Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Reuters)
Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Reuters)

Facebook’s new oversight board can overrule Zuckerberg

  • The panel would have the final say on matters of what belongs on the social platform
  • Facebook will also create a separate 'independent trust' that will act as a conduit for funding and ensure the oversight panel is not subject to influence from company executives

Facebook has said it has finalized its charter for its “independent oversight board", giving the panel the authority to overrule chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on questions of appropriate content.

The new entity, based on Zuckerberg’s call for a “supreme court" that would make difficult calls on what is suitable content for Facebook, is moving closer to reality with the charter released by the social network on Tuesday.

Zuckerberg said in a statement the independent panel would have the final say on these matters of what belongs on the social platform.

“If someone disagrees with a decision we’ve made, they can appeal to us first, and soon they will be able to further appeal to this independent board," he said.

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

Facebook will also create a separate “independent trust" that will act as a conduit for funding and ensure the oversight panel is not subject to influence from company executives.

“The majority of people we consulted supported our decision to establish an independent trust," Facebook governance chief Brent Harris said.

“They felt that this could help ensure the board’s independence, while also providing a means to provide additional accountability checks. The trust will provide the infrastructure to support and compensate the board."

The charter, a nine-page document, sets rules for the new panel of up to 40 members. Facebook said earlier this year it was ready to open nominations after consultations in 88 countries.

Facebook’s initiative comes amid intense pressure around the world for the social platform used by more than two billion people to root out abusive content, manipulation and hoaxes, while remaining open to free expression.

The new entity will focus solely on content moderation and not on other questions such as algorithmic feed ranking or artificial intelligence.

“The board will be an advocate for our community— supporting people’s right to free expression, and making sure we fulfil our responsibility to keep people safe," Zuckerberg wrote Tuesday. “As an independent organization, we hope it gives people confidence that their views will be heard, and that Facebook doesn’t have the ultimate power over their expression."

Facebook said it expects to name the panel’s first members by the end of the year.

‘bid to stall breakup’

Critics call the oversight board a bid by Facebook to forestall regulation or even an eventual breakup. The company faces antitrust investigations by the federal trade commission, Congress and a group of state attorneys general.

“Facebook is attempting to normalize an approach to containing hate speech internally," said Dipayan Ghosh, a former Facebook policy adviser and a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “If it can illustrate that this approach can work, it can pacify the public itch to regulate the business model behind Facebook."

Luigi Zingales, a University of Chicago professor of finance, called the board’s creation “a clever move" that’s more about appearance than substance.

“It’s hard to imagine that this board will not be completely captured by Facebook," said Zingales, who co-chaired a committee of more than two dozen prominent academics that published a report Tuesday on how to rein in digital platforms . To avoid that, at least some of its members would need to be chosen by outsiders, he said.

The multinational board will eventually comprise 40 members, who will collectively decide a few dozen cases a year, company executives told reporters in a conference call. It will at first hear only cases initiated by Facebook but will begin hearing appeals initiated by users in the first half of 2020. It will get to work as soon as 11 members are named.

Priority cases will involve content that “threatens someone else’s voice, safety, privacy, dignity or equality" and affects a large number of people, Facebook said in a blog post.

Experts say the panel will have a limited range for decision-making, however. Local laws or directives from repressive governments might clash with its rulings, and Facebook might heed them for business reasons.

“How to deal with authoritarian regimes is a deep issue for the platform, and for the world really," said Harvard law student Evelyn Douek, an Australian expert on content moderation.

Douek says the group’s charter should insulate board members from public pressure and Facebook’s commercial imperatives. But she believes the conditions under which members could be removed are still too vague.

The first few board members will be directly chosen by Facebook; they will then choose additional members. Facebook will also name the administrators of the trust that manages the oversight board and pays its members’ salaries.

Facebook governance director Harris said the company had not yet decided how much board members would be paid. He did not respond when asked how many hours a week would be expected of them in the part-time job

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