Facebook Continues Plans for Independent Oversight Board

In January 2018, Harvard law professor Noah Feldman suggested to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg that the company create an independent, transparent committee to help guide its content decisions. Sandberg passed the idea along to chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, and Feldman was brought on to write a white paper on his idea and stay as an advisor. Zuckerberg first revealed plans seven months ago, and now, Feldman’s idea, dubbed the Oversight Board, is on its way to becoming a reality.

Bloomberg reports that Facebook is “still trying to agree on its fundamental structure … [and] basic decisions like how many members it should have, how those members should be picked, and how many posts the board will review, are all still undecided.” A draft charter specifies that the Oversight Board will be comprised of 40 people, appointed from around the world, and that three to five members will review each case. Once a decision is made, the “ruling board members will then write a public explanation, and could even suggest that Facebook tweak its policies.”

One definitive decision is that the board be independent, to quell criticism that Facebook has too much control over content. But not everyone is satisfied. “It’s all well and good for people on the outside to kind of prescribe that, yeah, Facebook needs to cede some of its power to outsiders,” said Stanford University law professor Nate Persily. “But when you start unpacking how to do that, it becomes extremely complicated very fast.”

Persily and a dozen law school students “created their own version of the Facebook Oversight Board,” and, at the end of May, presented findings that suggested the board be much larger than 40 part-timers. “If they’re going to do any reasonable slice of the cases that are going to go through the appeals process, it’s going to have to be much larger or it’s going to have to be full-time,” said Persily.

Facebook reported that since the beginning of the year, it’s been “running these simulations with academics, researchers and employees” in Nairobi, Mexico City, Delhi, New York City, and Singapore, and “also opened the process to public feedback.” In one open comment period, the company received 1,200+ proposals from individuals and organizations including Free Press.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at Oxford provided input via papers and blog posts, the latter suggesting “different ways Facebook could pick cases for the board to review, to recommendations on how the board should be compensated.” Both organizations emphasized the “importance of keeping the board independent.”

EFF legal director Corynne McSherry added that the “biggest concern is that social media councils will end up either legitimating a profoundly broken system (while doing too little to fix it) or becoming a kind of global speech police, setting standards for what is and is not allowed online whether or not that content is legal.” “We are hard-pressed to decide which is worse,” she said.

Related:
Facebook’s Effort to Build an Internal Court for Content Is Far From Simple, The Wall Street Journal, 6/27/19

Bodies In Seats, The Verge, 6/19/19
At Facebook’s worst-performing content moderation site in North America, one contractor has died, and others say they fear for their lives