a supreme court does in legal matters.

How will this work?
The new process will allow users to appeal content decisions directly to the board instead of through having to go through Facebook’s approval process. The decisions will be final, even if there is opposition from within Facebook.

In unveiling the charter Facebook has been quick to point out that the oversight board will be an independent group chosen from qualified and vetted candidates “outside of our normal channels”. Anyone will be able to suggest a candidate through a new recommendation portal providing greater openness and transparency around the process.

It is said that there will be at least 11 members of the board, though internally Facebook is keen to have more like 40 each serving a maximum of three terms of three years apiece and that member will be paid by a Facebook-established trust.

Facebook has said it wants to encourage a wide range of people from different cultural, political and religious backgrounds and that the criteria for selection will include not just relevant experience but also open-mindedness and impartiality.


What will they act upon?
Ultimately the content oversight board is being introduced to review appeals to Facebook’s policy decisions, like content takedowns, and make recommendations for changes to the platform and its policies with Mark Zuckerberg adding:

“The board’s decision will be binding, even if I or anyone at Facebook disagrees with it.”

Facebook has given details on the process for which the content oversight board will follow and have been at pains to suggest that they will just be there to supply information when requested by the board.

It is suggested that a selection committee will recommend cases for the oversight board to review. However, the board will choose the cases themselves and it’ll be up to the board and its staff to determine if more research is needed.

Much like a traditional court system any decisions passed will act as a precedent for future decisions and stored within a centralised database. However, one major concern is that Facebook can just decide not to apply to the precedents set by the case decisions or narrow how broadly to apply them in the future. If this is the case it provides Facebook a large amount of cover in dealing with complex and controversial decisions.


How did it come to this?
Well, a truckload of controversy has led us here, starting with the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 but followed throughout last year and into 2019 with the retaining of deleted users videos, various internal political struggles, being implicated in the distribution of mass misinformation and ‘fake news’, the secret deletion of Mark Zuckerberg’s messages, and the concerns around fueling hate speech in Myanmar to name but a few.

We all remember the images of Mark Zuckerberg being dragged in front of the US Congress in April last year and that led to the Facebook CEO calling for more regulation of social platforms and how they use personal data and how they make decisions that affect billions of people’s lives every day.

By creating an “independent” content oversight board Facebook have got out in front of any regulation and potentially created a shield for themselves later down the line – don’t blame us is what the board’s decision will be a line I am sure we’ll hear coming from Facebook in the months and years ahead.

Josh Constine comments in a recent piece for Techcrunch that “The Oversight Board could remove total culpability for policy blunders around censorship or political bias from Facebook’s executives. It also might serve as a talking point toward the FTC and other regulators investigating it for potential antitrust violations and other malpractice”.

If this somewhat cynical view of Facebook’s actions is true then this could allow Facebook to retain crucial power over decision-making even in the face of regulation and renewed calls to curtail Zuckerberg and other loyalist’s power.


How can Facebook remain impartial?
Many critics have suggested the biggest issue with all of this is the fact that Facebook can not remain impartial throughout this process.

Constine argues that by Facebook deciding who the initial members of the content advisory board are and then working with those members to further select the rest it “thereby could avoid adding overly incendiary figures”.

The fact that this hand-selected group will be responsible for such a broad range of global policy decisions, is troublesome. They will have to contend with the complex political, cultural and religious nuances of decisions that affect over 2 billion people around the world every day.

Not just that but there will be demands, and potentially huge political pressure to include more conservative representation on the Oversight Board to stave-off claims that Facebook has and continue to suppress right-wing voices on the platform.

All of this could continue to fan-the-flames of polarising political, religious and cultural views spreading uninhibited across the platform all the while Facebook remains exempt from blame and questioning.


Tom Jarvis, Founder and Managing Director – Wilderness Agency