Facebook’s New Supreme Court: Has Zuckerberg given up the gavel?

February 20, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Facebook is setting up an independent board to serve as a “Supreme Court” to review cases of Facebook pulling down posts.

What does this mean?

Facebook has announced the establishment of an Oversight Board which will review Facebook’s decisions on removal of content. This will be especially relevant in the realm of political ads, for which Facebook has been under increasing public scrutiny. The board will comprise of 40 prestigious members selected by Facebook, who will serve for three years. Afterwards, they, and not Facebook, will decide their successors.  The board will give decisions in 90 days, which Facebook must follow. Facebook may also choose to apply the decision to similar cases if enough parallels can be found. This Supreme Court of sorts will also be able to give advisory opinions on Facebook policy, which Facebook will either implement or publicly justify not implementing within 30 days.

What's the big picture effect?

Though this may seem like a wise dictator recognising their limits and handing some power away, this announcement has to be seen against the backdrop of Facebook’s recent scandals. These include the 2016 US election interference of Cambridge Analytica, as well as a recent reluctance by Mark Zuckerberg (the CEO of Facebook) to take down political ads that many regarded as “fake news”, saying that users themselves “should judge the character of politicians”. With the 2020 US election coming up, and Facebook itself recognising its potential influence in elections, it is probable that Facebook has taken a pre-emptive step to avoid government regulation of the social media site. If it is to fight off the calls for regulation, the board must be shown to be trustworthy and not in Facebook’s pocket. The jury is still out as to whether that is the case.

Although some powers have been given over to the board, and Facebook will be bound by the decisions the board makes in individual cases, the board cannot force Facebook to change any of their policies (including those on political ads). The advisory opinions mentioned earlier may prove to be more powerful than thought if Facebook takes a policy line of abiding by them. However, this is a considerable if.

Questions will also be asked about the scope of the board’s remit. It will be allowed to consider cases according to the right to the freedom of expression but will not consider other human rights. Some, such as the charity Business for Social Responsibility, after an investigation of Facebook, found that the board’s scope was too narrow. The charity complained that “all human rights—not only freedom of expression and personal safety and security—can be impacted by content decisions”, calling for an approach based more on the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights. 

It remains to be seen whether Facebook’s new independent board will slow the tide of regulation. If it does work, many huge Internet content hosts will surely clamber to use the board or create their own. But with 68% of US adults getting at least some of their news from social media, the stakes are high and regulators must decide whether this board wields enough strength to make a difference.

Report written by Luke Hatch

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