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Facebook confirms members of independent Oversight Board

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The social media giant has announced the first members of its independent Oversight Board, which will have the final word on what content is permitted on Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram.

Facebook announced the creation of the board in November 2018 in response to criticism from various groups, particularly with regards to its handling of the Moscow-backed disinformation campaign in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election.

Facebook has been condemned by some - notably by high-profile right-wing US politicians - for allegedly censoring politically conservative content and by others for allowing hate speech and disinformation to fester on its platforms.

Further pressure mounted on Facebook and other social media companies to take responsibility for removing harmful content from their platforms after March 2019 when the Christchurch terrorist attack in New Zealand – which claimed 51 lives at two mosques– was streamed live on Facebook and widely shared in the 24 hours afterwards. Facebook took the decision to boot out white nationalists and white separatists following the attack.

The Oversight Board will take ultimate responsibility for deciding what content is permissible, with the ability to overrule Facebook moderators’ decisions on content moderation. Individuals who disagree with a decision will be able to appeal to the board, while Facebook itself will also refer significant, complicated and high-profile cases to the board.

The board said that some of the cases they expect to rule on include those which examine the line between satire and hate speech and whether manipulated content posted by public figures should be treated differently.

Facebook has announced the first four co-chairs of the board and 16 other members. The recruitment of the co-chairs was led by Facebook and the co-chairs selected the rest of the members. Between them, they live in over 27 countries and speak 29 languages.

The four chairs are former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights Catalina Botero Marino; Columbia Law School academic Jamal Greene, and Stanford Law School academic Michael McConnell.

The other board members are an impressive and diverse group of human rights advocates; digital rights activists; legal experts; journalists; communications experts, and anti-censorship activists. The names include Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman; Internet Sans Frontières director Julie Owono, and former Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. The number of board members is expected to eventually double to 40.

“We are living in a world of information chaos and standing on the precipice of darkness,” said Rusbridger. “Societies can’t function unless their citizens can agree on what constitutes evidence, fact and truth. It’s perhaps taken us too long to realise this.”

“The Oversight Board seems to be the first imaginative and bold step by one of the biggest players to find a way of reconciling the need to start imposing some kind of judgement and standards on what is published, while still maintaining the things that are wonderful about social media and necessary for free speech.”

Thorning-Schmidt told reporters: “Up until now, some of the most difficult decisions about content have been made by Facebook and you could say Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook has decided to change that.” She added that it would be an embarrassment for Facebook if they don’t live up to their end of this system.

Greene said: “It’s one thing to complain about content moderation and challenges involved, it’s another thing to actually do something about it. These problems of content moderation really have been with us since the dawn of social media and this really is a novel approach.”

Writing in the New York Times, the co-chairs of the board noted their diversity - not only their different professional, cultural and religious backgrounds, but their political viewpoints and their previous comments about Facebook.

“We are all independent of Facebook,” they wrote, “and we are all committed to freedom of expression within the framework of international norms of human rights. We will make decisions based on those principles and on the effects of Facebook users and society, without regard to the economic, political or reputational interests of the company.”

Facebook previously stated that it would fund the board with a $130m trust which cannot be revoked. Board members will serve three-year terms and cannot be dismissed by Facebook.

The board’s bylaws, which were published by Facebook earlier this year, still need to be approved by its members. They propose that the board will manage its own membership and publish all its decisions online, which will be implemented within seven days (as long as they do not violate the law).

The Oversight Board's work is due to commence “immediately”, with the first cases heard in the coming months, although the board conceded that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to affect its early operations. It will publish transparency reports each year.

Although the announcement of the board has been welcomed by many, some have suggested that the entire Oversight Board is an attempt to avoid stricter regulation being imposed on the company and to dodge responsibility for politically divisive decisions.

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