Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer
Until recently, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg rejected any suggestion that his company was a media entity, despite the fact that the platform’s all-powerful News Feed algorithm chooses what to show users based on a series of unknown editorial criteria, and that tens of millions of posts, photos, and other pieces of content are taken down every year because they breach the company’s rules. In the spring of 2018, however, in an interview with Ezra Klein of Vox, the Facebook CEO seemed to be growing accustomed to the idea that the company was a kind of media entity, and even mused out loud that maybe Facebook should have a kind of editorial board — or a Supreme Court, as he described it; an external body that would “ultimately make the final judgment call on what should be acceptable speech.” Over the past two years, Facebook has been trying to fulfil that promise, designing what it calls an Oversight Board, and this week the company announced the bylaws or rules that the board will operate under, as well as its first staff member.
The director of the new entity is Thomas Hughes, former executive director of a group called Article 19, an international non-governmental organization that focuses on freedom of expression and digital rights (named after the section of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that deals with freedom of expression). Hughes will essentially run a limited liability company called Oversight Board LLC that Facebook created, which in turn will be financed by Facebook through an arms-length trust (which the company has committed to funding for six years). As it did with its star-crossed attempt at launching a cryptocurrency called Libra, the social network is going above and beyond in order to show that it is taking a hands-off approach to the new entity. The bylaws for the group even state explicitly that the board can overrule Zuckerberg or any other Facebook executive when it comes to content decisions. That said, however, there are some pretty large caveats.
For example, the three co-chairs who will be in charge of running the board (Hughes will run the administrative side of things, rather than the group that makes the actual decisions) are to be chosen by Facebook, which for many will raise immediate questions about the impartiality of those who are selected. Those co-chairs will then have the responsibility of choosing the rest of the board, which could number as many as 40 people (the Facebook bylaws don’t specify an exact number, but say that the “ideal number” of members is 40). And when it comes to the kinds of cases that this board will hear, Facebook has placed some restrictions on that — at least initially. For example, at least for the first while, the company says that the board will only be able to hear cases about content that was taken down, and make decisions about whether these removals were appropriate. It won’t be able to adjudicate whether content that wasn’t taken down should have been — such as the video of Speaker Nancy Pelosi that was slowed down to make her appear drunk. Facebook said that this restriction could change over time, but didn’t say when or why.Continue reading “Facebook lays out the rules for its new Supreme Court for content”