At Facebook, Zuck’s word is law.
But beginning at some point later this year, Zuckerberg’s word will no longer always be the final one. After nearly two years, Facebook is almost done setting up its Oversight Board, an independent panel with the power to override Facebook’s most contentious decisions on controversial content. Today, Facebook is releasing a set of bylaws that will determine how the board will operate. (The bylaws still need to be approved by the board when it is convened.) Next month it will reveal the names of the first set of content arbiters, starting with around 20. It will eventually grow to 40.Think of the Oversight Board as kind of a Supreme Court of Facebook, the top court of appeal on what goes down and remains on the News Feed and Instagram. (At first, WhatsApp, Messenger, and Facebook Dating aren’t in play.) Some call it a bold experiment in corporate government. Others say it’s an elaborate exercise in passing the buck. But whether you’re skeptical or optimistic about it, it’s undeniably a huge effort. Facebook is spending well over $100 million and building an elaborate infrastructure to support the board, both internally and for the independent trust that will operate the board. Even more emphatic is the power it is transferring to the board on determining the fate of the disputed content the members rule on. As with the Supremes, board decisions are final. Facebook has vowed to honor its rulings, even if it disagrees with them. Even if Zuckerberg disagrees.
Also on Friday, Business Insider reported that years of Zuckerberg’s public writings had mysteriously disappeared, “obscuring details about core moments in Facebook’s history.” The missing trove included everything the CEO wrote in both 2007 and 2008, as well as more recent announcements, like the blog post Zuckerberg penned in 2012 when Facebook acquired Instagram.
That means a long but inexorable countdown clock has begun on Zuckerberg’s insistence to permit paid political lying.The Oversight Board’s bylaws set out a road map for what may become the end of his stubborn stand on political advertising. Here’s the scenario: A politician makes a bogus charge in a paid Facebook ad, falsely claiming an opponent has taken a bribe, appeared in a sex film, trafficked in drugs, or doesn’t wash their hands after visiting the bathroom. Right now, the victim of one of those lies has no recourse: If they appeal to Facebook, the company will refer to Zuckerberg’s official policy. Facebook will continue to pocket the money and promote the lie.
The point of the board is to take knotty decisions like these out of Facebook’s hands. The first cases, which could happen as early as March, will either come from users who have exhausted appeals after Facebook took their content down, or cases submitted by Facebook itself. Later this year, Facebook’s product team will create a means where users can appeal to the board on decisions where the company allows objectionable content to remain.
Submissions to the board first go to its staff for review. The board will have a sizable number of full-time staffers, including a team of case managers who will fulfill roles similar to law clerks, while others will handle administration and the interactions with Facebook’s team. Those working in this instant bureaucracy will not be paid directly by Facebook but by the separate trust that the company has created, funded by an irrevocable $130 million grant.