Today let’s talk about Facebook’s independent Oversight Board, which just announced its co-chairs and initial membership
. The board will allow Facebook and Instagram users to appeal when they believe that their posts have been removed in error, and upon request will issue advisory opinions to the company on emerging policy questions.
The scope of the work is expected to expand over time — within months of launching, for example, the board is expected to rule on which posts should come down as well as which ones stay up. (To lots of people, myself included, the latter feels like a more urgent problem.) Facebook handpicked the inaugural members, who will serve three-year terms, but over time the board will pick its own members. The company placed $130 million in an irrevocable trust to fund the board’s operations, and it has promised not to meddle.
After the announcement of the members this morning, I heard three main questions: how did we get here? Do the announced board members share any particular philosophy? And can any of this possibly work?
Let’s take them in order.
How did we get here?
I like to say that people basically all have the same policy when it comes to content moderation: take down the bad posts, and leave up the good ones. The trouble comes when people disagree about which posts are good and which posts are bad, and resolving those disputes in a manner that is principled, timely, and consistent has bedeviled every social network that has ever attempted the feat. The problems tend to get harder as you grow, and so Facebook — with 2.37 billion monthly users — arguably has the hardest moderation challenge of all.
Not that you should pity Facebook: the company has always taken growth much more seriously than the problems that come with it, and its investment in content moderation came only after a series of company-shaking scandals. But questions about how Facebook should handle tricky questions of moderation are almost as old as the company.
There were the drag queens forced to use their real names; the moms suspended over breastfeeding photos; the historians censored after publishing famous but disturbing photos; the lynch mobs organizing on WhatsApp in India; the Myanmar government promoting genocide. In some cases the policy decision was clear but badly enforced; in other cases the policy lines remain blurry and uncomfortable.
The most controversial cases go to the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who owns the majority of Facebook through its dual-class stock structure. The benefit of this system, from Facebook’s perspective, is that it allows Zuckerberg to take principled stands without worrying that his board will get mad and fire him. (The decision not to fact-check speech in political ads, which has generated considerable furor, was a Zuckerberg call
The drawback is that the design of Facebook effectively puts the responsibility for policing the speech of 2.37 billion people into the hands of one person. And given that a great deal of global political discourse now takes place on Facebook’s servers, that’s a cause for concern. As I wrote here last year
Facebook and its moderators currently police the boundaries of speech on an enormous portion of the internet. And for those who feel that the company made the wrong decision about a post, there has historically been very little recourse. You could fill out a little text box and pray, but you were unlikely to ever receive much more than an automated message in response. The system might work in the majority of cases, but it never felt particularly just — which is to say, open and accountable.
It’s an unprecedented experiment in devolving some of the power accumulated by a tech giant back to its own user base. And if it proves to be effective, it could serve as a new model for self-regulation of big platforms at a time when government efforts at regulation seem to have fallen into cautious paralysis, at least in the United States.
Do the announced board members share any particular philosophy?
Say hello to the inaugural four co-leaders of the Oversight Board: Catalina Botero-Marino, Jamal Greene, Michael W. McConnell and Helle Thorning-Schmidt. They are, respectively: a former special rapporteur on freedom of expression at the Organization of the American States; a law professor at Columbia; a law professor at Stanford; and a former prime minister of Denmark.
The board members come from different professional, cultural and religious backgrounds and have various political viewpoints. Some of us have been publicly critical of Facebook; some of us haven’t. But all of us have training and experience that can help the board in considering the most significant content decisions facing online communities. We are all independent of Facebook. And we are all committed to freedom of expression within the framework of international norms of human rights. We will make decisions based on those principles and on the effects on Facebook users and society, without regard to the economic, political or reputational interests of the company.
Over the past several months, I had the chance to talk with several Facebook executives about their selection process for board members. The principle that came up more than any other was “free expression.” Zuckerberg, you may recall, gave a speech on the subject last year
advocating for an internet that preserves the maximum amount of open discourse. It’s no accident that the first batch of Oversight Board members have sworn fealty to free expression — or that their first task will be to weigh in on posts that Facebook removed in error, unjustly limiting the free expression of the company’s users.
If you’re the sort of person who is generally more mad about posts that Facebook left up rather than posts that Facebook took down, you may be disappointed with the board’s early days. The company has told me that the board will begin considering removals within a few months of launch. We’ll see.
There are 16 more announced members
, with 20 more to come. The initial group boasts impressive CVs, along with solid diversity of gender, race, and geography. (The board, which will hear cases in panels, has committed to include at least one member from the region where each case originated.) There are no particularly vocal critics of Facebook on the board — better luck next time, Kara Swisher
— but the board was never designed to be a referendum on Facebook itself.
Can any of this possibly work?
Facebook is an entity that defies description. It is a friend of the otherwise voiceless — but also an enabler of darkness. It brings harmony to some, discord to many. It promotes order and amplifies anarchy. It employs many brilliant engineers but has — too slowly — recognized that the multiple challenges it faces involve the realms of philosophy, ethics, journalism, religion, geography, and human rights. And it makes a whole lot of money, and a whole lot of enemies, while doing this.
To address this, it needs independent, external oversight.
Kate Klonick, a law professor who has followed the board’s development closely, called the announced members
“an impressive group with incredible credentials on human rights, freedom of expression, and adjudication. But perhaps most importantly for the future of the board, this initial group have skills in institution building and establishing procedure in the rule of law.”
So what are the concerns? One is that Facebook will ignore the board’s opinions
, which will not be legally binding. My read: unlikely, since the entire point of the board is to create a new body to blame for unpopular decisions. In practice, most users may continue to blast Facebook whenever a moderation decision goes against them. (After all, the board will only hear a tiny fraction of cases.) But Facebook is counting on
the board reversing its decisions, because doing so is the only thing that can give the board legitimacy and give the company some distance from the thorniest cases. So I’m optimistic Facebook will do as the board advises — but then again, ask Brian Acton or Kevin Systrom how long Facebook’s promises of independence lasted. (About five years, as it turned out.)
Another concern, raised by the disinformation researcher Nina Jankowicz, is that the board’s sights are trained on the wrong place
. While members ponder speech, she argues, the bigger issue is reach — and on the decisions made opaquely by algorithms on which content to promote and what to bury. I think the board has to start somewhere, but I agree that Facebook ought to be just as accountable to the machinations of its machine-learning systems as it is to the decisions of its human moderators.
A third concern is that the Oversight Board will expand to do moderation for YouTube, Twitter, and other social networks. Daphne Keller, platform regulation director at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, worries about
“big and small platforms converging on a single rule set,” robbing us of the benefits that come with competition and a more diverse set of viewpoints around moderation. She tells Issie Lapowsky at Protocol
: “If this becomes a mechanism to move more and more of the internet toward one single set of rules, that’s a real loss.”
Difficult content problems often take place at local levels, in languages and code that may be impenetrable to those outside. Will the board ever have the bandwidth to address the massive impact Facebook will continue to have in communities worldwide? Will the board, in other words, be more like a Band-Aid on a massive wound than an appellate body to solve the crises of online speech?
Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, describes how that problem looks from the inside. “Law professors love to come up with really thoughtful, complicated mental tests to distinguish between lawful and unlawful, and they are used to making arguments to highly educated and experienced appellate judges,” he tweeted
. “This kind of thoughtful argumentation is common inside of FB’s policy team until it breaks upon the rocks of reality, which is that any hard speech decision has to be made by machines overseen by humans who can apply 30-60 seconds of judgment to a ‘case’, not a judge with weeks.”
I think the board can do meaningful work even if it only tackles the highest profile cases — just as the US Supreme Court has vast influence even though it only hears a relative handful of cases each year. But by dint of its global scale Facebook’s task is in many ways larger and more complicated than the Supreme Court’s. Independent though it may be, the board has to rely on Facebook to design its workflows and apply its decisions. It’s far too early to tell whether it will come to be seen as effective, or even legitimate. But it seems clear that for as much work as has gone into building the board so far, what follows will make the picking of board members look like the easy part.