Facebook creates an independent body that will decide what its users see


A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a former Danish Prime Minister and a former ‘Guardian’ director, among members of the new advisory council that will help moderate content online

Facebook has finally announced the formation of a new body that will moderate content, an independent body that users and the same company can use to decide on publications that affect freedom of expression and human rights. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of the company, announced in 2018 his intention to create an entity outside the social network to moderate the most controversial content. The result is a council currently made up of 20 personalities from around the world that will select and weigh on the global limits of freedom of expression. Their decisions will be transparent and binding for the network, provided they do not break local laws. The contents that can be moderated will be from Facebook and Instagram. The council will not have, at least for now, capacity on WhatsApp, another company platform.

The new entity depends on an organization outside the company, although it has been created by the parent company with an irrevocable donation of 130 million dollars. The members of the council, made up of 10 women and 10 men, are neither Facebook employees nor can they be fired by Zuckerberg. The composition of this body has been announced this Wednesday, including personalities such as the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, the Yemeni Tawakul Kerman; former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt or editor of The Guardian newspaper for two decades, Alan Rusbridger. The only Spanish speaker is the Colombian lawyer Catalina Botero-Marino, dean of the Law School of the Universidad de Los Andes and rapporteur between 2008 and 2014 for freedom of expression at the Organization of American States.

The official name is the content advisory council or oversight board and its members are, above all, profiles linked to the world of law, digital activism and the media. In total there will be 40, double the current number, although the selection process will last until 2021.

The body has four co-chairs, who are in charge, along with Facebook, of recruiting the other 16 members. Along with Botero-Marino and Thorning-Schmidt, the other two co-chairs will be Americans Jamal Greene, professor at Columbia University, and Michael McConnell, former federal judge and now professor at Stanford University.

“It is a fundamental change to how difficult decisions are made on Facebook,” said Brent Harris, director of Global Affairs for Facebook. Although its foundation is already official, it will not start hearing cases for a few months. In the coming weeks, and with the difficulties added by the pandemic, the institution will hire staff and decide on the best way to coordinate and work.

Other managers

The company’s intention with this council is to subcontract one of the aspects of its work that has brought it the most problems: the limits of a user’s right to freedom of expression, with their national contexts. Facebook has already set aside the content verification of its daily work in favor of external organizations that are the ones that assume the judgment on the veracity of a content. Facebook then just adds the verdict next to the post and makes those messages less visible on users’ accounts.

Something similar will happen with the new Supreme Court. Difficult decisions will be left to company employees, who will isolate themselves from decisions that often depend on ideological or regional sensitivities. The court’s reasoned verdicts, which includes very diverse people, will avoid the feeling that a group of executives in Palo Alto decides what, or not, hundreds of millions of people see. In return, Facebook has publicly pledged to comply with the council’s decisions. “If they don’t, it would be a very high reputational cost,” said Botero-Marino.

“We will not be the Internet police,” McConnell wanted to clarify. “It won’t be a quick thing, rather an appeals court that deliberates after the fact. The objective is to advance justice, neutrality ”, he added. There will be three criteria that will be used to select cases from the thousands that arrive, according to McConnell: that affect many people, that are very important due to their consequences or that can affect Facebook’s policies. “There will be no correct answers. No one will always be satisfied with our decisions ”, he added. As a private company, Facebook can decide on your content. “Public law is going another way,” explained McConnell

At first, the court will see cases reported by users whose content has been deleted by Facebook, but will soon allow resources from users who want to request that certain content be deleted. The council may decide not only on publications, but also on announcements or groups. You may also recommend verdict-based policies to Facebook.

“I have always been committed to freedom of expression and thought, but the growth of Facebook has created new opportunities and challenges,” says Hungarian judge András Sajo, former vice-president of the European Court of Human Rights and one of the council members, in an introductory message on the website of the new body.

The world’s social network

This new court will give more weight to the image of Facebook as the great social network in the world. The metaphor that speaks of Facebook as a country of its own is now somewhat more grounded: it already has its independent judiciary. It is difficult to think of competing networks that have the capacity to establish organisms that include personalities of such a high level and with real decision-making capacity on the limits of freedom of expression in places with different traditions. The court will focus on content on Facebook and Instagram, but is open to take on other social networks, such as Twitter, said Thomas Hughes, its managing director.

According to Botero-Marino, the council will allow states to think twice about whether they should regulate the network: “The best way to maintain the current architecture of the Internet and avoid state regulation is for companies to self-regulate,” he said. “This is a good example because it includes independence, transparency and diversity.”

“Societies cannot function if their citizens do not agree on what evidence, fact and truth means,” says Rusbridger in a web message. “Maybe it has taken us too long to figure it out. The content advisory board seems to be the bold and imaginative first step by one of the main players to find a way to reconcile the need to impose some kind of standard or judgment on what is published, while still maintaining the things that are wonderful about social networks and necessary for freedom of expression, “he adds.

In the absence of half of its members, the council also has holes. Facebook is not present in China, so the only Chinese-speaking member is Taiwanese Katharine Chen, professor of Communication at Chengchi National University. Or the only person linked to Russia is the Cameroonian Julie Owono, executive director of Internet Sans Frontières, who grew up in the country.

There are also five American members for just three Europeans (Sajo, Rusbridger, and Thorning-Schmidt). That number of Americans is due, according to Harris, that there were many candidates who impressed them and that most of the most controversial cases for the network began in that country. Brazilian Ronaldo Lemos, a lawyer specialized in technology, is the only Latin American with Botero-Marino. Members will be working part-time for now and will receive compensation “in accordance with technology industry councils,” according to Hughes.

The work of this court does not in principle have to interfere with information verifiers, although there are likely to be times when it enters into some type of conflict.

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