Facebook 'Supreme Court' to begin work before US Presidential vote

BBC Technology 24 Sep 2020 12:40

By Leo Kelion
Technology desk editor

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Helle Thorning-Schmidt
image copyrightGetty Images/Facebook

Facebook's Oversight Board is "opening its doors to business" in mid-October.

Users will be able to file appeals against posts the firm has removed from its platforms, and the board can overrule decisions made by Facebook's moderators and executives, including chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

The timing means that some rulings could relate to the US Presidential election, which is on 3 November.

But one member of the board told the BBC it expected to act slowly at first.

"In principle, we will be able to look at issues arising connected to the election and also after the election," Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former Prime Minister of Denmark, explained.

"But if Facebook takes something down or leaves something up the day after the election, there won't be a ruling the day after.

"That's not why we're here. We're here to take principled decisions and deliberate properly."

Earlier this week, Facebook's global affairs chief Nick Clegg told the Financial Times that if there was an "extremely chaotic and, worse still, violent set of circumstances" following a contested election result, it would act aggressively to "significantly restrict the circulation of content on our platform".

Ms Thorning-Schmidt said that the board had the capacity to examine "expedited cases" but preferred not to do so in its early days.

Facebook first announced its plans to set up the Oversight Board a year ago, and it has taken until now to select its members and arrange how it will work in practice.

Their work will cover Facebook's main platform as well as the photo-centric app Instagram, which the company owns.

The panel's decisions are supposed to be binding and set a precedent for subsequent moderation decisions.

But Ms Thorning-Schmidt said it was too early to write it off.

"So this is the second best.

Presentational grey line

Has Facebook already consulted the board about its plans to deal with election-related posts?

And just to be clear - in the days after the election, you might ask for a removed post to be put back up on Facebook or Instagram?

In theory, the Oversight Board has the right to overrule Mark Zuckerberg himself. But since he still controls the majority of Facebook's voting shares, isn't there a risk he in turn overrules whatever you decided?

Mark Zuckerberg
image copyrightGetty Images

I don't think we should talk about these issues. We want to give this a serious go. I'm urging everyone to look at the Oversight Board and not make the perfect the enemy of the good. This is the best we have these days to try to regulate content on social media. I have not seen any other ways of doing this. And we are all committed to given this giving this a real chance.

I understand that you want to discuss current examples. And I do find that fascinating as well. But I also think it would be wrong for a board member to go into concrete issues because it would pre-empt our decisions later on. There's been some quite horrific examples in the past, and there will probably be more horrific examples in the future. I have no doubt that the board will look into fact-checking and whether there was real harm caused by content that was left up for too long, which they should have taken down.

I think these big tech firms, social media platforms, need regulation in many areas. There is a need for regulation in terms of tax issues. And there's probably also a need for regulation in terms of data protection and how long you keep data. I've argued very adamantly for a duty of care for Facebook and other social media providers. But the board is not taking the place of regulation. Perhaps rather the opposite. The more rulings and decisions we make, the more it will become clear that we need a better conversation about content, and perhaps also more regulation around content.

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