So, what are people saying about the news?
A complaint by a target of a bogus political ad is bound to come before the board eventually, which will certainly take on the case. Or Facebook itself might send the issue to the board. After all, this issue satisfies almost all the factors listed by Facebook itself when assessing important cases. (A subset of the board’s members will sit on a selection committee.) According to an explanation of the board’s charter
written by Facebook, these include severity (“the content reaches or affects someone else’s voice, privacy or dignity”); public discourse (“the content spurs significant public debate and/or important political and social discourse”); and difficulty (“there is disagreement about Facebook’s decision on the content and/or the underlying policy or policies”). It’s almost as if the whole project was created specifically to rule on Zuckerberg’s stance on political ads.
Nick Clegg, the former UK deputy prime minister who is now Facebook’s head of global policy and communications, confirms this. “I think this political ads issue of how do you treat political speech is exactly the kind of thing where it would be very interesting to see how the board thinks,” he says.
I’m less certain the board will have a say here. It will have the authority to remove (or leave standing) individual pieces of content, as well as issue policy advisory opinions. Key word: advisory. And while an opinion by the board that Facebook should fact-check political ads would have some weight — and could provide political cover for Facebook to reverse course, should it decide it wants to — ultimately the decision will likely still remain with Zuckerberg.
, Evelyn Douek zooms in on one of the more peculiar features of the board, at least at launch: it will only review cases in which an individual believes their content was removed in error. If a post was allowed to stay up
in error — a piece of viral misinformation about a health crisis, for example — the board will initially have no jurisdiction. (Facebook says that it will get such jurisdiction in the future but won’t specify a time frame.) Douek writes
Limiting the board’s jurisdiction to take-down decisions stacks the deck somewhat. It is like introducing video appeals to tennis to make calls more accurate but allowing players a review only when balls are called “out” and not when a ball is called “in,” no matter how erroneous the call seems. For those in favor of longer rallies — which probably includes the broadcasters and advertisers — this is a win, because only those rallies cut short can be appealed. For those in favor of more accurate calls generally, not so much. Indeed, on a press call, Facebook made this bias toward leaving things up explicit: The limited ambit of operations to start is “due to the way our existing content moderation system works, and in line with Facebook’s commitment to free expression” (emphasis added). Maybe so, but it is a disappointing limitation and represents an uncharacteristically incremental approach from a company famous for “moving fast.” It is important to hold Facebook to its commitment that this will be changed in the near future.
It all feels rather like … an oversight.
If Facebook expands the jurisdiction to include takedowns within the first few months of the board’s operation, I don’t think this omission is that big a deal. Much longer than that, though, and I’d say Facebook has a problem.
Then there’s the issue of how long Facebook might take to review a case. The wheels of justice aren’t known to spin particularly fast in any legitimate court, but it’s worth noting that this board has not been designed with rapid interventions in mind. Here’s Kurt Wagner at Bloomberg
Facebook’s proposed Oversight Board
, a group of people from outside the company who will determine whether controversial user posts violate the social network’s rules, could take months to make these decisions — indicating the panel won’t play a role in quickly stopping the viral spread of misinformation or abuse on the service.
Instead, the board will take on cases that “guide Facebook’s future decisions and policies,” the company wrote Tuesday in a blog post. “We expect the board to come to a case decision, and for Facebook to have acted on that decision, in approximately 90 days.” The company also said it could expedite some decisions in “exceptional circumstances,” and that those would be completed within 30 days, but could be done faster.
Still, it’s worth noting that even this three-month process is far superior to the current system of justice, which involves filling out a form, sending it in, and praying. (The new system will also involve filling out a form, sending it in, and praying, but there is now a chance that an independent board will ask you to make your case more formally, consult with experts, and render a binding opinion in your favor.)
I’m glad that one of the world’s largest quasi-states has evolved to include a judicial system. It’s worth noting, though, that this system has been set up explicitly to redress the complaints of individual users. It won’t be asked to “fix Facebook” broadly — to make judgments in service of the health of the overall user base, or the world they inhabit. That remains at the sole discretion of the executive — Facebook’s CEO. And at a company where the CEO has majority control over voting shares, there is effectively no legislative branch.
Facebook is taking the boldest approach we’ve seen yet to establishing an independent mechanism of accountability for itself. But as the board prepares to name its members, it’s worth keeping our expectations in line with what they’ll actually be able to do.
Coming tomorrow: Facebook earnings.