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By Jeff Horwitz
Facebook Inc. will give an independent board the ability to review and potentially overturn content-moderation decisions, the social-network operator said Tuesday, giving authority to outsiders to oversee some of the thorniest issues the company has faced in recent years.
The new board, which will be funded through an outside trust, will consist of 40 paid, part-time members who will "seek to consider cases that have the greatest potential to guide future decisions and policies, " the board's charter states.
Acting functionally as an appellate court, board members will adjudicate controversies arising from Facebook's in-house efforts to enforce its standards on hate speech, misinformation and other prohibited content. After hearing cases in five-person panels, the full board will make binding decisions on specific pieces of content as well as issue broader policy recommendations that the company must publicly address.
Initial board members will be announced within the next few months, with review panels aiming to begin issuing decisions on content by early next year, Facebook said.
"As an independent organization, we hope it gives people confidence that their views will be heard, and that Facebook doesn't have the ultimate power over their expression," Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said of the initiative, which he proposed last year. "I'm looking forward to seeing how the board evolves."
The question of content moderation has bedeviled Twitter Inc. and Google's YouTube as well, with social-media platforms taking heat both for their failure to staff moderation efforts adequately and for sometimes overreaching on particular decisions.
Though Facebook began with a broad and permissive approach to speech, the company has had to change its content policies frequently in response to bruising criticism by news outlets, national governments and its 2.3 billion users world-wide.
Among the controversies the company has faced: whether to treat an iconic photograph of a naked Vietnamese child fleeing a napalm bombing as child pornography; whether a woman's live streaming of her boyfriend's death at the hands of police should be taken down; and whether conspiracy theorist and far-right talk show host Alex Jones should remain on the platform.
In designing the oversight board's framework, Facebook held six workshops, hosted 22 roundtable events, conducted 250 one-on-one interviews and reviewed 1,200 written comments.
Kate Klonick, a law professor at St. John's University in New York who Facebook allowed to sit in on portions of the oversight board's creation process, said a recurring point of tension was whether the board could set policy rather than simply ruling on whether content violated Facebook's standards.
"People said, 'Yes, we want the board to be able to dictate policy more directly,'" she said, adding that Facebook was initially reluctant to turn over that much power. "What if the board came back and said, 'We want you to get rid of News Feed, News Feed is destroying democracy?'" she asked, referring to the stream of posts that has become the core of the Facebook platform.
Nonetheless, Ms. Klonick called the requirement that Facebook publicly respond to the board's policy recommendations an unprecedented step, as the company has traditionally responded to complaints from users, civil society and groups in private, if at all.
"That's a huge moment of accountability and transparency they haven't had," she said.
While Facebook's announcement marks its most concrete description of its plan for independent content adjudication to date, key details remain unsettled. Facebook plans to name 11 initial board members later this year, and those people will in turn help to select additional members. Potential members could be drawn from the ranks of academia as well as judges, Facebook group moderators and former journalists. Facebook will accept nominations from the public.
How much board members will be paid and the size of the board's operating budget haven't been determined. Facebook said only that it is spending millions of dollars on the effort.
In a call with reporters Tuesday, Facebook governance and global affairs director Brent Harris said the group's membership will reflect their independence and the breadth of Facebook's geographic reach. Board members will include "some who hold real criticism as to the way we've operated," he said. "We fully anticipate the board will overturn us."
Until its initial board members have had time to hire a permanent staff, Facebook may lend it employees. If the initiative succeeds, other platforms, both those owned by Facebook such as Instagram and WhatsApp, as well as competitors including Snap Inc. and Twitter, could eventually opt in.
"We've set up so that the trust can accommodate other social media platforms if they want to join," Mr. Harris said.
Write to Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 17, 2019 17:44 ET (21:44 GMT)
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