In January 2021, the Oversight Board handed down its first five decisions. The Board overruled Facebook’s original content moderation decisions in four of the initial cases. Despite the fact that the Board is still in the early stages of its institutional life, it will soon have to decide whether to uphold the most sensitive decision ever taken by the social media platform: the indefinite suspension of Donald Trump from Facebook’s services for violating the company’s community standards, primarily the rule against inciting violence.
As part of its decision-making process, the Board gave individuals and organizations that are interested in the outcome of the case an opportunity to submit public comments with their arguments and perceptions. Given its continuous effort to monitor and analyze instances of content moderation on digital platforms, the Institute of Technology and Society of Rio de Janeiro (ITS Rio) is making its submission to the Oversight Board public (Case No. 2021-001-FB-FBR). Our objective is to contribute with the debate on the impacts that the Board’s decision will have beyond the US and particularly in the Global South.
Brief Summary of the Arguments
Our public comment is based on the way that Facebook’s decision was received by activists and academics in countries outside the US. After Trump was deplatformed following the unfortunate events that took place at the Capitol on January 6, people could not help but wonder why Facebook did not take similar actions in other countries where presidents and prime ministers also took advantage of their digital megaphones to drive polarization among the populace and incite acts of violence.
To put it differently, many were left with the impression that Facebook was incoherent in its enforcement of the community standards and that the company only acted in the US because (1) Trump suffered an electoral defeat in 2020 and (2) the GOP lost control of the Senate in the beginning of 2021. Although it is still early to conclude that Facebook acted in an inconsistent way, the case reveals a lack of transparency that needs to be addressed by the Board. The mere perception that the company acted inconsistently is a sign that Facebook did not sufficiently justify its decision to users across the globe.
In its contribution, ITS Rio advances three main arguments to sustain that these ‘perceived inconsistencies’ are troublesome and should be addressed by the Board in its future decision on the case:
– Digital constitutionalism prescribes that the rule of law should also be protected in the digital realm. The concept of ‘legality’ is sustained, among others, by the principles of consistency, stability, and congruence. Therefore, an inconsistent enforcement of the community standards is a potential violation of the rule of law;
– The right to equality is protected by international human rights law, particularly when it comes to civil and political rights (see articles 3 and 26 of the ICCPR and articles 1 and 7 of the UDHR). An inconsistent enforcement of the community standards undermines the fundamental right to equality in places where Facebook offers its services;
– Facebook itself has adopted ‘voice’ and ‘dignity’ as chief values for the company. According to a public statement given by Monika Bickert, the company focuses on “making Facebook a safe place and applying [its] policies consistently and fairly around the world”. Thus, these ‘perceived inconsistencies’ are at odds with the platform’s values.