The Facebook Oversight Board is now open for cases and I look forward to seeing the results. But I have the same question I’ve had since the planning for its creation began, and I asked that question in a web call today with board leadership:
What higher principles will the Board call upon in making its decisions? It will be ruling on Facebook’s content decisions based on the company’s own statutes — that is, the “community standards” Facebook sets for the community.
The Board says it will also decide cases on the basis of international human rights standards. This could mean the board might find that Facebook correctly enforced its statute but that the statute violates a principle of human rights, which would result in a policy recommendation to Facebook. Good.
But there remains a huge gap between community statutes and international human rights law. What is missing, I have argued, is a Constitution for Facebook: a statement of why it exists, what kind of community it wants to serve, what it expects of its community, in short: a north star. That doesn’t exist.
But the Oversight Board might — whether it and Facebook know it or not — end up writing that Constitution, one in the English model, set by precedent, rather than the American model, set down in a document. That will be primarily in Facebook’s control. Though the Oversight Board can pose policy questions and make recommendations, it is limited by what cases come its way — from users and Facebook — and it does not set policy for the company; it only decides appeals and makes policy recommendations.
It’s up to Facebook to decide how it treats the larger policy questions raised by the Oversight Board and the cases. In reacting to recommendations, Facebook can begin to build a set of principles that in turn begin to define Facebook’s raison d’être, its higher goals, its north star, its Constitution. That’s what I’ve told people at Facebook I want to see happen.
The problem is, that’s not how Facebook or any of the technology companies think. Since, as Larry Lessig famously decreed, code is law, what the technologists want is rules — laws — to feed their code — their algorithms — to make consistent decisions at scale.
The core problem of the technology companies and their relationship with society today is that they do not test that code and the laws behind it against higher principles other than posters on the wall: “Don’t be evil.” “Work fast and break things.” Those do not make for a good Constitution.
But now is their chance to create one. And now, perhaps, is our chance. I didn’t realize that every Oversight Board case will begin with a public comment period. So we can raise issues with the Board. Indeed, community standards should come from the community, damnit, or they’re not community standards; they’re company standards. So we should speak up.
And the Board will consult experts. They can raise issues with the Board. And the Board can, in turn, raise issues not just for Facebook but, by example, for all the technology companies. That discussion could be useful.
Imagine if — as I so wish had been the case — the Board had been in operation when Twitter and Facebook decided what to do about blocking the blatant attempt at election interference by the New York Post and Rupert Murdoch in cahoots with Rudy Giuliani. The Board could have raised, addressed, and proposed policy recommendations based on principles useful to many internet companies and to the media that love to poke them.
Regulators could also get involved productively more than punitively. I was a member of a Transatlantic Working Group on Content Moderation and Freedom of Expression, which recommended a flexible framework for regulation that would have government hold companies accountable for their own assurances, requiring the companies to share data on usage and impact so researchers and regulators can monitor their performance. This, in my view, would be far better than government trying to tell companies how to operate, especially when it comes to interference in free speech. But government can’t hold companies accountable to keeping promises if there are no promises to keep. A Constitution is a promise, a covenant with users and the public. Every company should have one. Every company should be held accountable for meeting its requirements. And the public discussion should revolve around those principles, not around whether Johnny is allowed to use a bad word.
I make no predictions here. The Board could end up answering a handful of picayune complaints among tens of thousands of possible cases a week and produce the script of an online soap opera. Facebook could follow the letter of the law set down by the Board and miss the opportunity to set higher goals. Media, experts, and the public could be ignored or worse could just continue to snipe instead of contribute constructively.
But I can hope. The net is young. We — all of us — are still designing it by how we use it.