News

May 20, 2020

Oversight Board – "big step for Facebook, small (side) step for humankind"

Oli SCARFF / AFP
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) sees positive aspects to Facebook’s creation of an Oversight Board - of which the first 20 members have just been named – with the aim of lending more transparency to its decisions to allow or remove content, but regrets that, given the scale of the problem, it will be little more than cosmetic.

On 6 May, Facebook unveiled the names of the first 20 renowned experts who are to become members of this Oversight Board, a panel charged with choosing problematic cases to review, from among those submitted by Facebook and by its users, and with issuing supposedly final decisions RSF hails the positive aspects of this self-regulatory attempt to resolve the content dilemmas that the platform faces, but is concerned about the Oversight Board’s limited powers with regard to Facebook’s content policies and with regard to the underlying causes of the online information chaos.


“The appointment of the Oversight Board’s first ‘sages’ is a big step for Facebook but a small step for humankind,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “This private sector initiative cannot replace a normative framework defined and enforced under the rule of law. As well as deciding whether to allow or remove single pieces of content, there is an urgent, more systemic need. Transparency and  democratic principles are needed to govern the opaque algorithmic mechanisms that amplify or reduce the visibility of certain kinds of content, including journalistic content.”


RSF also thinks it is important to ensure that this Oversight Board does not impose its content review procedures as the new norm to which other platforms will converge. The Board will be able to review only some of the cases that are submitted to it. And it will be able to issue advisory opinions on changes to content policy only at Facebook’s request or after reaching a decision on a case it has reviewed. RSF regrets that it will not be able to recommend changes to content policy of its own accord and at any time.


The Board will have to operate according to the rules defined by Facebook for managing content published on its platform. But these rules are not based on international free speech norms and do not guarantee information that is freely and independently reported, reliable and diverse. Moreover, despite a reference to human rights norms protecting freedom of expression in the Oversight Board’s bylaws and charter, and despite the desire voiced by some of its members to adhere to these norms, the process of reviewing the selected cases will be based above all on Facebook’s content rules.


Furthermore, Facebook says it will regard the Oversight Board’s decisions as binding “unless implementation of a resolution could violate [domestic] law.” In the absence of any further precision, and in contradiction with the international obligation now placed on companies to respect human rights, Facebook has enshrined the principle that, no matter how draconian, national law has primacy over universal human rights norms. Facebook can therefore be expected to comply with national laws violating the right to inform and even offer them an unparalleled international recognition and reach, helping in practice to further curtail the freedom to inform.