By Paul Ziobro and Jeff Horwitz 

Facebook Inc. said it is suspending Donald Trump's accounts for two years, formalizing a long-term penalty for the former U.S. president after its independent Oversight Board said the company was wrong to keep the ban open-ended.

The move immediately inflamed the long-running partisan debate over how much control tech companies should have over online speech. With Mr. Trump also banned permanently from Twitter, Facebook's penalty closes one of his primary avenues for influencing the political discussion for an extended period.

Facebook said it would revisit the suspension two years from the date of its initial move to suspend him on Jan. 7, the day after the riot at the U.S. Capitol. Assuming he is then reinstated, Mr. Trump will face a "strict set of rapidly escalating sanctions" if he commits further violations, including permanent removal of his pages and accounts, the company said.

"Given the gravity of the circumstances that led to Mr. Trump's suspension, we believe his actions constituted a severe violation of our rules which merit the highest penalty available under the new enforcement protocols," wrote Nick Clegg, the company's vice president of global affairs, in a blog post on Friday.

In an emailed statement after the announcement, Mr. Trump said Facebook's ruling was an insult to the millions of people who voted for him in 2020. "They shouldn't be allowed to get away with this censoring and silencing, and ultimately, we will win. Our Country can't take this abuse anymore!" he said.

In a follow-up statement, Mr. Trump added: "Next time I'm in the White House there will be no more dinners, at his request, with Mark Zuckerberg and his wife. It will be all business!"

Mr. Trump and his advisers are considering a range of options that they hope will restore his online megaphone, The Wall Street Journal has reported.

Facebook said it was grateful that the Oversight Board agreed with the decision to suspend Mr. Trump in the first place, and said it accepted that it needed to put in better protocols for such actions. The company said it either had already enacted or would put in place the board's recommendations for greater transparency in when it penalizes high-profile figures and when it chooses to grant exemptions from its normal enforcement. It also said it was working to offer users clearer explanations of why they were being punished when they break Facebook's policies.

In responding to the board's criticism, Facebook also opens the door for more, as the company will now be required to make more subjective decisions on whether posts from political figures violate its rules surrounding misinformation, hate speech and other issues that are hotly debated. Those judgment calls are likely to escalate partisan complaints around whether the company is being fair in how it applies the rules.

"We know today's decision will be criticized by many people on opposing sides of the political divide," Mr. Clegg said in the post on Friday, adding that "our job is to make a decision in as proportionate, fair and transparent a way as possible, in keeping with the instruction provided by the Oversight Board."

Facebook created and funded the Oversight Board to independently rule on the company's toughest content decisions, and the Trump suspension is by far its most high-profile case to date.

White House press secretary Jen Paski told reporters on Friday that decisions about whether to ban users should be left to the companies that run the platforms.

"Our view continues to be, though, that every platform, whether it's Facebook, Twitter, any other platform that is disseminating information to millions of Americans has a responsibility to crack down on disinformation, to crack down on false information, whether it's about the election or even about the vaccine," she said.

Of Mr. Trump, she said: "It feels pretty unlikely that the zebra is going to change his stripes over the next two years. We'll see."

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has long held a stance of largely not interfering with politicians' posts on its platform, saying that it wasn't up to the company to rule on what is true and isn't.

In 2016, the company set out a policy that exempted from punishment posts that violate its rules if it classifies the content as newsworthy or otherwise important to the public interest. Two years ago, amid growing controversy over posts by Mr. Trump, Facebook extended that newsworthiness exemption to posts from politicians, and said it would exclude their content from its third-party fact-checking process.

On Friday, Facebook said it would no longer consider posts from politicians newsworthy by default but would make its own judgments about those that qualify, and then label those that merit the exemption.

Facebook's move Friday came a month after the Oversight Board ruled that the social-media giant was justified in suspending Mr. Trump over posts in which he urged his followers to go to the Capitol as lawmakers were certifying President Biden's win. But it said the company must better explain its reasoning if it decides to permanently ban him from its platforms.

In the ruling, the board gave Facebook six months to determine whether Mr. Trump should be permanently banned.

"It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored," the board said in the decision.

Other companies have grappled with similar issues, and enacted different approaches. Twitter Inc. also grants special privileges to world leaders, and those rules allowed Mr. Trump to remain a prominent user of the platform throughout his administration, even as the company affixed many of his tweets with warning labels. The company banned him entirely after the Capitol riot and, unlike Facebook, isn't planning to review that decision further.

YouTube, a unit of Alphabet Inc., has said it doesn't grant politicians exemptions from its rules for newsworthiness. The company also suspended Mr. Trump's account in January and has said it would reinstate him when it concludes the risk of further violence has abated, though it has offered no explanation of how it will make that determination.

The pressure on tech companies is ratcheting up globally, with governments including India and Russia tightening controls over what speech is allowed.

In a statement Friday, the Oversight Board said it was encouraged by Facebook's moves and believes they will result in more consistency and transparency in the way the company polices its platforms. The board "intends to hold the company to account on its commitments," the statement said.

One of the few points of disagreement was in regards to the board's questions and criticism of a program called Crosscheck, under which Facebook reviews potential violations by high-profile accounts through a separate process from that used for regular users. The board has requested more information about the program and had asked Facebook to produce a public analysis of whether it produced more lenient outcomes. Facebook said that the program doesn't grant special privileges but called the board's request not feasible.

--Andrew Restuccia contributed to this article.

Write to Paul Ziobro at Paul.Ziobro@wsj.com and Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 04, 2021 18:25 ET (22:25 GMT)

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