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Facebook hopes new Oversight Board will resolve censorship dilemma

Facebook’s Oversight Board has announced its first 20 members and will start hearing cases related to content dispute later this year, but the fundamental problems with censorship remain.

Mark Zuckerberg announced in a Facebook post that the first 20 members of the independent Oversight Board. “The Oversight Board will have the power to overturn decisions we’ve made on content as long as they comply with local laws. Its decisions will be final — regardless of whether I or anyone else at the company agrees with them,” he wrote. “Facebook won’t have the power to remove any members from the board. This makes the Oversight Board the first of its kind.”

The selection process started with Facebook selecting four “Co-Chairs” of the Board, who then worked with Facebook to select the rest. The Charter decrees that after the formation of the board “a committee of the board will select candidates to serve as board members”. Ultimately the Board will have 40 members. Board members will serve fixed terms of three years, up to a maximum of three terms. The Board’s financial independence is “guaranteed by the establishment of a $130 million trust fund that is completely independent of Facebook, which will fund our operations and cannot be revoked”, it says in a press release.

The first Co-Chairs, Catalina Botero-Marino (Dean of Law School at Universidad de Los Andes from Colombia), Jamal Greene (Law School Professor at Columbia University), Michael W. McConnell (Professor and Director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School), and Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Former Prime Minister of Denmark) wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times laying out their tasks.

When the Board starts hearing cases later this year, “Users will be able to appeal to the oversight board if they disagree with Facebook’s initial decision about whether to take down or leave up a given piece of content, and Facebook can also refer cases to the board,” the article said. “In the initial phase users will be able to appeal to the board only in cases where Facebook has removed their content, but over the next months we will add the opportunity to review appeals from users who want Facebook to remove content.”

There is almost an “over-to-you” type of sigh of relief from Zucherberg. “The Oversight Board will help us protect our community by ensuring that important decisions about content and enforcement are thoughtful, protect free expression, and won’t be made by us alone,” he said in his post. “I know that people will disagree about what should and shouldn’t come down. But I’m confident that the Oversight Board will make these decisions thoughtfully and fairly. I look forward to watching them begin their work.”

The Oversight Board may be able to take some of the trickiest burdens off Zuckerberg’s shoulders, but if he thinks he could wash his hands completely off troubles with the set-up of this Upper House, he would be wrong. The Oversight Board may find itself facing as many questions it cannot answer as those it can.

The fundamental question remains, as this publication has stressed more than once, who gets to decide what the right answers should be? While there is no dispute that 5G does not spread coronavirus, when it comes to issues we genuinely do not have a definite answer yet, the matters can get messy. Facebook has been actively removing Covid-19 related content not toeing the WHO line, regardless of WHO’s own dubious communication messages and conspicuous cosiness with China. Would the Oversight Board have upheld the content’s right to remain standing if it did not toe WHO line? Moreover, when it comes to “truth” about the novel coronavirus that caused Covid-19, if there is anything the world’s scientists could agree on, it is that we do not yet know much about it.

Another often disputed topic is hate speech. The Board expects to see “cases that examine the line between satire and hate speech”, but the definition of hate speech varies from person to person. The Student Union at Oxford University recently passed an “Academic Hate Speech Motion”, demanding materials it deemed harmful or “triggering” be removed and banned from the syllabus, which led to Richard Dawkins, an Oxford alumnus, retorted that, by the hate speech definition in the student motion, “history students can’t read up on women’s suffrage, or the rise of Nazism or Apartheid, theology students can’t read Bible or Koran”.

The University immediately rejected the motion and upheld the principle that “‘free speech is the lifeblood of a university.” Suppose the Student Union would ask Facebook to remove certain content it believes falling into its definition of hate speech but which by the definition of the University “enables the pursuit of knowledge”, would the Oversight Board side with the students or with the school?

In his essay “On Liberty” (1859), John Stuart Mill gave four reasons why opinions one does not agree should not be suppressed. These should still be our guiding principles:

“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.” (Chapter II, “Of the liberty of thought and discussion”)

The Facebook Oversight Board does seems like an honest attempt to establish a balanced, independent body for making censorship decisions. But even the most qualified, objective censors are still censors and, but definition, have to make subjective distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ speech. Merely shrugging and pointing to the board will not absolve Facebook of responsibility for these decisions and won’t resolve the underlying paradox of platforms increasingly behaving as publishers.

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