Facebook’s Oversight Board

Ronaldo Lemos’ weekly column in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper

published in

12 de May de 2020


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Last week, news spread about the creation of Oversight Board, an independent, public entity by Facebook.

The Board currently has 20 members of several backgrounds, from around the globe. It includes an ex-prime minister of Denmark (a Nobel Peace Prize laureate), an ex-US federal judge, and a former editor of The Guardian. It also includes the writer of this weekly column.

The Oversight Board isn’t a part of Facebook and is neither governed by it. On the contrary, it was created to limit the company’s power, which now has 3 billion users.

Its purpose is to ultimately decide on appeals regarding content published on Facebook and Instagram. The Board was created to be an independent entity, which begins its work with an initial, irrevocable budget of USD 130 million.

But why create the Oversight Board? In the past years, tech companies have faced more legal issues regarding problematic content, which violates rights or its terms of use. One of the reasons behind this is the change in norms that apply not just to Facebook, but also many other platforms.

For example, in 2014 a decision by the European Court of Justice created the “Right to be Forgotten”. This decision determined that search engines such as Google have to remove search results of content deemed inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive.

The problem is to precisely define what is “inadequate”, “irrelevant” or “excessive”. This task began to be undertaken not only by the Judiciary but also by Google itself, which in 2018 had already received 2,4 million requirements of immediate removal of content in regards to these new criteria. Google consulted lawyers, professors, and specialists on this topic.

However, when decisions are made internally, without broadcasting of the motives or reasoning (as the Judiciary does), the debate regarding the application of the criteria doesn’t move forward. Besides, it’s an enormous exertion of power, in addition to the power already concentrated by these platforms.

Thus, Facebook took the initiative of creating its own experimental institution. It created an external Board, capable of limiting its power regarding this issue. The Board has the goal of making public decisions, in a justifiable manner, considering international treaties on human rights and the protection of freedom of speech.

As an independent entity, the Oversight Board has no obligation to maximize Facebook’s profits or even of pleasing the company. Its members have fixed mandates and can’t be fired. Also, all decisions are made in unison, in discussion panels with the rotation of members, and endorsed by a plenary.

Lastly, the Board will only be capable of analyzing a limited amount of cases per year. There will be tough cases, regarding hate speech, dissemination of violent images of tragedies, or even the issue of treating differently content published by public figures.

Of course, the role of each country regarding these issues remains unchanged. What changes now is that Facebook abdicates its final word, passing it on to an external, independent counsel.


It’s gone: unlocking your phone with a PIN code or fingerprint

Now in: unlocking your phone with your face

Coming up: unlock your phone with your face, even when wearing a mask

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