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What exactly is the Facebook Oversight Board?
The board functions more or less like a court for Facebook. It’s a review board that the company assembled to take a look at “the most consequential content decisions” made by Facebook and Instagram, which is also owned by Facebook. The Oversight Board can issue non-binding policy recommendations, which the platform doesn’t have to oblige, though it has said it “will respond constructively and in good faith to policy guidance put forth by the board.” Following a decision, Facebook has 30 days to issue a response explaining how the platform has considered the Oversight Board's recommendations and which, if any, they will move to implement. But the platform has also endowed the Oversight Board with the power to make binding verdicts on individual moderation decisions. In other words, when the Oversight Board tells Facebook it has to reinstate a given piece of content, Facebook has committed to listening to that decision “unless doing so could violate the law.”
How has the Oversight Board evolved over time?
Back in Apr. 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hinted at his desire to establish “some sort of structure, almost like a Supreme Court” for Facebook. Zuckerberg followed this up seven months later and announced concrete plans for the board in Nov. 2018. The company rolled out a draft charter for the board in Jan. 2019 and finalized that document nine months later. In Jan. 2020, Facebook unveiled the Oversight Board’s bylaws, which spell out the procedural rules of the review board. The Oversight Board inched closer to operation when Facebook announced on May 6 the board’s inaugural slate of members. The board unveiled the inaugural docket on Dec. 3, 2020.
Who is on the Oversight Board?
The Facebook Oversight Board is currently co-chaired by: former U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit judge and Stanford constitutional law professor Michael McConnell; Columbia constitutional law professor Jamal Greene; Colombian attorney Catalina Botero Marino; and former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. In May 2020, Facebook appointed the first 20 members of the Oversight Board, including a range of legal professionals, journalists and human rights advocates. The FOB includes a diverse range of members from around the world, with less than half of the board members hailing from the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The board will eventually grow to include approximately 40 members. Each Board member will serve fixed three-year terms, up to a maximum of two terms.
How does the Oversight Board pick its cases?
The Oversight Board’s caseload comes from two different streams. First, aggrieved Instagram or Facebook users can appeal to the Oversight Board to either reinstate a piece of content that either platform took down, or—as of an update on April 13, 2021—appeal to remove a piece of content that the platform allowed to remain posted. But the FOB's Charter and Bylaws don't give users carte blanche to get their cases on the docket. Those documents impose four conditions on all user appeals:
- You can’t appeal a decision unless your account is still active.
- You can’t go straight to the Oversight Board. The Oversight Board requires that users first request that Facebook or Instagram review its decision. Only after the user receives a final verdict from Facebook or Instagram can they petition the Oversight Board. This mirrors the hierarchical court system used in many countries: Facebook and Instagram serve as courts of first instance, and the Oversight Board acts as the appellate court with final review authority.
- You only have 15 days to make your appeal to the Oversight Board after Facebook or Instagram issue their final verdict.
- You can’t appeal every piece of content. Only certain things are eligible for review. The Oversight Board’s bylaws specify that cases aren’t eligible for review where “the underlying content is unlawful in a jurisdiction with a connection to the content (such as the jurisdiction of the posting party and/or the reporting party)." In other words, something isn't eligible for review if Facebook determines that it runs afoul of the law in a country "with a connection" to the post. This would apply, for example, to a post from a French user that runs afoul of French hate speech laws.
The second stream of potential cases for the Oversight Board comes from Facebook itself. The Oversight Board’s bylaws allow Facebook to refer cases “significant and difficult” cases directly to the Oversight Board. Facebook can opt for two different types of referrals. They can make a “regular case submission,” a pathway that gives the Oversight Board 90 days from the date they accept a case to render a public verdict. (Notably, the bylaws state that this 90-day maximum timeframe for review can be extended in “exceptional circumstances”). Facebook can’t force the Oversight Board to take up these cases, and the review body retains “sole discretion to accept or reject cases that are referred through this process.” But some cases just can’t wait. The bylaws also carve out the possibility of an “expedited review” referral from Facebook. This “expedited” referral is for “exceptional” cases where “content could result in urgent real-world consequences.” The Oversight Board can’t pass on these cases and must deliver a verdict within 30 days.
The decision whether to accept a given appeal or “regular” referral lies with a rotating subset of Oversight Board members. Board members take three month turns on a Case Selection Committee that will “evaluate and select cases by a majority vote.” The Oversight Boards gets a whole lot of appeals and has to be choosy, so it “prioritize[s] cases that have the potential to impact many users around the world, are of critical importance to public discourse, or raise important questions about Facebook’s policies.”
What is the “trust” agreement between Facebook and the Oversight Board?
The FOB is a separate legal entity from Facebook and is structured as a “non-charitable purpose trust” under Delaware law. Facebook has placed $130 million in the trust in order to fund the oversight board for the next six years. The trust is charged with overseeing the financing of the Board and ensuring that the Board fulfills its stated purpose. The trust is currently managed by six individual trustees, selected by Facebook, as well as a corporate trustee, Brown Brothers Harriman, a trust company that handles other large trusts. In Dec. 2020, the Oversight Board announced the appointment of Paul Haaga, a former investment manager and CEO of National Public Radio, as chairperson for the trust.
- Rulebook for the Oversight Board
- Facebook’s Timeline of the Oversight Board’s Development
The Oversight Board Trust Agreement:
Historical Materials from the Development of the Oversight Board
- Mark Zuckerberg’s Nov. 2018 Announcement and Blueprint for the Oversight Board
- June 2019 Report on Feedback about the Oversight Board
- Appendix to June 2019 Report (includes memos pertaining to the creation of the Oversight Board, a commissioned report on Oversight Models, and other materials)
March 2, 2021 Update to Oversight Board Bylaws:
We are also working through a number of changes to our Bylaws to make us more effective as an organization. As such, today we are announcing changes to the timelines for how cases are decided and implemented.
Our Bylaws set a 90-day timeframe for cases to be decided by the Board and implemented by Facebook, which started from Facebook’s last decision on a case. Under the revised Bylaws, this 90-day period starts when the Board assigns a case to panel. This update will help ensure that all cases have the same amount of time for deliberation, no matter when the case was referred to the Board by Facebook or a user.
Further changes will help the Board move quickly in deciding cases referred by Facebook under expedited review, which must be completed within 30 days. For example, Co-Chairs, in consultation with the Board’s Director, can now ensure expedited cases are assigned to panels that are able to deliberate them within the 30-day timeframe. Panels will also be able to shorten the time a user has to submit their statement.
You can read our updated Bylaws in full here.
- Facebook Q1 2021 Quarterly Update on the Oversight Board - July 2021
- Meta Q2 + Q3 Quarterly Update on the Oversight Board - November 2021
- Q4 2020, Q1 & Q2 2021 - Published October 2021
September 2021: "To treat users fairly, Facebook must commit to transparency."
- Published in response to information on Facebook's 'cross-check' system published by the Wall Street Journal. In this announcement, the board commits to "looking into the degree to which Facebook has been fully forthcoming in its responses in relation to cross-check."