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Facebook Content Moderation Oversight Board Aims to Provide a ‘Deliberative Second Look’ at Controversies, Akin to U.S. Supreme Court

David Jelke

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Photo of Evelyn Aswad, law professor at the University of Oklahoma, by United States Mission Geneva used with permission

May 19, 2020 — On a Monday webinar discussion with members of Facebook’s new oversight board, moderator Vivian Schiller, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s digital arm, asked the participants point blank if they were being paid for their services.

“Uh, yes,” Michael McConnell, professor at Stanford Law School and a member of the board, said after a pause.

“How much?” Schiller probed.

“The individual amounts are not public information,” McConnell stated.

This moment marked a relatively brief exchange amid an otherwise open and forthright discussion between Schiller, McConnell and some of the other members of Facebook’s 20-person oversight board, which have some have analogized to the U.S. Supreme Court, but with the power and global reach that comes with influencing 2.6 billion active monthly users.

Members present at the webinar event included Evelyn Aswad, professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, Jamal Greene, professor at Columbia Law School, and John Samples, vice president of libertarian-leaning think tank Cato Institute.

McConnell said that he and other board members are being compensated for time spent on board activities. Facebook expects board members to work 15 – 20 hours a month, although McConnell expressed skepticism about the time commitment reaching that figure.

According to Greene, Facebook doesn’t have the power to remove board members, nor can it reduce their pay. In addition, the board will be able to select its own members in the future.

“I’ve seen no reason to doubt that commitment at this stage,” Greene added.

“We are not frontline internet cops,” McConnell stressed, adding that the purpose of the  Oversight Board is to give  “a deliberative second look at the process” of removing allegedly dangerous content from the most popular social media platform in the world.

In cases where an individual has appealed Facebook’s takedown of a post, the board’s decision carries binding authority. McConnell said he hoped the first binding decisions would carry “precedential weight” so as to provide a framework for future decision-making.

The board will also act in an advisory role, commenting on a wide range of issues. While these comments will be suggestions rather than decisions, Facebook will be required to react publicly to each one.

These comments can range in subject from guidelines for the shadowy army of tens of thousands of manual content moderators to the treatment of incendiary or misleading political ads.

However, members were very clear about one thing. “We have nothing to say about Facebook’s business,” said Samples.

Nevertheless, McConnell claimed that Facebook faces the same free speech issues as “universities, automobile manufacturers, and the government.”

“Our job is not to solve all those problems,” McConnell said. “Our job is very specific. I hope that it makes the world a better place.”

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