The Facebook Supreme Court

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Yesterday Facebook officially launched its Oversight Board, an independent body that will make decisions about what can and cannot be posted on Facebook and hear appeals from people whose posts have been taken down. It’s been compared to the Supreme Court, the top appeals court in the United States justice labyrinth.

Like the Supreme Court, Facebook says the Oversight Board will create precedent, meaning earlier decisions will be used to shape later ones, so they aren’t reinventing the wheel every time. Also like the Supreme Court, the Board will try to come to consensus, but when everyone can’t agree, the majority will make the decision and those who dissent can include their reasons in the final decision.

Unlike the Supreme Court though, the Oversight Board’s members won’t be nominated by the president…I mean CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. He’s only appointing the two co-chairs, and it will be up to them to choose the rest of the 11-person board (it will get bigger as time goes on, according to the charter).

According to Facebook:

The purpose of the board is to protect free expression by making principled, independent decisions about important pieces of content and by issuing policy advisory opinions on Facebook’s content policies.

How will they choose what pieces of content are “important” enough to get an official ruling? The process is laid out in a post in Facebook’s newsroom. Cases referred to the Board will be those that involve “real-world impact, in terms of severity, scale and relevance to public discourse,” and that are “disputed, the decision is uncertain and/or the values involved are competing.”

I’m spitballing here, but my guess is that means it woouldn’t include your aunt posting confederate flag memes to her 12 followers, but it might include a politician who posts the same to their thousands of followers. My guess is that other cases will include things like body positivity posts that have been reported and taken down, like this one on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook).

In a blog post introducing the Board, Zuckerberg said it will start with “a small number of cases,” and admitted there’s still a lot of work to be done before it’s operational. I couldn’t find a method of actually submitting a case, for example.

The big question I ask myself when I see things like this: Do I think it is an empathetic use of technology? Do I think it shows an understanding of – and compassion for – users’ experiences and concerns? And do I think it will encourage users to be more empathetic themselves?

In some ways yes; almost; and maybe.

I do not think Zuckerberg ever expected to be tasked with arbitrating free speech on the internet. But he’s here now, and he’s getting a lot of pressure from politicians of all stripes to do something about harassment, privacy violations, and alleged censorship. Not to mention the fact that some lawmakers (and constituents, and former Facebook employees) want to break up the company’s ostensible monopoly on social media discourse. It’s all eyes on Zuck. His response to the free speech stuff has long been that it’s not his job to make those decisions. He has said he wants governments to make it clearer what’s okay to post online and what’s not. But by virtue of global politics and Facebook’s size and influence, the company is already making these decisions every day whether he likes it or not.

So I think a Supreme Court-style Oversight Board that can make binding decisions he cannot veto is smart. I think it could assuage some of his critics and make certain people feel more comfortable using the platform. I think it’s more self-preservation than empathy, but I think the effect could be an empathetic one if all goes well. But I also think it’s a HUGE undertaking that could go sideways pretty easily.

An internet appeals court is a real, tangible thing Facebook can give us, and it can have real, tangible results – controversial though they will be. Assurance that we won’t be manipulated by Macedonian trolls or bullied by classmates, or that we can post about our lives and ideas without unwittingly entering the thunderdome, is a lot harder to give.